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Lincoln in the Bardo

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In his long-awaited first novel, American master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voices, Lincoln in the Bardo is a literary experience unlike any other—for no one but Saunders could conceive it.

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. "My poor boy, he was too good for this earth," the president says at the time. "God has called him home." Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy's body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie's soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction's ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices—living and dead, historical and invented—to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

368 pages, Hardcover

First published February 1, 2017

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About the author

George Saunders

131 books8,664 followers
George Saunders was born December 2, 1958 and raised on the south side of Chicago. In 1981 he received a B.S. in Geophysical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. He worked at Radian International, an environmental engineering firm in Rochester, NY as a technical writer and geophysical engineer from 1989 to 1996. He has also worked in Sumatra on an oil exploration geophysics crew, as a doorman in Beverly Hills, a roofer in Chicago, a convenience store clerk, a guitarist in a Texas country-and-western band, and a knuckle-puller in a West Texas slaughterhouse.

After reading in People magazine about the Master's program at Syracuse University, he applied. Mr. Saunders received an MA with an emphasis in creative writing in 1988. His thesis advisor was Doug Unger.

He has been an Assistant Professor, Syracuse University Creative Writing Program since 1997. He has also been a Visiting Writer at Vermont Studio Center, University of Georgia MayMester Program, University of Denver, University of Texas at Austin, St. Petersburg Literary Seminar (St. Petersburg, Russia, Summer 2000), Brown University, Dickinson College, Hobart & William Smith Colleges.

He conducted a Guest Workshop at the Eastman School of Music, Fall 1995, and was an Adjunct Professor at Saint John Fisher College, Rochester, New York, 1990-1995; and Adjunct Professor at Siena College, Loudonville, New York in Fall 1989.

He is married and has two children.

His favorite charity is a project to educate Tibetan refugee children in Nepal. Information on this can be found at http://www.tibetan-buddhist.org/index...

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 22,961 reviews
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
August 22, 2019
”The rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sick-room in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far off spirits.” Keckley, op. cit.

 photo Willie20Lincoln_zpsfmtoapkd.jpg

William Wallace Lincoln is sick.

He is burning up with fever.

His head is pounding to the beat of a song with a faster tempo than what he hears seeping through the floorboards from below.


It feels like a fat man is squatting on his chest.

His father comes to see him. His eyes are hollowed out cinders. His skin is stretched tightly against his face. He hovers over him like a disembodied skull. His beard tickles his cheek releasing a flood of memories of being held, being indulged, being love.

His mother comes to see him. Her pretty dress rustling like a cat moving through the river rushes. Her breathing is constricted. He wants to ask her to loosen her corset, but what passes through his mind never makes it to his lips. Her eyes are pinched with worry.

He dreams about his pony and wonders when will he be well enough to ride him again.

He’d cry, but he is too tired to cry. Crying leads to weeping, and weeping leads to coughing.

And then something unexpected happens…he dies.

That isn’t supposed to happen. His father is clothed in immense power. Some might even say he is the most powerful man in the world. How can this be?

Fix it, Daddy.

”Great sobs choked his utterance. He buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame was convulsed with emotion. I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder. His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved. I shall never forget those solemn moments---genius and greatness weeping over love’s lost idol.” Keckley, op. Cit.

Lincoln had already lost one child, Eddie, back in 1850. Was he punished for his own indulgence in sadness? He’d paid his price for his melancholy. Was Willie a payment for the war? Was this his blood gift? His sacrifice to save the Union? Where was his reprieve, like the Abraham from the Bible? God didn’t say, stay thy hand. He let the reaper do his work.

”The saddest eyes of any human being that I have ever seen.” Joshua Wolf Shenk, account of John Widmer.

 photo Abraham20Lincoln_zps3swdosi3.jpg

They buried the boy in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Lincoln came to see him, cloaked in darkness.

Willie is there, sidestepped away from his carapace. He is trapped in the bardo, held by the love of his father, as he watches his father weep, holding the body so tenderly taken from his sick box.

The Tibetan word bardo means literally "intermediate state"—also translated as "transitional state" or "in-between state."

Willie would go, but his father said he’d be back.

There are other trapped souls there in a form of purgatory, snared by their own fears at what awaits them in the next world.

”And yet no one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.” Hans Vollman

Roger Bevins III

As various forces vie for the soul of young Willie, and Lincoln is exactly who we expect Lincoln to be, the Civil War rages in the background, and Mary Todd Lincoln finally lets loose the bonds of her mind and goes… briefly mad. As much as Lincoln would love to swim in the bitter, black soup of his own depression, the fate of a nation lies squarely on his shoulders. He cannot falter. He cannot grieve freely as a father should. In the darkness of night, among the gray black tombstones, he can for a time let loose the torrent of his tormented mind.

George Saunders has written a book in a style I have not encountered before. He mixes quotes from journalists with observations from people who were there, and with ghostly comments from those trapped between worlds. It makes for a heady mix of snippets that weave themselves into a whole cloth story. Obviously, to write a book like this he has to research the material as if he were writing a nonfiction book. I can almost envision this moment when Saunders is looking at the notecards tacked to his wall, each containing a quote that he wants to use in his novel and thinking...this is my novel.

I do have to give Saunders creative points for the concept, but there is a part of me that thinks that this is a short story specialist who is trying to find a way to write a novel. Clever little bastard that he is, he pulls it off. As we listen to the ghosts and the people surrounding the tragic events of Willie’s untimely death, we also hear their stories, and though few can claim the extent of tragedy that finds the Lincoln family time and time again, there are some absolutes that govern everyone’s life. No one gets out of this life unscathed. Once you experience love, you will experience loss.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Lisa Roberts.
1,473 reviews
April 15, 2020
Yes, I know I stand alone in my dislike for this book. EVERYONE loves it. Nope, not me. I actually hated it. I've heard people say they wanted to throw a book across a room and I never understood that desire to harm a book, but for me, this is one to throw. I should know better than to read a book in which the review says something like "an alternative writing" "a different way of telling a story". That just means it's weird, no plot, no character development, an author trying something new that works for others, but not me.

This is not historical fiction, this is not even a novel, this is a series of short paragraphs that are only semi-linked. This book is not about Lincoln, so if you're a President Abraham Lincoln lover, you will likely not like or appreciate this book. There's no story here. I read reviews in which people said they were moved to tears over Lincoln's sorrow. Huh? It's a bunch of ghosts talking to each other who don't even know they're dead.

I hated all the voices and I hated the short quotes from people who were supposed to be there. Some of these were real quotes and other were made up. Even this bothered me, either use all real quotes or make it completely fiction. I felt like I was reading George Saunders spiral notebook where he was jotting down his notes and footnotes, it was just a list.

There were over 160 narrators voicing the audio book. This could have been cool, and for those listeners who love this book, will love this idea as well, but because I hated it, it bugged me that so many great actors, authors, narrators, got pulled (suckered) into this mess. David Sedaris, Megan Mullally, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon and the list goes on.

I realize I stand alone and the rest of you will love this book. Go ahead, love it. We will connect on a different book on a different day.
Profile Image for Liz.
2,017 reviews2,515 followers
March 14, 2017
I should have known. I really don't do well with the avant garde. I want a plot, I want a story. I want character development. This offers none of the above. I felt lost. Vague memories of Ionesco and Beckett kept cropping up as I tried to plough through this. The book alternates between reading like a thesis, full of quotes from “other” sources and then almost more like a play. Ghosts come and ghosts go. They each have their own little mini-story but there is little continuity. Some ghosts appear more often; Blevins and Vollman act as narrators, moving the meager story forward. The Rev. Thomas provides a glimpse of a sort of Revelations style individual reckoning. There are sections that are enticing or interesting. But they are small glimpses of jewels.

I am clearly in the minority here. All the wonderful reviews had me doubting myself. But in the long run, reading is all about pleasure. And this book brought me very little of that.

Profile Image for Emily May.
1,962 reviews293k followers
May 22, 2017
What a painfully boring book. 166 narrators chiming in and overlapping in a story that seems so random and disconnected for the most part. It might be deep, and it might be clever, but if there isn't the barest spark of something to make you care what's on the next page - then why even bother turning it?

I gave up at 35%. Life is way too short.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,000 reviews35.9k followers
October 23, 2019
From the first day I saw that George Sanders had a new release--I kept walking. I had a lot of resistance to read George Sanders again.
"The Tenth of December" was the number 1 best seller for months and months.....
Everyone seemed to 'LOVE' it. OUTSTANDING they all said. NOT FOR ME....I didn't understand the hype. It was 'alright'.....but not 'wow' for me by any means.
I remember thinking another 'lesser name' --- at the time --RISING today--was the OUTSTANDING collection of short stories -that people ought to be talking about .... by Peter Tieryas Liu for his book called "Watering Heaven".....
A collection of short stories that 'still' blows me away to this day! -- The stories all that place in China. Brilliant book!

So....In order to break through my George Saunders resignation--I had to do a ton of homework before investing my actual time and money - on the physical book and audiobook.
NOTE: I'm the type of reader who usually doesn't need to read more than the blurb. I prefer going into a book almost 'blind' - as long as my gut feeling towards it is thumbs up.
Yet - when in doubt - it takes a bulldozer to get through me.
A cyber bet - of an imaginary coin toss - which I won - finally made me realize - I'm not getting out of reading this book ..... so I simply surrendered!

AND MY GOLLY.... THE HYPE IS REAL!!!! It's really REAL!!!! This book is OUTSTANDING ..... IT 'is' at times like a Greek Chorus ......
The spirit-souls in the graveyard---where Lincoln temporarily buried Willie --- narrate
in clear unflinching prose. I had prepared myself to struggle following the different ghost voices. The surprise was - I had little problem with the structure. It was clear as a spotless window....that many of these voices were already dead souls. I personally found their backgrounds fascinating.... ( the good and bad people who had died - their crimes - their personalities- their belief that they might return to life.... after all -- they haven't completed their death yet).

A few times I thought of "The Book Thief", by Mark Zusak, with the unusual narrator, Death....because at the time -- I felt it was very effective - profoundly imagined.....

Now, comes "Lincoln in the Bardo"... taking the unusual narrator/narrators to a whole new level - beyond the universal so to speak..... death, grief, and love.....mixed with history of the times......and moving on ... and letting go ... and letting go ... and letting go........ A father's love for his son ---the grimmest of prognosis --hurts deeper than hurt.
GEORGE SANDERS created a deeply emotional beautiful heartbreaking journey.

There is nothing typical about this book. It's extraordinary!

NOTE: Having the PHYSICAL BOOK to read the words is powerful - 'and' the AUDIOBOOK is magnificent. -- great combination. The voice of Lincoln is wrenchingly felt in your gut! Other voices are 'awesome' .. some very modern and contemporary-- others ancient and old feeling --others quite playful..... some faster than the speed of light 'a sentence' spoken.

2nd NOTE: If a parent has recently lost a child - this book could either be impossible for them to read or perhaps it's a comfort. But they would need to tread cautiously.
However....I think this is not only an masterful book - but an important one...'needed'!
We've needed this book written!
Profile Image for Kevin Ansbro.
Author 5 books1,393 followers
August 25, 2019
"My son, here may indeed be torment, but not death."
—Dante (Purgatorio)

There really, really must be something wrong with me.
Many of my esteemed Goodreads friends, whose rave reviews I have a lot of faith in, are smitten with George Saunders' book. It's even won the blimmin' Booker Prize for crying out loud!

Um, where to begin? he grimaces, wringing his hands in the manner of a doctor delivering bad news.

I tried my hardest to like it, I really did - in the same way I once tried to like green smoothies first thing in the morning, until I came to the realisation that a nice cup of Earl Grey was still a better option!
Booker Prize, or no Booker Prize, I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this irksome offering. A patchwork quilt of musings, transcripts, obituaries and purgatorial grumblings does not (in my humble opinion) form a novel.
Sandwiched somewhere between Saunders' rectangles of anecdotal nonsense is a soulful, heart-rending human interest tale that deserves to be told. I rather hoped that he would give up on this clunky gimmick and get on with writing something resembling an actual story but, alas, he continued in the same vein until the bitter end.
This, to me, was the literary equivalent of scrolling through someone else's text messages (except I would have derived more pleasure from reading someone else's text messages). And why do some ghosts even bother to self-censor their swear words with dashes? Whose delicate sensibilities are they worried about upsetting? Everybody's dead anyway! It's so f--king annoying!
I apologise to everyone who has swooned over this body of work. There is a very good chance that my antipathy might betray a complete lack of good taste and understanding on my part.

In fairness, I do see this working better as an audiobook, or as a stage play.
But as a novel?
Nope, not for me. Not in this lifetime anyway.
: (
Profile Image for Taryn.
325 reviews299 followers
March 20, 2017
I had a complicated relationship with this book. The writing was exquisite and I was amazed at the brilliance of the author, but there were also long sections where I felt completely lost.

The tide runs out but never runs in. The stones roll downhill but do not roll back up.

What I'm about to write doesn't even begin to sum this book up! President Abraham Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son Willie passes away after an illness. However, Willie doesn't realize he's dead. His soul is stuck in a transitional phase along with the other ghosts who populate the cemetery. On the evening of the funeral, Lincoln returns to the cemetery and cradles his dead son's body. The ghosts are amazed at the rare scene of a tenderness towards the dead. Lincoln leaves, but promises to return. It's unwise for a child to stay in the transitional realm for long, so some of the ghosts attempt to usher Willy into the next realm. Willie is determined to stay and wait for his father, so the ghosts must concoct a plan to convince him to move on.

Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget. Lord, what is this?

George Saunders is always recommended to me when I mention my love of Helen Phillips, and now I know why! The storytelling is surreal and the imagery is bizarre, sometimes grotesque. Lincoln in the Bardo is both humorous and devastatingly sad. This 368-page book is actually rather short on words (the audiobook is only 7 hours and 25 minutes). Part of it is like a play and the other part is constructed from excerpts of other sources, both real and imagined. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and Reverend Everly Thomas serve as our guides in the transitional stage between life and death. The form these ghosts take relate to unresolved issues at the time of their death. Hans Vollman died before he was able to consummate his marriage, so he walks around naked with a massive, swollen "member." Roger Bevins became hyper-aware of the world's beauty right before his death, so he's covered with eyes, hands, and noses. In a sad twist, these ghosts don't realize they are dead; they refer to their corpses as "sick-forms" and their coffins as "sick-boxes." They believe they will resume their lives eventually.

One feels such love for the little ones, such anticipation that all that is lovely in life will be known by them, such fondness for that set of attributes manifested uniquely in each: mannerisms of bravado, of vulnerability, habits of speech and mispronouncement and so forth; the smell of the hair and head, the feel of the tiny hand in yours—and then the little one is gone! Taken! One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world. From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.

It was really interesting how fact and fiction work alongside each other in this story. I was amazed at how Saunders juxtaposed pieces from various sources to create a complete picture, especially since many of the reports are contradictory. Some of the historical chapters were especially memorable:
1) Conflicting descriptions of the moon on the night of Willie's death - There's something beautiful about the unreliability of our memories.
2) Descriptions of Lincoln's appearance - He's described as an ugly man by many, but those who are more closely acquainted see him a little differently.
3) Criticism of the Lincoln during the Civil War - I couldn't help but think of the modern day while reading the intense and sometimes vulgar criticism of Abraham Lincoln. One of the detractor's comments would've been right at home in a YouTube comment section!

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant. He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

The heart of the novel is the strength of the bond between President Lincoln and Willie. In one interview, Saunders mentions the idea for this novel started with a vision he had of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta combined. That image came through crystal clear in the text, because the first thing I thought of when Lincoln holds is son was Michelangelo's Pietà. The pathos permeates the pages. Willie's intense need to be close to his father broke my heart. I felt the immense weight of both grief and the presidency on Abraham Lincoln's shoulders in a way that I've never gotten from my nonfiction reading. As he grieves for his beloved son, he agonizes over the decisions he has made as president. He was intellectually aware of the casualties of war, but there's a shift in him as he's forced to deal with the loss of his own son.

We had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departure caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

I enjoyed the idea of visiting with the other ghosts more as a general idea than in practice. There were so many characters and I didn't have patience for all of them. Maybe it was that we didn't get to spend that much time with them. Most of the time I wanted to get back to the Lincolns. A combination of the strange imagery and each ghost's distinct nineteenth-century speaking style made some of their voices difficult for me to read. The style was sometimes so opaque, that my mind couldn't penetrate it; sometimes I was just reading words, unable to extract any meaning from them. It didn't help that the names of the speakers were placed after they spoke, especially with the longer passages. Perhaps that's less of a concern in audio (distinct voices) or print (easier flipping). The hype around this book intensified my frustration. I checked the average rating after a sixty-page struggle and had one of those "Oh crap! I'm the only person in the world that doesn't understand this!" moments. If you hit a section that makes you feel more frustration than transcendence, you're not alone! I'm not saying any of this to discourage anyone from reading it, but to help anyone who is having similar struggles. It was worth it for me to continue through my frustration because some of my favorite moments are at the end, when Lincoln wrestles with decisions about the war.

Pale broken thing. Why will it not work. What magic word made it work. Who is the keeper of that word. What did it profit Him to switch this one off. What a contraption it is. How did it ever run. What spark ran it. Grand little machine. Set up just so. Receiving the spark, it jumped to life. What put out that spark? What a sin it would be. Who would dare. Ruin such a marvel. Hence is murder anathema.

All that being said, there were exceptions. I was touched by the woman who worried about the three daughters she left behind and the stories from the black contingent of ghosts was highly relevant. Some of the most heartbreaking scenes were watching the ghosts cycle through forms they were never able to realize. I've never felt more confronted about the transience of life or how our physical bodies are just temporary vessels. Tomorrow is never a guarantee, but it's easy to forget as we live our day-to-day lives. There's so much to learn from these ghosts as we see how they view their past lives and learn about their regrets. Somehow everything looks completely different once there are no more chances! I was hopeful that the inhabitants of the cemetery, including Willie, would be able to make peace with themselves and find a way to complete their journey.

He is just one. And the weight of it about to kill me. Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders

I don't always have the easiest time with ghost stories, but the way these ghosts affect President Lincoln reminded me of the power of reading--how it allows the voices and experiences of those real and imagined, dead and alive shape who we are and influence our viewpoints. As the weight of new experiences overwhelms President Lincoln, a stronger empathy and sense of purpose arise in him. He knows what he must do to preserve the union. Under the disapproving eye of a nation, we watch as he comes to the steadfast conclusion that the "the swiftest halt to the thing (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest." (Hans Vollman's words)

Reading this novel is a wholly unique experience. It's brilliant and emotionally powerful, but sometimes confusing (for me). My lack of star rating is not the same as zero--it's just an indication that I can't fit this book in any kind of rating system! One, two, or three stars seem too low because there were parts that I was amazed by, but four or five stars doesn't seem honest to my overall experience.* This book is hard to compare to anything else. As far as oddness, eerie atmosphere and the depth of emotion I felt, I was reminded of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. For a more resoundingly positive review, I recommend reading Colson Whitehead's analysis in The New York Times and watching the "immersive narrative short" at the end.

Edit 3/20/17: Decided on 3 stars. I liked it, but not overwhelmingly so.

