Winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, George Saunders’s amazing first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, $28), could easily be a play. There’s no narrator, no omniscient scene-setter, only voices. The narrative unfolds in the dual worlds of Washington, D.C., in February 1862 and in the timeless bardo, the Buddhist limbo, and the voices are both historical—contemporary witnesses and journalists, later historians—and imagined. Bridging these categories is eleven-year-old Willie, Lincoln’s third son. Recently dead of typhoid, he joins the spirits in their state of denial in Oak Hill Cemetery. Representing a wide range of American society, these artisans, slaves, soldiers, and ministers comment, confess, rave, and dispute, all the while strenuously avoiding the “d” word. They feel they still have business with this world, though they’re virtually powerless to influence it—a condition not new to all of them. When Willie’s father visits, as he actually did, he has a noticeable “vivifying effect” on the ghosts; in one of Saunders’s remarkable tours de force, the spirits crowd into the man’s consciousness in an effort to make him really see his son, as opposed to the remains in the “sick-box.” Only there, in the President’s body, does this diverse cast of characters begin to understand each other. Saunders’s portrait of Lincoln as a grieving father is poignant, and his visions of an afterlife, alternately glorious and monstrous, is worthy of the Book of Revelation.
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders