Before getting into whether “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders was good or bad—meaning whether or not it accomplished what it set out to do—it’s first necessary to explain what the book is trying to be. I think the title causes a lot of people assume it’s a biography, but it’s actually a novel, and a very experimental one at that.
The entire book is told in quotes accompanied by a citation on the next line. There are some chapters that incorporate quotes from various historical sources, including fictional and nonfictional biographies. For the most part though, the quotes come from the characters. The non-historical chapters read like a screenplay, except the characters’ names are printed after their lines instead of before them. The other difference is that the characters are narrating the scene rather than just speaking, so some of the quotes have dialogue.
The subject of the book is probably easiest to explain through the title, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” Lincoln, in this case, is not the president, but his son William, who died tragically at the age of 12 in 1862. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, “Family: William Wallace Lincoln (1850-1862),” 2019). The bardo is the space in-between reincarnations in Tibetan Buddhism (Lion’s Roar, “The Four Essential Points of Letting Go in the Bardo,” 07.15.2017). However, the book is set in the context of Christian America, so it seems like the spirits are waiting to go to heaven or hell rather than to be reincarnated. The book is about a combination of those elements: the spirit of the deceased Willie Lincoln, waiting patiently to hear his fate. Will it be heaven or hell?
While Willie Lincoln is the central character, much of the book focuses on a Greek chorus of three fictional spirits: Hans Vollman, the Reverend Everly Thomas and Roger Belvins III. They recount previous adventures in the bardo, meeting other spirits along the way, some of whom also narrate little passages. This construction gives Saunders an opportunity to show off his different writing styles. Occasionally, these voices are strong and distinctive, but the quote format often limits Saunders.
While this technique does give the author a chance to show off different writing styles and voices, they are restricted by the length of the passages—the longest continuous quote is probably no more than a page, while most others are a paragraph or less. This means that much of the variance in voices comes from rather minor differences in spelling, capitalization or grammar, such as the few characters whose lines are written in shorthand. This style can make the book harder to read and more confusing without really accomplishing the goal of character differentiation.
The novel focuses on grief and loss, especially surrounding the death of Willie Lincoln. The process of moving on after the death of a loved one is paralleled with the process the spirits go through as they progress from one world to the next. This heavy subject matter is frequently treated well, but on other occasions, the metaphor can feel a little overstated.
For example, many of the ghosts are unaware that they are dead. The reader can infer this phenomenon from the unusual language the ghosts use, including calling coffins “sick-boxes.” Given the other antiquated and unusual language Saunders employs, this doesn’t seem too strange, which could confuse the reader regarding a fairly important part of the plot.
It is an interesting idea to have a book told in a chorus of voices instead of just one or two, but it took me a while to get used to the format. After I did adjust, it started to seem really effective, and there were a few scenes that I thought flourished in that format. This set the book apart from similar novels on the subject.
The other format element that hinders the novel is that it has to walk a line between its historical and fantastical elements. I cannot say that this is done well. For a book that takes place in a very specific setting—February 1862, Oak Creek Cemetery—the time doesn’t seem to matter much. There are a few passing mentions to the Civil War, which, at that point, had just started. Unlike other historical fiction, the book doesn’t focus too much on how people lived during that time, even though its chorus format would have been ripe for that. Similarly, for a work of Civil War-era historical fiction, questions of race are almost completely absent from the narrative.
While it is not the ideal book for history nerds, “Lincoln in the Bardo” does well in other arenas, given the grand task at hand. Although it took a while to adjust, the style of narration creates some interesting and unique moments. Most of the time, the themes are well-developed and treated with the subtlety they deserve. Certainly, the intersections of grief, loss, ghosts and history are compelling crossroads to explore, and “Lincoln in the Bardo” explores them in a distinctive way.