I received this book for free from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. Its publication date is February 14, 2017.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,732 reviews14.1k followers
February 7, 2017
Wow, this wasn't just reading a novel it was a true reading experience. Wholly inventive, imaginative, the amount of research staggering, something totally new and different. Will admit having some trouble in the beginning, couldn't see where the author was going with this, wondering if it was gong to progress, it did in a very interesting way. Not going to rehash the plot, the description only loosely defines this. The book is helped along by some very unusual narrators, Vollmam and Bevins, along with a Reverend that can't figure out why he wasn't let in the pearly gates. There is a cast of many others, all with their own stories to add to the mix.

This novel takes a little patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual and an imagination that lets one see outside the norm. I though it was brilliant.

ARC from publisher.
Release date February 14th.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,739 reviews2,265 followers
April 7, 2021

4.5 Stars

How does one review a book such as this one? No words could possibly truly convey the potential journey a reader is embarking on when they open this novel. This is certainly nothing like any other book I’ve read, in concept or in style.

Before I requested this, I looked up several references to the definition of the bardo, both the Tibetan definition and how it’s meaning carries beyond the definition. Bardo is the “in-between place” a “transitional state,” the period of the afterlife between two states – our former “reality” is no longer, the bardo seems much like a waiting space before you enter into your next phase of “life.” I would say this applies to the bereaved, as well as the deceased. Your former life has changed, and a period of time must pass before one may move on to the next phase, rebuild.

William Wallace Lincoln, the third son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, had been sick off and on since the beginning of the year, as had his brother Tad. On February 20, 1862 at 5:00pm, Willie died – most likely of typhoid fever. Willie was eleven years old.

After Willie’s death, Abraham Lincoln often visited the crypt where Willie was interred, which continued for months. Holding him. This fact is the basis for this novel.

The majority of conversations throughout Lincoln in the Bardo are between the deceased who remain in the bardo. The conversations are sometimes more like ramblings, sometimes multiple inputs from the others that are often more a cacophony than harmonious choir of thoughts. Willie waits among them, waiting for his father’s return. Lincoln, in his grief, is in his own state of waiting, his mind unwilling to accept the reality.

Amidst all of the conversations are excerpts of historical texts regarding Lincoln’s behavior, his suffering. Some are letters sent to the President regarding the War from grieving parents. Some are compassionate and lovely. All paint a picture of an unbearable loss. Lincoln’s loss. The loss of the families whose sons were fighting in the war, or who had fought and were never coming home.

Having never read anything by George Saunders before, I am a bit in awe of the thought process that went into this rather astounding and poignant debut novel. I loved this, despite heartbreaking moments, it is strangely wonderful, the brilliance behind it still shone through.


Published: 14 Feb 2017

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,598 reviews24.7k followers
June 21, 2018
In this award winning piece of historical fiction, a blend of fact and fiction, Saunders writes of 1862, the American Civil War has been raging for less than year, now intensifying to unbearable proportions with the rising tide of the dead. Amidst this background, Lincoln is facing his very own personally traumatic and testing times. After having already lost a son earlier, his gravely ill 11 year old son, Willie, dies and is laid to rest in Georgetown cemetery with a devastated Lincoln visiting. From here, Saunders spins an emotionally powerful, wildly imaginative, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful tour de force. The bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist term referring to the time period, 'transition', between death and rebirth, with time spent there determined by the kind of life lived and the nature of the death. Willie is in his bardo, where nothing will ever be the same again, trapped there by the love of his father.

The echo of Lincoln's deluge of suffering is writ large amongst the bereavement and grief of a nation at war. In the bardo, a cacophony and confusion of narrators, the ghosts of the dead, a myriad of voices, have their own stories to impart, chaotic, anarchic, and harmonic. Lincoln does not have the luxury of drowning in a sea of black at the loss of his precious Willie, and despite being riddled by doubts and guilt, the country needs him at the helm in these troubling times. Saunders gives us a wonderfully inspiring, lyrical, humorous, witty and offbeat read, which to be honest I found rather hard to read on occasion, but never less than moving, on the fundamental themes of life and death. Simply extraordinary and highly recommended. Many thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
486 reviews1,356 followers
August 23, 2017
Sorry Saunders, but I disliked your novel. Clearly, I'm swimming against the current on this one. Having read some convincing reviews, I thought it must be included in my TBR this year. Well, I almost tossed it aside 100 pages in and probably should have and not given it a rating.

This is a read of loss. A parent - president Lincoln - has lost his 11 year old son to an illness.
The bardo - is the place between heaven and hell - a purgatory of sorts. It's a story of ghosts, and of Willie, who are stationed between life and the afterlife - the conversations that take place; the longing of missed ones; missed lives.

I can't give it the kudos others have - for me it was overwrought with too much sadness, despair and ghostly spirits. The writing was fragmented with quotes and no quotations.
Maybe I'd have been more sympathetic had I been American and able to relate to some history? Likely not.

I thought as I forced myself to read this, it might be easier to be among the dead than forcing myself to continue on, but I really didn't want to be stuck in some sort of hell with similar characters.

Ok that was harsh - it did have an interesting twist on death and did make me wonder in those short hours just after we lose someone, does this space exist? And did remind me of the accountability we each hold living this human life the best we can.
BUT, there was really no plot, little character development.

I'm glad to be done and returning this back to the shelf where it can sit with other ghostly (ghastly) weirded out stories.
2⭐️ and a sigh of relief to be done.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,149 reviews1,680 followers
December 10, 2022

Arnold Böcklin: L’isola dei morti (la prima versione). 1880

Durante gli anni della guerra di secessione, la cosiddetta guerra civile americana, quella che schierò a favore dell’abolizione della schiavitù gli stati del nord mentre a favore del mantenimento della schiavitù erano quelli del sud, la signora Lincoln prende in mano la vita sociale del marito e organizza ricevimenti lussuosi.
È per questo, per la sfrontatezza dello sfarzo e del gaudio mentre la guerra imperversa e morti e feriti si accumulano, che nel febbraio 1862 Willie, il figlio dodicenne dei Lincoln, viene preso dalla Grande Mietitrice? Quella morte più che prematura (di tifo) è una punizione? Una compensazione?

Luca Signorelli: la Cappella san Brizio nel Duomo di Orvieto.

Il dolore del padre è indicibile, il Presidente non si rassegna alla separazione, e alla perdita: la notte, rinuncia alla carrozza e cavalca un piccolo ronzino che sembra ancora più modesto sotto le lunghe gambe di Lincoln, si presenta al cancello del cimitero.
Il guardiano non dovrebbe farlo entrare, l’accesso è consentito solo di giorno ed entro certi orari: ma si può direi di no al Presidente degli Stati Uniti? Si può negare al padre un ultimo saluto?

Il piccolo è stato sepolto nella cappella di amici che Lincoln si fa aprire. Entra dentro la tomba, tira a sé la piccola cassa che contiene il corpo morto di Willie, solleva il coperchio, abbraccia il piccolo figlio, lo stringe a sé, seduto sul pavimento freddo della grande tomba.

Salvador Dalì: Il carro fantasma. 1933

Nessuno l’ha mai fatto prima. La gente visita i cimiteri, parla con i defunti: ma nessuno prima ha stretto a sé e abbracciato un corpo morto, restituendogli la dignità di cui la morte l’ha privato. E più ancora della dignità, il calore umano dell’amore.

I morti vivono nel Bardo, in quello stato intermedio della mente dopo la morte, dove la coscienza è separata dal corpo: una transizione durante la quale la mente guarda al corpo da cui è separata, ormai due entità diverse.
È nel Bardo che si consuma la vera fine, che si compie il passaggio completo allo stato di morte.

Il concetto del Bardo viene dalla religione (o filosofia) tibetana. Saunders se ne appropria e lo modifica secondo il suo disegno letterario: un posto in cui i morti transitano e rivivono e ricordano e si muovono - alcuni lasciano il Bardo subito, altri non vogliono compiere la traversata e allungano il tempo della transizione, altri vorrebbero attraversare ma non riescono. Nel Bardo i morti si mescolano, entrano uno nell’altro, si appropriano di ricordi e pensieri altrui

Ma al di là di tutto questo, già bello e affascinante di suo, con gli evidenti echi di Spoon River e del romanzo capolavoro di Salvatore Satta Il giorno del giudizio, prima del disegno della trama, conta il modo in cui Saunders scrive.
A me viene in mente la magnifica Trilogia Lehman di Stefano Massini per quel ritmo che sa di ballata.
Ma Saunders è altro: moltiplica le voci, le doppia e sdoppia, a narrare è un coro, e spezzando ritmo e narrazione, introduce citazioni vere e citazioni inventate riportando i testi di origine, che sono pertanto sia esistenti che immaginari.
Nel Bardo è offerta ai morti la possibilità di manifestarsi ancora, di commuovere e commuoversi, è offerto di sentire compassione, di essere ancora e più umani.

Le voci che si ripetono più spesso sono quella di un reverendo, Everly Thomas, quella di un cinquantenne, Hans Volmann, che è morto prima di poter consumare il matrimonio con la giovane moglie, e la terza, Roger Bevins III, che appartiene a un giovane omosessuale che come in un sogno rivive continuamente il proprio suicidio e guarda le cose che con il suicidio si è perso.
I tre narratori non si accontentano a fare da guida al piccolo Willie, come e più degli altri morti, vogliono essere ‘visti’, vogliono riprendere a vivere. O, se non altro, cercare una seconda possibilità qui oltre la fine.
I tre cantori narranti fanno tutto ciò che possono perché Lincoln padre e Presidente riesca a “sentire” il figlio ancora una volta, che si realizzi un abbraccio che sembra impossibile, che il dolore possa lenirsi per un attimo. Tre morti che provano ad aiutare un altro morto e un vivo a condividere ancora qualche istante.

Ma, più che l’anima di Willie o quella dei tre cantori, è quella del padre Presidente che è davvero incapace di andare oltre, di rassegnarsi ad accettare, di superare la disperazione.
Per quanto Saunders la lasci senza voce, Lincoln padre, infatti, non parla mai, non apre bocca.

