#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE
The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented
One of Time’s Ten Best Novels of the Year • One of The Washington Post’s Ten Best Books of the Year • One of USA Today’s Ten Best Books of the Year • A New York Times Notable Book
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 returns, alone, to the crypt several times 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 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 to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review
“A masterpiece.”—Zadie Smith
Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:
We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.
Then let out a sob
Dear Father crying That was hard to see And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no
You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.
Saying all this to the worm! How I wished him to say it to me And to feel his eyes on me So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me And in I went It was no bother at all Say, it felt all right Like I somewhat belonged in
In there, held so tight, I was now partly also in Father
And could know exactly what he was
Could feel the way his long legs lay How it is to have a beard Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten some- what already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar from when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to—
It has done me good.
I believe it has.
It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.
Then Father touched his head to mine.
Dear boy, he said, I will come again. That is a promise.
In Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, the tricksy, unsettling, masterly short story writer George Saunders has taken a family tragedy the death of an American president's child and set it at the center of a national tragedy: the Civil War. Around this dark double hub he affixes a flutter of other characters from the period, more than a hundred of them, who (in a typically ingenious Saunders invention) are no longer living but do not know it. Stubbornly clinging to "memories, complaints, desires" and "raw life-force," they refuse to advance to whatever post-mortal realm may exist to receive more biddable natures. Homer or Dante might have called such unquiet souls "shades"; and in Tibetan Buddhism, the notional realm they inhabit, between this world and the next, is known as the "bardo," hence the title.
For the purposes of Saunders's novel, though, the bardo is the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, where the arrival of the president's embalmed son stirs the resident shades to commotion. His presence in their midst animates them, motivates them, and sets them awhirl. Vibrant and multi-voiced, they fling shards of color like the leaves of a pinwheel in a gale. Rarely has a novel about the dead felt so thrillingly, achingly, alive.
The president in question, of course, is Abraham Lincoln; and the boy entombed at Oak Hill was his favorite child, Willie, the third of his four sons. Today, father and son occupy such a hallowed and familiar position in American history that it can be difficult to think of them as ever having been flesh and blood. If you visit the comfortable but unshowy house in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln and his wife and sons lived until 1861 (when they moved to the White House), you feel yourself in a gallery of sepia-tone portraits, not a place where a human family jostled, worked, and played even as you climb the creaking staircase they climbed and peer into the playroom on the second floor, where the boys' antique toys spill across the carpet. Saunders takes the portraits off the walls and sets them walking.
His novel begins in the brutal month of February 1862; eleven months after the Lincolns moved to Washington D.C., ten months after the outbreak of the Civil War. As thousands of soldiers lay slain or maimed in the Battle of Fort Donelsen, their bodies "heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top of two on top of three," little Willie Lincoln was dying, probably from typhus, in his White House bedroom. On February 20th, he succumbed to his disease, aged eleven. Lincoln needed all his strength and focus to hold the country together, but the shock of his son's death unmoored him. "I never saw a man so bowed down with grief," wrote one observer. Newspapers of the day reported that the president's agony was so overwhelming that he returned to the crypt where the child was entombed, brought out his son's body, and held it in his arms, unable to bear his loss. Meanwhile, the author writes, summoning the voice of an old-time chronicler, "The nation held its breath, hopeful the President could competently reassume the wheel of the ship of state."
Saunders (who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago) first heard of Lincoln's cemetery visitation during the Clinton administration, on a visit to Washington. In an interview printed in the novel's end pages, he recalls, "As soon as I heard that, this image sprung to mind: a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà." This vision, in which a grieving Lincoln took the role of the Virgin Mary in Michelangelo's statue, gestated in Saunders for nearly a quarter century, he explains: "I just wanted to get on paper something that would evoke the feeling of pathos and beauty I'd get every time I imagined that night in 1862."
