George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo
So many superlatives I could use to characterize this award-winning novel, a story, a play set in the cemetery where Lincoln’s beloved Willie has been interred, and the antics, the angst animating that night. It is a fantastical world of “sick-forms” who free themselves from their “sick boxes” to engage each other and wring their ghostly hands over unresolved issues that keep them languishing in limbo. “Most imaginative,” “Most creative,” along with “Characters so well drawn,” “Dialogue most alive and compelling,” “Most provocative” come to mind. What made me willing to leap into that cemetery is Saunders’ exhaustive search of historical records and eye witness accounts of that night in February 1862. It was a “cloudy moonless night” when the “gray-eyed,” or was he “brown-eyed,” or “gray-brown, gray-blue eyed” little boy died. No, there was a “full moon,” “red-orange,” or was it a “blue cresecent.” a “silver wedge?” Willie was placed in his casket dressed in a “brown suit,” his “little gray suit.” Saunders deftly weaves together these accounts, taken from the world of non-fiction, each carefully attributed. So the jump, more of a step, into fiction seemed most plausible, and ultimately, more authentic and revelatory.
The “sick-forms” of the spirit world discover that Willie is lingering in his “sick box” longer than most children because he believes he must wait for his father to return. “He said he would,” perhaps to cradle me again in his arms, Willie assures the triumverate of protagonists. The spirits concoct a plan to to inhabit Lincoln, to know his thoughts, and make him understand he must let the little lad go.
In an interview with Michael Silverblatt aired and podcast on KCRW’s “Bookworm,” Saunders said he had read the Tibetan Book of the Dead to prepare for the novel. Silverblatt had recognized as much, and also noted that Saunders had turned himself into a Lincoln scholar. And with such a thorough and in-depth preparation, Saunders’ work remains fresh, exhilarating, a novel dancing across so many human domains.