L’angelo del dolore sulla tomba di Emelyn Story al cimitero Acattolico di Roma.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,252 reviews451 followers
March 12, 2017

This is the most unusual, incredible reading experience I have ever had. George Saunders is either a genius, or an other-worldly creature living among us and posing as an author.

I will leave the book description to Goodreads and the book jacket. I will only say this: if you enter this world and let yourself be carried along, you will emerge a different reader at the end. Some of you may not be able to do this, some of you may not wish to accept what is presented, but those who continue will be rewarded with a better understanding of what it means to be a living, loving human being in this imperfect world.

As I was reading I was thinking that there was no way I could follow this story on an audio book, but others reviews have convinced me that listening to this one adds another dimension to this novel. I intend to download it from my library when available, and will add to my review at that time.

I will go out on a limb right now and predict a Pulitzer for George Saunders. And a National Book Award. Deservedly so.

ADDITION: March 12th, 2017

I downloaded this book on audio from my library 4 weeks after reading the print version. I am not a fan of audio books as a rule, I get impatient with the narrators and lose focus because my mind wanders as I'm listening. But after hearing all the praise for the audio, I decided to give it a chance. It proved to be just as incredible. This was more of a performance than anything else, with a different narrator for each voice, and real emotion behind the words. I used earphones and closed my eyes, and entered the graveyard again.
I could actually see the action, and some things I had missed the first time around were made clearer to me this time. It also helped that it is only 7 1/2 hours, so the time investment wasn't that great. Recommended in both forms, but I am glad I read the print version first.
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews319 followers
February 27, 2017
Lincoln in the Bardo is such a beautifully crystallized portrait of life, death, grief, and getting on, and really emphasizes our shared humanity in its unusual storytelling. I started and stopped in fits, but one massive read in a single sitting was the way for me to go on this, allowing it to crash and wash over me completely, and get acquainted with the style and be fully receptive to the ideas expressed here. Once submerged in the unique format, I was incredibly moved by the way Saunders is able to link the singular sadness and pain of one man losing his son (one great, historically critical man) to the comings and goings and suffering and salvation of all. This read was a force of nature for me: random, unexpected, bold, brilliant. It was unable to be fully pinned down into thought or analysis by me, but so easily appreciated and awed by its power and beauty. A full 5 stars for me, and likely to be my favorite read of the month (if not the year), as it's continued to haunt me since finishing it.

All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things. Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. We must try to see one another in this way. As suffering, limited beings - perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.

The particulars are a matter of historical record and the book blurb: eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln has passed away and been laid to rest in February 1862, and amidst turmoil and war and death of the increasingly bloody Civil War, his father, President Abraham Lincoln, visits Willie's tomb and spends a night with his son's body. The novel focuses on that one night, as Willie's spirit is in the bardo (the space between life and death, lingering between states of reality). We're given a historical and cultural context and contemporary views of Lincoln, his family, and his performance as President and as a father to help us better understand his guilt, his loss, his suffering and his strength on that evening via a selection of quotes from actual biographical sources and those Saunders has imagined and created to better strengthen his portrait of the President in 1862. Fact and fiction weave together to display a complex view of Lincoln, compounded by getting into the President's mental space as he holds his son's corpse in the tomb.

All over now. He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussy and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do.

Willie is not in the bardo alone: a veritable Greek chorus of spirits accompanies him, urge him to move on while simultaneously rejecting their own status of death and clinging to the beauty, large and small, of life. It's this Greek chorus that helps round out the universality of Saunders' novel: Willie as one soul among many, all important, all meaningful, all moving toward the same fate and state. But the spirits are also individuals, even if they say similar things: each has their past and their death, a manner of speaking and a way of dealing with their bardo state. There's humor and introspection, ribald pronouncements and dark truths, trite obsessions and larger worries that come to the forefront with this group of spirits from backgrounds rich and poor, black and white, the array of personalities and issues in death as varied and interesting as in life. Those in the bardo must decide on this evening who is to ascend to the next state and leave behind their ties to their earthly existences, and who shall remain, and many look to Willie and his father as a means to connect with their own loved ones, while others take pains to help Willie move on, and Lincoln to be at peace with the loss of his son (and the deaths of the young men and boys on the battlefield, of Union and Confederate forces alike, and the captivity and dehumanization and death of the American slaves that also weigh on his conscience).

He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow. And-by us.

...Taken! One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world. From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.

This is a novel that really brilliantly weaves the details of Lincoln's life in 1862 and specific pain of the loss of his young son, with larger themes connected to all humankind, past present and future, of our particular and universal fate, the horrible and yet beautiful "trap" of life and death, death's inevitability and unpredictability, and the glorious nature of love and pleasure and beauty and peace that a human life can contain is both tainted and yet more deeply beloved for that simple fact. You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore, repeat visions that implore souls in the bardo to move forward. And so too has Saunders' novel utterly crashed upon me, a brilliant, breathtaking meditation on the human experience: grief, life, death, and all in between. A hypnotic, powerful, entirely memorable read that I recommend to any and all who live and love and lose, as we all do.

-received an e-galley on edelweiss, thanks to Random House
Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,615 followers
October 18, 2017
**Man Booker Prize Winner!**

The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars; the sore place on the shoulder a resting toboggan makes; writing one's beloved's name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger.
Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.
Goodbye, I must now say goodbye to all of it.

George Saunders has written a magnificent, unique, experimental work that is both heartbreaking and humourous, both heavenly and in the mire. This novel examines death and existence thereafter, while exalting the beauty of life, each precious moment of it. It reveals the unbearable grief felt at the loss of a child. It shows, in a chorus of voices, the many hues memory paints of an event. All the while, it magnifies the undeniable dignity of Abraham Lincoln.

The range of this book is astonishing. The format is original - part historical accounting, part Shakespearean play. The concept is this: Willie Lincoln, at 11 years old, dies, breaking his presidential father's heart. He finds himself (amongst a host of other spirits) in the "Bardo" (essentially purgatory), where he is visited by his father, and where he decides he will stay in order to see him again. The rest of the story is ghostly, Godly, mystical, mysterious, and oh-so-human. I loved it.

Note: I started this book on audio, but found that due to the sheer number of characters and the unusual format, I was getting lost on key plot points. I decided to read it in print form, which was a wonderful experience. Now I'm listening to the audio and am entranced by it. Now that I'm familiar with the plot, it is fabulous, particularly Nick Offerman who can be funny but also incredibly poignant.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,113 reviews44.4k followers
May 1, 2018
It is becoming increasingly hard to create original literature these days. The fundamental problem with modern art is that everything has been done before. Writers, painters and musicians have to concoct something extraordinarily different to be new.

And George Saunders has done exactly that. There has never been a book quite like this before and that’s why it won the Man Booker Prize 2017. The judges for the last few years have been weighing literary originality over literary quality in my opinion.

In 1917 artist Marcel Duchamp placed an upside down urinal in a gallery and labelled it art. He called it the Fountain. Such a thing was a gesture of irony and a way of arguing against the established ideas of what art can be. It’s a monumental event in art history and it also echoes what writers such as Joyce, Woolf and T.S Eliot were trying in the literary world with their experimentation. My point is: do you consider a urinal a piece of art?


Whilst Lincoln in the Bardo is not quite a urinal, it firmly establishes that newness does not always mean greatness.

Just because something is new it does not necessarily mean it is entertaining to read or accessible for the reading public. I suppose this is the difference between high-brow and low-brow books. Critically speaking, Saunders has written something rather special here, though is it actually enjoyable?

I liked parts of it. I like the way he played with language and structure. It was very good at evoking pain, though it was simply too long. I don’t consider Lincoln in the Bardo a bad book, though I do consider it terribly boring and repetitive. For me, I felt like I read the entire book after one hundred pages. I gained very little by continuing through to the end. No real momentum was gained and it seemed to loop in on itself with its disjointedness. I felt like I’d experienced it all very early on and the rest was just wasted words and time.

Not a book I recommend. I think it tried to hard to be different.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews544 followers
April 3, 2018
"And if you go.. chasing rabbits,
and you know you're.. going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
has given you the call."

The unusual format, like oddly punctuated and inverted lines of a play, was fine by me. It just took some adjustment, and then it was easy to read.

But the random, psychedelic-seeming thought trains were way too artsy for me, and the periodic sophomoric vulgarity struck me as stupid (sorry). I did not titter for an instant. There was definitely a plot to follow, but like from the thick main trunk of a vine, there were tendrils of offshoots that obscured the main body at times. Some of these shoots were their own little stories, but some were just weedy backdrop. I'm all for setting a mood or seeing a theme evinced in different ways, although here, I just did not care about any of it.

I did have empathy with Lincoln and his boy, but this story robbed me even of that. Others have complimented the depth of research that went into the accounts, primarily at the front end of the story, but using two books and Google can cough up many quotes and accounts, and for me (who is a boring and methodical scientist), quantity does not equal quality. As a reader, some of them were entertaining (like opposing descriptions of the moon's phase, Lincoln's appearance, etc), but a handful would have sufficed. Thankfully, these barrels full of quotations took up more space such that I did not have to spend too much reading time in the bardo.

Oops. I've gone too far perhaps and ticked my five- and four-star friends off. But I'm not the "magical realism" type. Dull, grounded, and bound with facts, this story just isn't my thing. I do love Yann Martel's work and that of Gabriel García Márquez, though. Heck, I even adore reading The Master and Margarita every few years around Easter! Talk about the surreal! But this story went too far for me without a meaningful payoff. My 13 year old sister died pretty suddenly - within a week's time - many years ago, and maybe the deterioration of dead 11-year-old Willie speaking from the half-life added to my distaste. I felt a bit protective of and angry on behalf of President Lincoln, too. He was a real person - a heartbroken dad with a helluva stressful job. How dare we pull his memory and that of his little boy out and sandwich it with these absurd ghosts, ones with giant phalluses and multiple noses, just for our entertainment? Shall we next exhume Martin Luther King?