To do so, he has devised a richly hybrid work that defies easy categorization. Chapters of whirligigging dialogue between the cemetery denizens are interleaved with chapters holding excerpts from news accounts, biographies, memoirs, and diaries of the era (many actual, many invented), which ballast the fantasy with the gravitas of real occurrence. One example: while Willie was burning with fever from the sickness that would kill him, the president and Mrs. Lincoln threw a sumptuous (late) New Year's fête in the White House, attended by hundreds of foreign and national dignitaries. As guests danced and made merry under chandeliers garlanded with flowers, stuffing themselves on pheasant, venison, and oysters, and plucking sweetmeats from elaborate dioramas made of sugar, the boy suffered in his bedroom. His parents slipped away continually to stand vigil at his bedside. Partisan scandalmongers denounced the party, before and after, as decadent and frivolous "a piggish and excessive display, in a time of war, " as one fictional commenter puts it; and after the child's death, mean-spirited detractors accused the Lincolns of "heartlessness" for entertaining while their child was ill, tacitly blaming them for his demise. But those close to the family were "awe-struck" by the violence of Lincoln's heartbreak. "Great sobs choked his utterance," a seamstress remembered. "He buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame was convulsed with emotion."
In Saunders's fervid, electric imagination, Lincoln's grief-stricken visit to Willie in the crypt causes profound agitation and jealousy among the unruly bardo dwellers, who have received no such calls themselves. Hamming and pouting, bickering and boasting like actors on the stage (their words appear in the book like the script of a play, each speaker listed after his line) they attempt to assess the import of this invasion of their liminal precincts. One of the main players, an ungainly middle-aged printer named Hans Vollman (whose head was squashed by a falling beam when he was on the brink of consummating his marriage), muses, "No one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly." Another, Vollman's friend Roger Bevins III a closeted teenager who longs to be "revived" so he can "wander the earth, imbibing, smelling, sampling, loving whomever I please" wonders: "How had it felt, being held like that?" More pressingly, Bevins wants to know, had the visitor "offered any hope for the alteration of the boy's fundamental circumstance?" that circumstance being death, a state the self- deluding shades shy away from mentioning by name. If so, Bevins asks, "might said hope extend to us as well?" Willie is bewildered by the excitement he provokes in the spectral entourage. "So many were still waiting," he marvels, "A shifting mass of gray and black . . . People in the moonlight outside pushing and shouting, standing on tip-toe to see . . . Me." And above all, looming over the turbulent shadows, is the living form of the boy's father, who cannot keep away, either.
A philosophical principle runs throughout Saunders's novel and keeps the engine of his story spinning. That principle is that even the most private tragedy plays an integral part in the natural order. The shades in the bardo have stalled that natural order by dwelling with fixed intensity on their "primary reason for staying" in the world they had physically departed. But when Willie's "primary reason for staying" i.e., his father walks into Oak Hill, Vollman and Bevins and some of their disembodied cohort are stricken by something like conscience. They don't want the child to get stuck in their macabre stasis. Lincoln's grief, like a turning gear, catches in its cogs the individual passions and grievances of the querulous shades, carrying them forward along with him. They are moved to empathy by his magnanimity. Peace cannot be restored in the bardo or in the White House, or the nation, it would appear until the finality of the boy's death can be admitted by the president, by the boy himself, and by the shades as well. Saunders enlists his imaginary dead to rescue the living, and thereby, themselves. Attempting to speed this catharsis, Vollman and Bevins share space in Lincoln's head. "One must try to remember that all were suffering," Vollman thinks, channeling Lincoln's thoughts. "His current state of sorrow was not uniquely his." Lincoln (as Vollman) also believes Willie would want him to keep prosecuting the Civil War. "Our Willie would not wish us hobbled in that attempt by a vain and useless grief," he thinks.
A little more than three years after these nighttime adventures, in May 1865, the Union won the Civil War, and Willie's presumed wish was achieved. In March of that year, in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln had adjured the nation to "strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds." Having bound up his own wounds first, he knew the sacrifice this entailed. But the following month, before he could finish the work he envisioned, on the eve of peace, Lincoln was assassinated. And yet, as Lincoln in the Bardo hauntingly, movingly suggests, his death did not mean his influence had vanished; to know the full record of any life is to know that it never ends.
