Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
343 pages
Genre: Fiction, absurdist
Publisher: Random House (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: It would be interesting to revisit this one with a better understanding of its structure and setting.

Reviewed by Pete

I found this book in the used bookstore of a library a few months after it was published for $6, a steal for such a recent release.

I can only imagine the experience someone had in picking up this book, expecting a historical fiction (as the book is labelled on its jacket flap) about Abraham Lincoln and the loss of his son, Willie Lincoln.

While this is technically the premise of the novel, anyone expecting an ordinary historical fiction novel would find themselves confused and revolted by the book’s bizarre format, unusual characters, and general weirdness.

As a longtime George Saunders fan, it was exactly what I was hoping for while being something entirely different from his normal style.

When it’s done right, I love weird fiction. But it has to be weird for a purpose, and Saunders is, in my opinion, the master of weird. Though there are some images that are quirky for quirkiness’s sake, they often get a laugh out of me and add flavor to the story.

Part of what makes reading a book as unusual as Lincoln in the Bardo is the gradual discovery of the story’s setting and how its many pieces interact. I enjoy being disoriented and confused so long as I know that things will come together before the end of the book. So I won’t say too much for fear of ruining that experience for someone else. All you need to know going into this book is this:

Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has died of a terrible illness.

The bardo is a sort of purgatory between life and death where the story’s main characters reside.

When the story isn’t focused on the bardo, it covers Lincoln’s experience with losing his son and the huge toll that it took on him and his wife. These sections are told in a sort of collage of quotes from historical accounts. These quotes, often from firsthand experiences, are sometimes in agreement and seamlessly flow into one another. But often they disagree completely, giving drastically varied accounts of Lincoln’s demeanor or appearance.

If you’re as much of a George Saunders fan as I am, this book is a refreshing change from his usual short stories while still being distinctly “Saunders.” I’d caution against reading this as your first Saunders experience, though. His short stories are wonderful, and any of his collections are a safe bet—In Persuasion Nation is my personal favorite. You’ll know after the first story whether his bizarre style is just too bizarre for you. And if it isn’t, if you enjoy the strange way he sees the world, then Lincoln in the Bardo might be the surreal novel about Willie Lincoln’s ghost in a magic swamp full of lonely dead people you’ve always wanted.

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