The recurring matterlightblooming phenomena and Mr Bevins' ever growing number of appendages were just too ridiculous for my taste. If Edward Scissorhands or the Mad Hatter or Beetle Juice thrilled you, be my guest - you'll love this. I just do not have an active enough imagination to have taken the plunge into the bardo.

Despite the constellations of five stars out there, this thing went dim for me at the halfway point. . I'd have to have eaten some sort of magic mushroom to have liked this...just not my taste.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,685 followers
February 19, 2017
"He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness."
- George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo


Again, I find myself wandering at night alone, reading grief literature. I'm not sure if I have just accidentally stumbled on my own special vein of grief literature or if this dark path has suddenly become more popular ("to hell with erotic fiction, let us read tales of the sad survivors"). But, here I am, writing another transuding review of another sad book. No. Not sad. Certainly, it deals with sadness. Death and sadness. Certainly. But it is hard to contain Saunders. His stories were never easily boxed, labeled, or restrained. They seemed to crawl under doors, slip through walls, escape the clutches of easy definition. This novel, his first, is also hard to easily categorize. It is historical fiction in that its primary characters (Abraham Lincoln and his dead son William) are historical. But the rest of the characters (and there is an army of characters) are mostly fictional or fictionalized. The book is also historical in the sense that Saunders uses, in an unusual way, historical writings about Lincoln as almost a Greek chorus. There are chapters where a repetition of historical voices, like a series of paintings by Giorgio Morandi (where he paints the same few household objects in slightly different constellations) creates one image out of many eyes. All of these studies, given at different times seem to not confuse the subject but illuminate the subject. So when, in this book, Lincoln's eyes are described by different historical voices as:

"His eyes dark grey, clear, very expressive, and varying with every mood"
- Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln

"His eyes were bright, keen, and a luminous grey color."
- Ostendorf, Lincoln's Photographs - A Complete Album

"Grey-brown eyes sunken under thick eyebrows, and as though encircled by deep and dark wrinkles."
- Marquis de Chambrun, "Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln"

"His eyes were a bluish-brown."
- Wilson & Davis, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln

"The saddest eyes of any human being that I have ever seen."
Shenk, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

we get a moving picture. Many pictures, flickering, on-after-another form a living, moving portrait of the MAN.

This technique of borrowing the same description of Lincoln or of an event of Lincoln's life and telling it again and again becomes almost a mantra that pushes the reader back into reality. Shows the reader how things exist in a multitude of ways. How reality might be ALL the experiences of a person; past, present and future and seen by everyone. It also seduces the reader and lulls the reader into a laconic, dream-like state as the strangeness of the novels swirls around. These chapters become an incantation, a rite, a ritual, a dirge.

One of the small gems I loved from this novel is one that won't mean much to anyone else but me. One of the dead slaves, one of the "Black Beasts", the "Damnable savages" also stuck in purgatory shares my name, or my last name at least. I'm tribal enough that I enjoy that. I like the serendipity of discovering one of the best characters, with one of the best "voices", "the sweetest f____er, but talks so G____ complicated" has my last name. Perfect. That is the best part of this book, the gist really. That it is IN others and THROUGH others and HELPING others that we discover our own worth. We are saved IN and BY our empathy. As we see the world through slave and soldier's eyes. As we grapple with the suffering of all, the pain of all, we redeem and save each other. Lovely.

The danger with grief literature is it can so, so easily slip into sentimentality. It can quickly slide into sap and pretentiousness. Grief is hard. It is real. It also something, like sex, that is fraught and dangerous to write about. Saunders nails it. He is able to walk THROUGH the valley and WITH the shadows and fear no evil, because tonight, for me, Saunders is the baddest son-of-a-bitch in the bardo
Profile Image for William2.
745 reviews2,959 followers
January 6, 2020
I avoid the G word. That’s a determination I like to put off until rereading. But this novel’s certainly masterful. I have read nothing so near perfect in some years. The narrative rides a kind of knife edge, between unbearable sorrow one moment and comic relief the next.

‘Almost unbearably moving’ was what Anthony Burgess used to say about some of the better books he reviewed. I must say the same with regard to Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s about unendurable personal loss and grief suffered by President Abraham Lincoln when his son, Willie, died at age 11. Much of Abe’s grief is a matter of personal record, discussed in many histories and memoirs of the day. The novel is rendered in part in a cut-and-paste style reminiscent of William Burroughs, though tonally it has nothing to do with his work. I do not mean to deprecate the technique, for in the pastiche sections the effect is brilliant, given that these have been assembled entirely from the works of others.

The fictional sections, however, in the Bardo, are entirely products of the author’s imagination. The setting is Oak Hill Cemetery, in Georgetown, Washington D.C. Aside from the occasional living funeral party, it’s occupied almost entirely by the spirits of the dead, spooks: people buried there whose existences in this interstitial realm—before rebirth, according to certain schools of Tibetan Buddhism—are beset by karmic reckonings in the form of phantasmagorical torments. So there are their unendurable stories of personal loss and grief, too. In terms of emotional impact the novel’s part Dante’s Inferno and part Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo. A deeply satisfying novel.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
October 17, 2017
Imagine the historical research approach of someone like David McCullough, and pull those details into a novel that takes place almost entirely in a graveyard, ghosts and all (picture The Graveyard Book), and you have this novel. I was lucky to receive a review copy of the audiobook from the publisher, because I think this is the preferred format for the novel.

Since George Saunders wrote the novel in 108 sections, with distinct voices, they decided to use 166 voices in the recording (Time Magazine did a short profile of the upcoming production, and you can listen to an excerpt on the publisher site.)

Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, along with George Saunders, are three primary voices (although I thought Sedaris was Holly Hunter until after I'd finished, despite having heard him narrate his own books) and a cast of friends, stars, and family fill out the rest. Some voices are heard only one time, reading a letter or fact from what sounds like real sources, and I imagine some are, some aren't. That is a bit confusing in the beginning, until you get into the rhythm of the novel. It's enough to know that you don't need to remember the voices in conjunction with their names, so they can pass through your mind.

Some of the time the multiple voices seem to just be providing context, but often they are playing with the narrative of context, some remembering a full moon, others remembering a cloudy night, others remembering a crescent, etc. These tiny excerpts are often followed by the narrator with an abbreviation I had not heard, so here's a hint: "Op. cit." refers to a longer bibliography or a previously mentioned citation. I wish they had left that out of the audio because I had no idea what it was for most of my listening experience. I had looked up opsit, opsid, oppsid, upsid, and every other combination until I found it. It's a minor thing but gets used so frequently with all the tiny bits, that it drove me to distraction!

Overall the novel is pretty fragmented, and I found I did better in comprehending it when listening for long spans of time, like the five hours I spent in the car yesterday. I am not sure what kind of novel I expected Saunders to write for his first published longer work, but I did not expect something quite so simultaneously historical and experimental!

The highlight for me has to be Nick Offerman though. He is an excellent narrator and now I want to go back and listen to more of his productions. More, please!

ETA: Changed my 4 stars to 5 the more I thought about it.

One more ETA: love or hate it, this sucker just won the Man Booker Prize!
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews515 followers
July 4, 2021
Happy July 4th! Brocades of blue and a rain of red glare

George Saunders' brilliant literary achievement is the ideal book for the Fourth of July in profoundly reminding us of our union as citizens of the United States of America, this great nation created by our forefathers' Declaration of Independence from the "absolute Despotism," "long train of abuses and usurpations" and "invasions on the rights of the people" by the then "King of Great Britain," our democracy founded upon principles of equality and each individual's endowment "by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights, [such as] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And, it provides just as important a remembrance of how our country was nearly crushed, but ultimately was forged, by the crucible of a civil war that cost the lives of over 620,000 young men (in perspective, a number that today would proportionally be roughly six and a half million).

More significant than these, through a fictional rendering of our President Abraham Lincoln's loss of his 11-year-old son Willie, the novel elegantly recalls our connectedness, despite our many differences, through our shared human experience of love, family and the anguished grief we each suffer in losing those we love.

In February 1862, close to a year after President Lincoln's inauguration and ten months after the start of the Civil War, he lost his son Willie to typhoid fever. Author George Saunders, primarily known for his satirical short stories, speculates that President Lincoln's revival in the face of a human being's greatest loss--of his child--prepared him especially to pull the nation through the jaws of darkness and the legion losses suffered by families on both sides of the Civil War.

Saunders crafts three vibrant, compelling characters from differing backgrounds to drive the novel's narrative in Georgetown's Oak Hill cemetery, in the "bardo" (Tibetan for limbo between the world and the eternal afterlife). Hans Vollman is a charmingly gruff printer who carries about in a tumescent state [existing as he died, just prior to consummating his marriage to a wife twenty years his junior]; Roger Bevins, an Orphean suicide with a bounty of extra eyes, hands, ears, noses that pop out when he becomes agitated or excited; and, Reverend Everly Thomas, a sage man of the cloth whose mouth is cast permanently in an "O" of fright.

This trio is joined by a host of other colorful characters as they chaperone young Willie, left behind in the bardo instead of ascending because he wanted to see his dad once more.

Saunders seamlessly intersperses the novel's rich and intellectually stimulating dialogue with brief chapters containing excerpts from news accounts, memoirs, diaries and biographies of the time, which display the harsh tenor of the public outcry in the months after Lincoln assumed the presidency, when he had no clear plan for resolving the nascent war or the conflicts leading to the southern states' secessions, including: "The Presdt is an idiot," George B. McClellan; "Vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical... By all odds, the weakest man who has ever been elected," Sherrard Clemens; and, "Will go down to posterity as the man who could not ... understand the circumstances and interests of his country... who plunged his country into a great war without a plan; who failed without excuse, and fell without a friend," London Morning Post.