If you visit Springfield, Illinois, today, not the Lincoln house but the Oak Ridge Cemetery there, you will find the president's family reunited in Lincoln's Tomb, except for the oldest son, Robert, who survived his parents and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A larger-than-life bronze head of Lincoln stands at the entrance; children are told to rub the nose for luck. The nose gleams from the pressure of so many hands, stretching to touch history's patina in the living day. As superstitiously as the gaggle in the bardo, the visitors hope, through this symbolic contact, to carry away a micron-dusting of the man who could not save his son, or himself, but saved the nation; and who remains as awe-inspiring in death as in life.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based writer and translator. Her Penguin Classics translation of The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas Fils, appeared in the summer of 2013. In the fall, her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, was published by Simon & Schuster.
Reviewer: Liesl SchillingerThe Barnes & Noble Review
Saunders's short stories…tend to vacillate between two impulses: satire and black comedy, reminiscent of Nathanael West and Kurt Vonnegut; and a more empathetic mode, closer to [Sherwood] Anderson and William Trevor. Though there are moments of dark humor in some of the ghost stories here, Bardo definitely falls into the more introspective part of that spectrum. In these pages, Saunders's extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life…Saunders's novel is at its most potent and compelling when it is focused on Lincoln: a grave, deeply compassionate figure, burdened by both personal grief and the weight of the war, and captured here in the full depth of his humanity. In fact, it is Saunders's beautifully realized portrait of Lincolncaught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it werethat powers this book over its more static sections and attests to the author's own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
It's a very pleasing thing to watch a writer you have enjoyed for years reach an even higher level of achievement. To observe him or her consolidate strengths, share with us new reserves of talent and provide the inspiration that can only come from a true artist charting hidden creative territory. George Saunders pulled that trick off with Tenth of December, his 2013 book of short stories. How gratifying and unexpected that he has repeated the feat with Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel and a luminous feat of generosity and humanism…In the midst of the Civil War, saying farewell to one son foreshadows all those impending farewells to sons, the hundreds of thousands of those who will fall in the battlefields. The stakes grow, from our heavenly vantage, for we are talking about not just the ghostly residents of a few acres, but the citizens of a nationin the graveyard's slaves and slavers, drunkards and priests, soldiers of doomed regiments, suicides and virgins, are assembled a country. The wretched and the brave, and such is Saunders's magnificent portraiture that readers will recognize in this wretchedness and bravery aspects of their own characters as well. He has gathered "sweet fools" here, and we are counted among their number.The New York Times Book Review - Colson Whitehead
★ 08/08/2016Publishers Weekly
Saunders’s (Tenth of December) mesmerizing historical novel is also a moving ghost story. A Dantesque tour through a Georgetown cemetery teeming with spirits, the book takes place on a February night in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently interred 11-year-old son, Willie. The distraught Lincoln’s nocturnal visit has a “vivifying effect” on the graveyard’s spectral denizens, a gallery of grotesques who have chosen to loiter “in the Bardo”—a Tibetan term for a liminal state—rather than face final judgment. Among this community, which is still riven by racial and class divisions, are Roger Bevins III, who slashed his wrists after being spurned by a lover, and Hans Vollman, a “wooden-toothed forty-six-year-old printer” struck in the head by a falling beam shortly after marrying his young wife. As irritable, chatty, and bored in their purgatory as Beckett characters, Bevins and Vollman devote themselves to saving Willie from their fate: “The young ones,” Bevins explains, “are not meant to tarry.” Periodically interrupting the graveyard action are slyly arranged assemblies of historical accounts of the Lincoln era. These excerpts and Lincoln’s anguished musings compose a collage-like portrait of a wartime president burdened by private and public grief, mourning his son’s death as staggering battlefield reports test his (and the nation’s) resolve. Saunders’s enlivening imagination runs wild in detailing the ghosts’ bizarre manifestations, but melancholy is the novel’s dominant tone. Two sad strains, the spirits’ stubborn, nostalgic attachment to the world of the living and Lincoln’s monumental sorrow, make up a haunting American ballad that will inspire increased devotion among Saunders’s admirers. (Feb.)
