Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
“Vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical, without manners, without social grace…” As America's literary voices steel themselves to document the shockwaves of Donald Trump's improbable ascendancy, Saunders makes his long-form debut with a vivid account of a day in the life of a leader of less questionable stature. However, the text book references that form, in part, the novel’s audacious construction, reveal a president not entirely as conscientious as history would have you believe.
A dizzying chronicle of the unexpected death of Lincoln's young son Willie, Saunders inverts traditional musings on mortality. Take life seriously he insists, and death, perhaps less so. Lincoln in the Bardo is deeply moving and very, very funny. The narrative is fleshed out by the disembodied voices of those who shepherd Willie through the 'bardo' (an intermediate state between this life and the next) and keep solemn watch over his grieving father. Those voices – a deeply characterised array of madcap provocateurs and wry commentators – fire a story (ostensibly) about death into uproarious life.
The darkly comic pairing of Roger Bevins III and Hans Volmann, who track events with wry detachment, and the Reverend Everley Thomas (who inadvertently discovers the true nature of their plight and that his actions in “that previous realm” will have unexpected consequences), lead a deftly drawn supporting cast. Throughout, Saunders’ elegant, forceful prose elevates his surreal tragedy. It is a unique and uncommonly powerful re-staging of across-the-great-divide norms.