The novel largely enamors with its punchy tone containing humor to prompt a few laughs loud enough to wake the family. The narrative tightens for a short stretch when departed slaves from outside the segregated cemetery travel to Oak Hill to see the President, only to be met by resistance from a violent, racist faction led by a bombastic Confederate officer.

I cannot recall a novel so manifesting that which unites us as a country and as human beings: "At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end." At the same time, the novel inspires in its portrayal of the human spirit's resilience and perseverance. Abraham Lincoln, generally acknowledged as the country's greatest president, who had been "broken, awed, humbled, diminished" by his son's death and roundly ridiculed as "a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis," rises from the ruins to remake himself and hold together a nation seemingly torn asunder.

The bardo's voices range widely from farmers and soldiers to priests and suicides, as emblematic of the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of our country's departed in 1861. Saunders writes each tone as valued and like he's conducting a symphony, with the result being a sort of cosmic chorus in "cordial unison"* under brocades of blue, twinkling white willows and a rain of red glare, celebrating the human spirit and similarities that can unite our nation.

By novel's end, the President's final goodbye to the body of his son can leave one undone; for others, the trio's farewell aria might do just as well, by lacing the reader with the unalloyed beauty of simple things in life that we take for granted as if our days here are limitless. Bevins, the young erudite poet, captures it best as he contemplates leaving the world behind: "the things of the world were strong with me still...such as... cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one's clinging shirt post-June rain... Pearls, rags, buttons... The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars... writing one's beloved's name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger..."

It is no stretch to predict that time will bestow this novel with the status of a "modern classic," one that is studied in literature classes when your children's children attend grade school. "Lincoln in the Bardo" represents a memorial to those who have gone before us, a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, and a celebration of Americans' spirit to rise from defeats and our resolve to endure and succeed.

*Thomas Paine used the phrase "cordial unison" in his 1791 "Rights of Man" to describe the United States' form of government as putting a premium on equality and the unalienable rights of all. [Unfortunately, it wasn't until over a century later that anyone but white men were provided any (or most) of these rights].
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews871 followers
April 24, 2017
You know those half-awake, half-asleep dreams where you’re working through your problems of the day? The first wakeful moments in the shower usually let you know that any solutions you thought might apply were pure nonsense. Even more often you realize the things you were thinking about weren’t really problems anyway – it was all just anxiety for the hell of it. Anyway, last night I went to bed thinking about what I might say about this celebrated new Saunders book I just read. Even as I was falling asleep, I knew in the light of day this would end up being one of those non-problems. But then I started thinking about a request I got at work to give a presentation about statistical modeling to the 50 or so technologists in our firm. These are clever people – the types who could write episodes of Silicon Valley - so, warily, I began preparing slides in my head that might interest them. As soon as the REM sleep kicked in, I guess I conflated my two goals. I came up with mathematical breakdowns of Lincoln in the Bardo instead. Of course, the first drops of water from the shower should have told me to abandon such thoughts, but I was hard up for an angle as it was, which is a long introduction for what you’re about to see. [Note to self: Don’t mention Goodreads reviews in stats preso.]

I might as well start with the star rating. The input variables in this case, all ranging from 0 (lowest) to 1 (highest) were:
Quality of writing = 0.88
Creativity in structuring = 0.93
Depth of probes into character = 0.48
Exploration of themes = 0.85
Achievement versus expectations = 0.27

Applying equal additive weights to each variable we get:
Rating = 0.88 + 0.93 + 0.48 + 0.85 + 0.27 = 3.41

I’d read several rave reviews which enticed me. And the premise (Lincoln’s visits to the cemetery after his dear son Willie died at which time and place the transitioning souls there in the bardo encountered him) sounded interesting, too, even if a tad gimmicky. The multiplicity of stories and situations were a chance to place all of humankind on a platter for Lincoln (and us) to ingest. The bardo is a Buddhist concept pertaining to the state of being between death and rebirth – presumably a time of reflection and atonement. As Saunders envisioned it, the cross-section of inhabitants was a wide and noisy one. Still, a more enlightened understanding of one another’s ways was possible. Empathy and acceptance were the apparent goals. I give Saunders plenty of credit for highlighting these themes. (I give him even more credit for this commencement speech he gave a few years ago, making a related case for kindness.) My only disappointment was that the individual stories seemed too diffuse and too thin to really permeate.

The book touched briefly on what life must have been like for Lincoln at that point. For someone who was said to be unusually kindhearted and sympathetic to begin with, the grief of Willie’s death along with the weight of the war were almost more than he could bear. Even so, as his country’s leader he knew he couldn’t wallow. Instead, he had to remind himself of the moral math (though he might not have thought of it in quite those terms) of suffering. His time in the cemetery reminded him that everyone has hardships of some kind at some time, some far worse than others. His job was to make decisions to minimize the cumulative sum of it. So, which is the smaller amount?
Cumulative suffering given war = Σ Misery[i, t | war] (summed across all individuals i, and future episodes t)

Cumulative suffering given no war = Σ Misery[i, t | no war] (summed across all individuals i, and future episodes t)

The misery of slavery was given a suitably high weight, of course. In fact, Lincoln’s empathy for all was given a representational boost when certain of the souls discovered they could inhabit him and cross-absorb experiences – literally (for purposes of the story) walking a mile in his shoes. A former slave was notably included.

Ancillary mathematical discussion: Certain traits seem to combine additively to produce a given effect. Others are multiplicative. In the example that comes to mind regarding Lincoln (hagiography alert), I’m positing an exponential relationship.
Power ^ Empathy = Greatness

One of the thornier issues we face as we endeavor to empathize is the amount of dispensation to assign. It’s easy to say that some higher moral authority has that job, but I still think the old “free will vs. determinism” debate is a good one. Several in the bardo argued that they may have done bad things, but were compelled by their natures and circumstances to do so. Expressing it in an equation, we might get something like this:
Actions and Attitudes = function(Genetics, Brain chemistry, Upbringing, Outside influences like friends or books, Physical needs) + Residual

The residual in this model is the part of our actions and attitudes that cannot be explained by the drivers. It’s what I’m imagining free will to be. So the question is, what portion, if any, is to be labeled a choice, superseding what the assigned factors would otherwise dictate? Is that what we’re to be judged by?

I was coached once, when putting together a presentation, to go easy on the equations. Eyes for another half your audience will glaze over for each additional one you include. I guess he was saying:
Remaining interest = Original interest * (0.5 ^ # of equations)

How many of you does that leave? I’m not even sure I can include myself, having mentally checked out while summing the miseries of those potentially reading this review of a sort.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,867 reviews16.5k followers
February 13, 2019
A reader of George Saunders’ 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo will make immediate comparisons to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 drama Our Town and Edgar Lee Master’s 1915 book Spoon River Anthology as well as observing references to Dante’s Inferno and the Bible.

Saunders, known for such unique and original works as Tenth of December and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, has again stretched the limits of creative writing and has here produced a work of fiction unlike any other. Extensively researched (though I suspect some of the references cited were also fictitious) about President Lincoln and the death of the Lincolns’ young son Willie during the early stages of the Civil War, Saunders explores themes of the afterlife, family, loyalty, and community.

Some readers may also see similarities with Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and the setting is comparable, but whereas Gaiman crafted a paranormal retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Saunders has created a metaphysical examination of the supernatural and the spiritual in an absurdist context.

Original and entertaining it can be difficult to follow in places but for fans of experimental writing, this is a special work.

Profile Image for Bill Gates.
Author 10 books509k followers
May 21, 2018
I find anything related to Abraham Lincoln super interesting. His personal story—of someone from humble beginnings who successfully navigated the political world without compromising his beliefs—is fascinating. I’ve read a lot about him over the years and thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know. But I recently read a book about Lincoln that surprised me.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders gave me a new perspective on America’s 16th president. Despite being a work of fiction, it offered fresh insight that made me rethink parts of his life. The novel takes place over the course of one night not long after the death of Willie, Lincoln’s beloved 11-year-old son. The “bardo” in the title refers to a purgatory-like place where spirits linger after death—in this case, a spectral version of the Washington, DC cemetery where Willie was buried.

It’s dangerous for children to linger in the bardo (for reasons that are never explained), but Willie refuses to leave after his father visits his grave. Most of the book focuses on the other spirits trying to convince Willie to depart. There are 166 spirits in total, and Saunders uses a script format to make it clear who is speaking when. It’s disorientating at first, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Saunders also uses excerpts from historical texts to tell the story of Willie’s death and its aftermath. I loved how he uses these flashbacks to show how fuzzy our recollections of the past can be. In one chapter, he weaves together conflicting quotes about Lincoln’s appearance. Were his eyes gray, or were they green? The answer changes depending on who you ask. It reminded me of the musical Hamilton, which deals with similar ideas about how storytellers shape history.

Saunders blends history and fiction seamlessly throughout the book. Some of the snippets in the flashbacks come from real sources (like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals ), and others are made up. The same is true of the ghosts: some are based on real people, but most are fictional. Lincoln really did visit Willie’s grave, although scholars disagree about whether he opened the coffin as he does in the book.

Saunders’ Lincoln is a man crushed by the weight of both grief and responsibility. Although his early life had its own share of tragedy, he’s now experienced the greatest heartbreak a parent can have. “The essential thing (that which was borne, that which we loved) is gone,” he thinks as he looks down at Willie’s coffin toward the end of the book.

Losing a child is unbearable for any parent, but Lincoln is also burdened by timing. Willie died less than a year after the Civil War started. The president has a new understanding of the grief he’s creating in other families by sending their sons off to die in battle. He must make a choice. Should the war go on? If it does, how can we ensure the end result justifies the cost of such suffering?

