Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders


Lincoln in the Bardo could be the year’s most anticipated literary novel. This owes much to George Saunders having slowly built a reputation as one of the world’s most inventive short-story writers. Lincoln in the Bardo is Saunders’ first novel. The last miniaturist to make a similar leap into full-length fiction was Lorrie Moore, whose long-awaited A Gate at the Stairs split opinions. I suspect Lincoln in the Bardo will follow suit. What makes it even riskier is its unmistakable strangeness, formal and thematic. Drawing on the Buddhist conception of limbo, the bardo, Saunders narrates the mind-bending afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, who dies of typhoid fever. Finding himself surrounded by a host of dead spirits (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, the Reverend Thomas Early) who conspire amusingly to deny their purgatorial surroundings, Willie clings for dear life (or death) to his grieving father. The resulting fusion of voices feels like a polyphonic choral work narrating a mash-up of The Walking Dead and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.