Smart, and funny as hell, George Saunders earned his cult leader status as an unconventional and revered short story teller. And now for something completely different…a Saunders novel. If you reduced the white space and compressed a few chapters, is Lincoln in the Bardo really that much longer that Pastoralia? (The story, not the collection.) Not really. Surely not many, if any, multiples on the work count. Bardo is smart and its funny and its longer, but it is through its unique structure that it levels up on some of Saunders’ prior work. Whether it meets the bright-line of a Booker Prize winner, that is debatable, but also decided.
The story is of the loss of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie to typhoid fever in 1862. Willie was all boy and only 11-years old. His death was a crushing blow to his family. Lincoln, already hardened via early Civil War casualty lists, was periodically incapacitated with grief. Mary Lincoln almost went mad. Amidst this background reports circulated about Lincoln making late night visits to Willie’s tomb in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Contemporaries even speculated that during these visits, Lincoln entered the vault and pulled Willie out of his coffin to hold him. That is the backbone of Saunders tale. From there he introduces a cacophony of ghosts and even deader references. The book is busy and its ingenious.
Will Honest Abe’s love keep Willie’s spirit in that boneyard, or will its more heroic denizens be able to move Willie on. You already know the answer, but Lincoln in the Bardo worth the experience