As far as I know, there’s no evidence linking Lincoln’s decision-making in the war to his son’s death—but Saunders cleverly makes the connection. Although the Gettysburg Address isn’t mentioned in the book, the results of Lincoln’s choice are echoed in some of its most famous lines: “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

More than once while reading Lincoln in the Bardo, I found myself wanting to discuss it with someone else. A tennis buddy recommended the book to me, and I couldn’t wait to get back on the court and talk to him after I finished. Many parts of the book are intentionally mysterious. The study guide at the end is helpful, but I think it’s more fun to hear what other people think.

Lincoln in the Bardo is heavy stuff for a summer book, but I’m really glad I picked it up. It’s a quick read thanks to its play-like format, and some of the ghosts’ stories are surprisingly funny given the subject matter. If you’re an Abraham Lincoln buff like me, you won’t regret taking this one on your next vacation.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,411 followers
February 10, 2017
The form of this novel is what readers will notice first. It begins as a series of quotes from reporters’ notebooks, eyewitness accounts, historians using original sources, and we must assume, Civil War-era gossip rags, describing an 1862 White House party which a thousand or more people attended. To say the affair was elaborate understates the case. Apparently when a thousand hungry guests descended on the tables of food, the quantity was such that it looked untouched after the assault.

Some of the reports mention that this lavish dinner party was going on during the war between the states (1862), and while Lincoln’s favorite son, Willie, lay dying upstairs, probably of typhoid. Some accounts criticize rather than report. Some are clearly inaccurate: “There was a large moon”; or “there was no moon.” Surely there can be no argument about these truths; one of the accounts must be untrue.

As the novel progresses, it changes form. The reportage becomes a chorus, as voices of the bardo—that state of existence between death and rebirth—declaim and consider the suffering of Lincoln as he contemplates his son’s death. Father and son (who’d been but a child!) had been intimates, together at every opportunity, heads often canted towards one another in deep conversation. The voices of the bardo are bawdy, rowdy, yet weirdly profound in their discussion of how fleeting life and how final death and what we learn in the course of a life and what we learn only when we’ve lost it all.

A bardo implies rebirth, but these characters appear to be looking only to escape everlasting nothingness, and enjoy discussing and dissecting the lives of others. Occasionally one of the dead will enjoy a peek at their future (best) selves, which they hadn’t the time or the opportunity to attain. It can be quite moving as each considers his or her life. And here, amidst the humor and tragedy and regret and outright joy—the stuff of life—resides the talent of George Saunders, as he tries to reach his best self, whether in love, work, or understanding.

It’s difficult to believe this is Saunders’ first published novel, and yet that is its designation. It doesn’t even seem like a novel, but immediately brings to mind a radio show, something meant to be spoken aloud, in its many and varied voices. The thread of the novel is not difficult to follow like some avant-garde works, though one may wonder if Lincoln’s sorrow at the death of Willie is all Saunders meant to convey. I think not.

I think there is another step that Saunders wants us to take: that the spirits of the bardo (how it begins to sound like bordello, the more we know of it!) influenced Lincoln when his son died, giving him insight, empathy, and the strength to carry on with his responsibilities, and to bear his personal sorrow, but also the sorrows of a nation at war. We have yet to meet the man who could have stood it alone.
"His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact…We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings…Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces…And yet…Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective…We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and…Kill more efficiently…Must end suffering by causing more suffering…His heart dropped at the thought of the killing…"
So, we must fight, if fighting is required, to defeat wherever oppression exists. We must work together, and we’ll need all the help we can get from those who have glimpsed truth, and the value of kindness.

In a radio podcast with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Saunders tells us that in his research he discovers that Lincoln could have negotiated an end to the war in 1862 when the casualty levels were terrifically high. He must have wanted to end the slaughter so desperately, but one requirement of the agreement would have been to return the slaves to the South, and Lincoln simply refused. The black people who make an appearance in this novel live cruelly unfair and insecure lives.

One could make the case that a novel of this kind is not unprecedented. Think of the ancient Greeks with their choruses of wise and not-so-wise men; Italy’s Dante with his examination of the good or bad we do in life affecting our placement in the afterlife; England’s Shakespeare with his oft-found articulate spirits remarking on the action; Ireland’s Beckett (and his influence Joyce) for language and the insight wrapped in foolishness; America’s Barth and Mamet for exactitude and a deep, abiding humor when rationality might suggest despair.

The rich variety of voices in this novel are captured in the audio production of this book. In an interview published in time.com, Saunders explains how the Penguin Random House team worked with him (kudos, everyone) to get the requisite 166 voices, including famous stage and screen actors like David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, among others, to speak the parts so that it sounds like the “American chorale” Saunders was trying to convey.

At the same time, I found it helpful to have a written text to clarify Saunders’ experimental form which uses footnotes interspersed with conversation among ghosts. I adored what Saunders was able to tell us from his advanced age of 58 years—the stuff about not doing anything you can’t adequately explain to heaven’s gatekeepers, and how “it wasn’t my fault” actually isn’t much of a defense when one has been lingering in the afterworld for more than fifty years, unable to convince even a bleeding-heart saint that one wasn’t a douche that time.

Links to an audio clip of this production are posted on my blog, along with a short, three-minute New Yorker Video about Saunders and his writing life.
Profile Image for Guille.
755 reviews1,537 followers
February 17, 2019
Ya conocen el argumento, ahora les contaré de qué va.
“No sabemos que nos morimos, pero tampoco nos damos cuenta de que estamos vivos.” George Saunders
Empezaré por una advertencia: huyan como almas que lleva el diablo si no están preparados para leer un artificio con 166 personajes de diverso pelaje y condición que interactúan sin narrador durante una sola noche en una novela filosófica que está repleta de citas reales e inventadas y muchas veces contradictorias, organizadas en 108 capítulos en los que no es raro encontrar una única frase o un solitario párrafo de pocas líneas. Tampoco sería un error imperdonable, en el fondo Saunders no dice nada que no se haya repetido millones de veces y sus recetas de vida pecan de trivialidad, y, sin embargo, las pone en un contexto tan especial y las expone de una forma tan original que hace de todo ello un artefacto verdaderamente atractivo.

Otro punto que quiero dejar claro desde el principio es que esta novela no tiene como objetivo la figura de Abraham Lincoln, ni siquiera la de su hijo Willie, el Lincoln del título. Saunders toma a ambos únicamente como punto de partida para, digámoslo ya, advertirnos que la vida es todo lo que poseemos pero que ésta es un regalo envenenado por absurda, irremediablemente trágica y sujeta a contradicciones difícilmente superables. ¿Por qué Lincoln? El presidente fue alguien inmerso en una guerra que ejemplifica las eternas e insoslayables luchas humanas, fue y es objeto de controversia y padeció posiblemente el mayor golpe que puede sufrir el ser humano: la muerte de un hijo de corta edad.
“Trampa. Trampa horrible. Se prepara al nacer uno. Ha de llegar un día final. En que necesitarás salir de tu cuerpo. Eso ya es malo de por sí. Y luego encima traemos aquí a un bebé. Se amplían los términos de la trampa. Ese bebé también tiene que marcharse. Todos los placeres deberían quedar contaminados por ese conocimiento. Pero con lo optimistas que somos, nos olvidamos.”
Sí, estamos frágilmente preparados para lidiar con el horror, con la muerte de aquellos a quienes amamos y con nuestra muerte segura. Con mucha dificultad, podemos bregar con ello, conseguir, en cierto modo, olvidarnos de ello, pero este olvido, necesario quizás para poder seguir viviendo, lleva aparejado otro no menos importante: en ausencia de padecimientos, apenas somos conscientes de que estamos vivos y simplemente nos dejamos ir, sin objetivos, sin valorar lo que tenemos y a quien tenemos.

Saunders nos diagnostica un infantilismo incurable que nos hace ser egocéntricos y posesivos, impacientes y cortos de miras, que nos avoca al hedonismo egoísta, a la intolerancia, al arrebato incontrolable y a una necesidad patológica de protección y trascendencia. Nuestras debilidades, nuestro miedo a la muerte propia y ajena, nos apremian a la incesante labor de construir fantasías que nos consuelen de nuestros padecimientos, nos respalden en todos nuestros actos y deseos, nos garanticen la inmortalidad y nos alivien de nuestra sed de justicia y comprensión.

Pero que nadie se me asuste. Saunders sabe envolver toda esta metafísica en una novela divertida, sorprendente y hasta desconcertante en ocasiones. Saunders odia aburrir, es original, le gusta jugar con el lector, ponerle un espejo delante de los ojos, enfrentarle a dilemas éticos, y todo ello a través de la exageración, lo excéntrico, la distorsión de la cotidianidad; no evita la ternura ni hace ascos al humor incluso en los peores momentos, la muerte sin ir más lejos o, como en este caso, yendo muy lejos, al más allá.

Ya avisé al inicio del comentario que lo que temáticamente nos traía aquí Saunders no era muy original, pero también avisé de algo mucho peor, al menos mucho peor para mí, y este es un aspecto que ya le critiqué al comentar su colección de cuentos “Diez de diciembre”. Allí decía, y perdonen que me auto-cite, que “La literatura de ficción es un fantástico mecanismo de plantear preguntas, pero es mucho más deficiente a la hora de responderlas y, en mi opinión, es algo que redunda en perjuicio de la misma… Saunders se posiciona de forma demasiado explícita y eso hace que sus cuentos se me hagan más pequeñitos de lo que pudieran haber sido.”