“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review
“An extended national ghost story . . . As anyone who knows Saunders’s work would expect, his first novel is a strikingly original production.”—The Washington Post
“Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln . . . attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Profound, funny and vital . . . the work of a great writer.”—Chicago Tribune
“Heartbreaking and hilarious . . . For all its divine comedy, Lincoln in the Bardo is also deep and moving.”—USA Today
“Along with the wonderfully bizarre, empathy abounds in Lincoln in the Bardo.”—Time
“There are moments that are almost transcendentally beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl.”—NPR
“Lincoln in the Bardo is part historical novel, part carnivalesque phantasmagoria. It may well be the most strange and brilliant book you’ll read this year.”—Financial Times
“A masterpiece.”—Zadie SmithFrom the Publisher
“Ingenious . . . Saunders—well on his way toward becoming a twenty-first-century Twain—crafts an American patchwork of love and loss, giving shape to our foundational sorrows.”—Vogue
“Saunders is the most humane American writer working today.”—Harper’s Magazine
“The novel beats with a present-day urgency—a nation at war with itself, the unbearable grief of a father who has lost a child, and a howling congregation of ghosts, as divided in death as in life, unwilling to move on.”—Vanity Fair
“A brilliant, Buddhist reimagining of an American story of great loss and great love . . . Saunders has written an unsentimental novel of Shakespearean proportions, gorgeously stuffed with tragic characters, bawdy humor, terrifying visions, throat-catching tenderness, and a galloping narrative, all twined around the luminous cord connecting a father and son and backlit by a nation engulfed in fire.”—Elle
“Wildly imaginative.”—Marie Claire
“Mesmerizing . . . Dantesque . . . A haunting American ballad.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Exhilarating . . . Ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read, except that the grotesque humor, pathos, and, ultimately, human kindness at its core mark it as a work that could come only from Saunders.”—The National
★ 10/01/2016Library Journal
Short story master Saunders (Tenth of December) eagerly awaited first novel may not be what fans of his dystopic, sf-like short stories have expected. It begins with snippets of historical fact, accompanied by citations—presumably both actual and fictionalized—that set the novel at the time of the death of Abraham Lincoln's son Willie. The entries shift to quips made by individuals, and we realize we are hearing conversations among spirits that haunt the Washington graveyard where Willie is buried. When Lincoln returns for a grieving nighttime visit, these apparitions attempt to reunite Willie's spirit with his father. Bardo is a term from Tibetan Buddhism referring to the transitional state between death and the next realm; the wraiths in this amorphous space chatter, float about, see visions, and change shape in disorienting ways. Yet they are confined, both by their previous lives and by a fear of final judgment, of which Saunders provides a truly horrifying glimpse. VERDICT A stunningly powerful work, both in its imagery and its intense focus on death, this remarkable work of historical fiction gives an intimate view of 19th-century fears and mores through the voices of the bardo's denizens. [See Prepub Alert, 6/29/16.]—Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
★ 2016-05-03Kirkus Reviews
Short-story virtuoso Saunders' (Tenth of December, 2013, etc.) first novel is an exhilarating change of pace. The bardo is a key concept of Tibetan Buddhism: a middle, or liminal, spiritual landscape where we are sent between physical lives. It's also a fitting master metaphor for Saunders' first novel, which is about suspension: historical, personal, familial, and otherwise. The Lincoln of the title is our 16th president, sort of, although he is not yet dead. Rather, he is in a despair so deep it cannot be called mere mourning over his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862. Saunders deftly interweaves historical accounts with his own fragmentary, multivoiced narration as young Willie is visited in the netherworld by his father, who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, at least temporarily. But the sneaky brilliance of the book is in the way Saunders uses these encounters—not so much to excavate an individual's sense of loss as to connect it to a more national state of disarray. 1862, after all, was the height of the Civil War, when the outcome was far from assured. Lincoln was widely seen as being out of his depth, "a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis." Among Saunders' most essential insights is that, in his grief over Willie, Lincoln began to develop a hard-edged empathy, out of which he decided that "the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest." This is a hard truth, insisting that brutality now might save lives later, and it gives this novel a bitter moral edge. For those familiar with Saunders' astonishing short fiction, such complexity is hardly unexpected, although this book is a departure for him stylistically and formally; longer, yes, but also more of a collage, a convocation of voices that overlap and argue, enlarging the scope of the narrative. It is also ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us. Lincoln, after all, has become a shade now, like all the ghosts who populate this book. "Strange, isn't it?" one character reflects. "To have dedicated one's life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one's life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one's labors utterly forgotten?" With this book, Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur.