George Saunders’s short stories are perhaps the most celebrated in America today, and rightly so. They are fascinatingly strange and full of unique insights. They remind me of Kurt Vonnegut, only weirder. In light of this there was no way I wasn’t going to rush out and buy his highly-anticipated first novel on the day it came out.
True to form, Lincoln in the Bardo is just about the weirdest idea for a novel I’ve ever encountered. After the death of his beloved son Willie, they young boy’s soul finds itself stuck in an in-between state, unwilling to give up on his previous life with his loving father. His time in this limbo (“Bardo” is the Tibetan word for in-between state) is narrated by a host of other spirits, all equally unwilling to depart from this plane of existence. The most prominent trio of ghosts are a young gay man who committed suicide, a middle-aged newlywed who died before he could consummate his marriage to a much younger bride, and a reverend with a secret.
Though the ghosts have no wish to move on themselves, they know it’s a bad idea for young Willie to stay. They’ve seen what happens to children who linger and it isn’t pretty. When President Lincoln pays a late-night visit to his boy’s crypt, the spirits take it upon themselves to use the occasion to convince Willie to move on.
Spliced with supposed excerpt’s from primary source documents about Lincoln and the death of his son, Saunder’s novel is a brisk read, and his inventiveness is truly impressive. However, something about the final product feels slight. There doesn’t appear to be anything in the way of a moral to the story, and the character arcs are fairly minor. In a short story an idea this interesting can stand on its own, but in the longer form of the novel Saunders fails to justify the length, in my opinion.