Y eso es lo que vuelve hacer aquí el autor. Saunders nos envía un sencillo mensaje: usen sus vidas, únanlas a las de otros y hagan de ellas algo útil para los demás y así harán de sus vidas algo gratificante para ustedes; actúen siempre de acuerdo con sus principios siendo consciente de sus contradicciones pero sin que estas se conviertan en un obstáculo; no sean indulgentes con los pecados propios ni eludan sus responsabilidades y procuren aliviar en todo lo que puedan la tristeza de los demás, seres tan necesitados de compasión como ustedes mismos.
“Todo el mundo sufría tristeza o la había sufrido o la sufriría pronto... habría que hacer lo posible por aligerar la carga de aquellos con quienes uno entra en contacto; de que su actual estado de tristeza no era exclusivamente suyo, ni mucho menos, sino que la misma aflicción la sentían, y seguirían sintiéndola, montones de personas más, en todas las épocas, en todo momento...teníamos que intentar vernos los unos a los otros así... Y, sin embargo... Y, sin embargo... Estaba en plena lucha. Y aunque sus oponentes también eran seres limitados que sufrían, él debía... Aniquilarlos. Matarlos y negarles el sustento y meterlos a la fuerza de vuelta en el redil”
Y no es que no sea verdad, es que no es, ni con mucho, toda la verdad.

Y aun así, la novela tiene para mí el aroma de la libertad, de lo grotescamente tierno, de lo afectuosamente horrible, de novelas como El maestro y Margarita o El plantador de tabaco.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,167 reviews1,639 followers
July 4, 2016
One of my great passions in life is reading – and reviewing – books. But how to review this book? It renders me speechless and. I almost feel compelled to reduce my review to two words: “Read it.”

Years ago, I learned, while visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, that Abraham Lincoln was so prostrated by grief after the death of his favorite son Willie that he visited the crypt for months afterwards, opening the coffin and stroking the face and hair of his deceased son. It’s a macabre image but one that is sears at the very heart of anyone who has lost a loved one.

This image is the seed from which Lincoln in the Bardo sprouts. The Bardo, in Tibetian Buddhism, is a sort of limbo state between death and rebirth into the next life. Willie lingers in that state, unable to move forward, while his father languishes in his own bardo: needing to take the helm and steer the country forward while feeling near paralyzed by his despondency.

The book is peopled by ghosts except for three of the living: the president, the night watchman, and a woman in a home across from the graveyard. Using a Greek chorus approach, many characters speak in turn – Willie and many of his fellow deceased who cannot move on and two of the three living characters. We never hear Abraham Lincoln’s own voice.

Even more remarkably, the book not only intertwines and living and the dead, it also intertweaves history. There are direct quotes from the time (all annotated) as well as fictional quotes from the time (also “annotated”) and then there are the voices. Only the most precise historian would be able to decipher what is real and what is invented.

Yet it almost doesn’t matter because the book is not just – or even primarily -- about Abraham and Willie. It is about Every Man. And here is where it becomes remarkable. As the chorus reminds us: “Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering, our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. We must try to see each other in this way. As suffering, limited beings—Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”

George Saunders, in soaring and lyrical prose that sometimes approaches poetry, advances the theme that whatever happens to us after we die, it won’t be entirely unconnected to what we are while living. By the end of the novel, I was convinced that this was not a death story. It’s a love story – a love story for humanity and all that interconnects us.

One of the characters says, “One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story.” To understand our own story and to have the understanding and grace to tell it is truly what matters. This may be one of my favorite contemporary books ever.

Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
March 12, 2022
"Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth”—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact”—of Lincoln, in Saunders

“In some schools of Buddhism, bardo is an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth. . . . One's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena.”

In the West, we seem to have an uneasy relationship with the idea of ghosts. Increasingly, and maybe especially among intellectuals/scientists, skepticism abounds about the nature of any kind of spiritual existence. “Consciousness” is a much-debated state, especially among people who deny the notion of spirit. But consciousness after death? A myth, mainstream science says, and yet books detail personal testimony from people who have “died” and come back to life. And then, even if you are a personal skeptic, you have to admit you have some family member who (claims to?) “see dead people.” I do not see dead people, but I have a son who does, and I put it that way because even though I have never had similar experiences, and am generally an agnostic, I have reason to believe him. So I am interested in the bardo and spirits/ghosts that may inhabit the world that may travel among us (yeah, I am a fan of the X-Files, I admit it).

Abraham Lincoln is known primarily for his views (that we now know shifted over time) about slavery that led to the Civil War, and to the subsequent actions that led to the end of slavery in this country. Almost universally revered as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents, Lincoln is known to have struggled through his life with depression (though not to the extent of his wife Mary, whose mental illness eventually seriously disabled her in many ways)—Lincoln called it “the hypo” which you can read about in various sources, including Noah Van Sciver’s comics biography, The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln—and was devastated by the death of whom was said to be his “favorite” son Willie from typhus at the age of 11.

Part of this devastation and grief involved—it is reported—Lincoln’s going several times to the tomb of his young son, opening the casket and holding him. This story is about grief, but also about the ever-present specter of death in our lives, as part of our lives, and how death and grief can sometimes shape us in useful ways. It’s also very much a story speculating about "the bardo."

Narrating the events in this book that span a day or two are primarily three entertaining spirits from that bardo in the cemetery where young Willie was laid to rest in a tomb. We get to know the narrators’s stories, too. One, Hans Vollman, died, hit by a falling beam at his desk just as he “anticipated” consummating his marriage, now in the bard forever in this tumescent state, which is in a story about grief and the bardo is a detail 1) bizarre, 2) sad, and 3) used to humorous effect throughout the book. There's a lot of "off-color" humor like this in this book, which surprised me, and which I loved. There seem to be two central impulses in Saunders: the strange, or skewing of reality as many of us typically experience it, and compassion. Very much in the vein of his principal inspiration, Kurt Vonnegut.

Formally breath-taking, the tale is in part also narrated through quotations from various scholarly books, fiction, memoirs, letters, and journals about the events and period in question. Deeply researched, but not disguising the research in the fiction, but wearing it proudly on its multi-genre sleeves (more and more fiction writers now incorporate research into their fiction, but I am reminded of Tim O'Brien's In The Lake of the Woods, with its footnotes throughout).

And the novel's purpose is not to emphasize the death of one small boy necessarily over the thousands of young men who died in the war, (nor of the horrors of slavery in which this country gladly engaged), but to show the relationship between the two, how the death of his son affected Lincoln's relationship to the others, to that war, and to slavery. How his grief increased his compassion. With some hilarious ribaldry to balance all the not unexpected grief, reminiscent for me of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

Can spirits from the bardo impact the living? As Saunders has it, various spirits including his son in the bardo who have died from tragic circumstances—men, women, straight, gay, young, old—come to “co-inhabit” Lincoln and revive him to act. This may seem like a bizarre idea to read about, but not if you believe in the bardo, or spirits. (Or not if you are my son Hank!) What ensues is wonderfully and strangely moving, as if the spirits of diverse dead come to embody a President, holding in his hands the future of the country. Holding him up as he holds the country up, as it were. It's not so much a theory about the history of the Civil War as a meditation on how grief and the spirits of the dead might be thought to shape history.

Saunders is often described as an “experimental” or post-modern writer, largely eschewing traditional narrative. So: can a guy like Saunders (who is also famous for a graduation speech on what the world needs most, kindness, so consider that, too) convincingly write a book about the grief of a father for a son? Good question.

Saunders intimates how this devastating death may have shaped the President in the days in which he had to win the war--thus himself causing the death of so many young people, causing so many parents such as him to grieve--to end slavery in this country. What was the alternative? The South wins, secedes, continues the barbarous practice? Lincoln had to find the strength and courage to lead and persevere. Grief may embitter, but in this instance a loss may have led to compassion, to greater empathy, even to greatness.

"As long as I live, you will always be with me, child”—Lincoln

The Lincolns (in some of the sources) are criticized for being too lenient in their parenting, for allowing young Willie to ride his pony in the rain, for holding a lavish state dinner during the Civil War as men on the cold battlefield died, and as their son suffered from the fever that would eventually kill him. But the Lincolns are also praised for deeply loving their children. The conduct of Lincoln’s governance of the war is debated in these pages, too. Books have been written about how unpopular he was as a President for some of the time. Some quoted sources talk of him as un-Presidential—ugly, odd, sad, serendipitous in decision-making, and so on. But again, this book suggests that a tragic death may have changed Lincoln, shaped him into a compassionate leader.

So citations, quotations make up a lot of this book, contributing to a kind of multi-genre reflection on storytelling that could be probably off-puttingly strange for some readers, with all these crazy ghosts in the bardo that bear the main part of the telling, too. But I still found it ultimately moving for its content and amazing in form. Kind of breathtaking, if you take your time with it.

I both listened to this book rendered by 166 voices, including Saunders himself, itself an astonishing (and initially baffling, I'll admit it--I had no idea what the heck was going on at first, and needed to restart it two of three times!--and it was ultimately an amazing experience, but it would have been confusing had I not also read along with the actual hardcover (thanks, Jonathan!). I recommend actually reading the book on the page, I think, though the audiobook performance is almost as honored as the book itself. It was an amazing, provocative, transcendent reading experience for me. One of my favorite books of the year for certain, and you know, it's already one of my favorites ever.

P.S.: I have since read Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, about the death during the plague of Shakespeare's son, the grief from which, O'Farrell contends, shaped his writing of (perhaps) his greatest tragedy, Hamlet, so these two books would pair nicely for your literary fiction book club.
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3,219 reviews2,049 followers
October 18, 2017
This was one of the most unusual books I have ever read! I think it is what you would have to describe as a reading experience since it is told in multiple voices aided by constant footnotes attributing the text to its sources. So clever! And so much research. The author must have become a real expert on Abraham Lincoln by the time he finished writing.
Amazingly the whole fascinating book takes place over one night immediately after Lincoln's young son's funeral. Lincoln makes a last visit to his son and here the book takes a turn into the supernatural and the reader meets a host of people who reside in the cemetary, not believing they are dead, and therefore not passing over as they should.
At times the book is weird, at times very sad but always enthralling. I loved it.
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