Barrelhouse Reviews: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

By Dylan Brown



Random House 368 pages, $28.00

Random House
368 pages, $28.00

Last summer George Saunders went on the Trump campaign trail, publishing a generous and insightful two-part essay in The New Yorker covering the candidate’s relationship with his supporters. Because of this, and the timing of the election, I found myself constantly thinking of Trump while I read Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ debut as a novelist.

The only thing Trump has in common with Abraham Lincoln is that they both married younger women. Trump’s recent visit to the Lincoln memorial provides a fitting image: a petty and hateful man who believes in nothing but himself, dwarfed by the magnitude of a thoughtful, flawed, loving, and cunning man.

The opening pages of the novel show Hans Vollman, newly married, but soon-to-be ghost, as a timid and self-conscious man afraid of moving too quickly with his new wife. It’s a sympathetic portrayal, marked by introspection and empathy, echoing Saunders’ later depictions of Lincoln. By all appearances it is opposite of whatever “moving on her like a bitch” entails.

It’s certainly possible to read the novel without thinking about Trump. None of these connections seem intentional—Random House announced the book a year ago—and Trump would not come to mind had the election relegated him to the dumpster fire of reality TV. Still, it’s a fascinating example of how current events shape our reading, and make a work of fiction more relevant or prescient than it might have been in the first place. In a book populated almost exclusively by ghosts, Trump’s specter doesn’t loom as much as it lurks, in unexpected moments, in contrasts of Lincoln’s actions and reflections in the sex-obsessed ghosts who appear periodically.

Saunders has crafted something surprising here, with only a sprinkling of the Saunders-ese voice that’s become a hallmark of his brilliant short stories. Saunders isn’t afraid to experiment throughout and uses two modes throughout the novel: one in which actual historical accounts are mixed with fictionalized accounts. This marriage is something David Shields argued for a few years ago in Reality Hunger, where Shields mashed together unattributed quotes alongside his own snippets of prose. Saunders shows how blurring can anchor a work that’s in many ways ethereal—open the book to any page and you’ll quickly realize this novel does not provide the type of guideposts found in more traditional narratives—all of which is to the work’s credit.

The other mode is told from the perspective of ghosts, mainly Roger Bevins III and The Reverend Everly Thomas. The only characters who are alive are the groundskeeper in the graveyard and Lincoln, who himself has a ghost-like presence as he mourns the death of his son, Willie. For most of the novel his son is with other ghosts lingering in the bardo—Tibetan for “transitional state.” They, or most of them anyway, attempt to help Willie when they realize who he is and the danger they’re in, which involves tentacles and surly angels. It’s not a perfect novel (the characterization feels somewhat light at times) but it is without question a sincere and admirable one, full of risks, compassion, and startling images. 

Recent photos of Saunders show him fashioning his beard after Chekhov’s. It’s a wide goatee set below a bushy mustache. He frequently mentions Chekhov as an inspiration and Lincoln in the Bardo is set during the same time period (Chekhov was born five years before Lincoln died). Stylistically, the writing is similar too, prizing brevity and Viktor Shklovsky’s dictum to, “make it strange.” Early in the novel The Reverend Everly Thomas narrates, “After perhaps thirty minutes the unkempt man left the white stone home and stumbled away into the darkness.” It’s a simple sentence, not overly descriptive, but the strangeness of describing a crypt as a “home” brings to mind the White House and creates an unsettling portrait of Lincoln with the “sick-box” that holds his son’s corpse. It follows one of the novel’s most affecting moments, in which Lincoln pulls Willie from his coffin to hold and speak with him. I tried to picture Trump doing the same, showing vulnerability, cradling a dead child. I couldn’t do it, and that contrast was perhaps the most frightening of them all.

Saunders has given us here a beautifully strange and haunting novel. It is without a doubt his darkest work—it takes place in a graveyard at night after all—but there’s hope in it too, something I suspect we’ll need more of in the coming years.


Dylan Brown is a graduate of Oregon State's MFA program. His work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Brevity, The Collagist, and elsewhere. He's taught at Oregon State and Sonoma State and currently lives in Los Angeles.