This first novel from short story writer George Saunders features a suicidal gay man, a perpetually aroused pressman, a clergyman on the brink of being cast into hell, and Abraham Lincoln. Only the latter character is still alive. The rest are ghosts that haunt Oak Hill Cemetery, the eventual resting place for American president’s 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid during the Civil War in 1862. The story takes place over a single night, during which the president comes alone to cradle his son’s body in the graveyard. Saunders pulls together snippets of historical sources — most real, some invented — to convey the context of the event and sketch a portrait of Lincoln. The rest of the story is narrated a few sentences at a time by the bizarre cast of ghosts who crowd the graveyard after sunset.
Saunders’ previous book, Tenth of December, was a dark and brilliant collection of futuristic short stories that earned him multiple awards and a spot on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2013. Now, with Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders again expands our understanding of the fabric of fiction without forgoing any emotional punch. The ‘bardo’ of the title is a term drawn from Tibetan Buddhism that refers to the state of limbo between life and death. Reading the work of George Saunders draws you into a kind bardo; the strangeness of his stories lures you into a transitory reverie punctuated by flares of humour and grief.
Lincoln in the Bardo affords the reader not only a reading experience unlike anything else but also a sly and powerful memento mori. George Saunders’s debut novel could be one of those books that changes the way you think about life.
Reviewed by Angus Dalton
ABOUT GEORGE SAUNDERS
George Saunders is the author of twelve books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction in English, and was a finalist for the Golden Man Booker, in which one Booker winner was selected to represent each decade, from the fifty years since the Prize’s inception. The audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo, which featured a cast of 166 actors, was the 2018 Audie Award for best audiobook.
The short story collection Tenth of December was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2013 (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection).
He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.
He was born in Amarillo, Texas and raised in Oak Forest, Illinois. He has a degree in Geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines and has worked as a geophysical prospector in Indonesia, a roofer in Chicago, a doorman in Beverly Hills, and a technical writer in Rochester, New York. He has taught, since 1997, in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University