Summary: the restless dead, and their thoughts on the mid-19th century state of the union
In certain schools of Buddhism the “Bardo” is an intermediate place between death and rebirth or heaven. It is into this Purgatory that William Wallace Lincoln, third son of Abraham, arrives in 1862.
Unlike the other children who arrive there Willie lingers, longing to see his father again. Some of the older ghosts – a young man regretful of his suicide, a middle-aged man pining for his young wife, a elderly minister fearful of what lies beyond – worry about what will befall Willie if he stays too long. So they take it upon themselves to help the young fellow move on. As a result they encounter the devastated president, come to visit the grave of his beloved son.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange book. Literary critics call it “experimental”. Portions of it, those providing the historical context, are edited from the vast literature of Lincoln and the Civil War. Into this context George Saunders creates a sort of American “Cré na Cille”, populating his narrative with the ghostly denizens of the graveyard where Willie lies.
A cross-section of American society from independence until 1862 is here: white supremacists dwelling alongside the slaves dumped in a common pit; wealthy misers rubbing ectoplasm with alcoholic down-and-outs. They reflect the nation at the moment of crisis that Lincoln confronts. Their stories, their memories of their past lives and their gossip on the current scandals of the graveyard society, are by turns hilarious and shocking, always entertaining and ultimately gripping.
At first President Lincoln’s presence in the midst of this cacophony of voices seems almost incidental. But it is not. Rather his presence is catalytic, provoking profound changes to the social order of the Bardo just as he is about to lead profound changes to the order of the Union.
Lincoln may sometimes be thought of as one of the last fatalities of the Civil War. But he wasn’t that. George Floyd may hold that dreadful distinction at the time of writing, but of course that won’t last for long. But Lincoln, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, offers a glimpse of how much better America can be when it confronts its own original sins of slavery and genocide. That idealism echoes in this book.