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Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders

December 29, 2017

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This is the kind of topic that might come to an author as a bet, or perhaps a random challenge from a fiction writer’s workshop. Write the story of Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie in 1862. Employ a cast of dozens of quirky dead souls who describe the scenes from the “other side” in the style of a Greek chorus. Everything will take place in the cemetery. Make it sad. Make it exciting. Make it funny. And make it great.

There is a story behind the inspiration of this crazy book, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Here is Saunders in The Guardian:

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt,” decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

 I read this book because of the glowing reviews and the George Saunders on the cover. I didn’t know much about it. When I realized what was going on, I thought Wait…what? followed by Wow, he’s pulling it off.

There is so much to like in this book beyond the ambition. The characters, even mostly as ghosts, have wonderful personalities and the dialogue between them is smart, charming, funny, full of wit. There is also the character of Abraham Lincoln himself, who comes to life as a father in the throes of the deepest grief, struggling to understand the loss he has suffered. “It was an error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever,” he laments over the body of his dear boy.

Coincidentally, I’m writing this from an Airbnb in Springfield, Illinois, only a few blocks from Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. There are photos of Lincoln on the wall here, murals on the sides of buildings everywhere in town. It’s crazy to think that the guy revered as one of our greatest leaders, whose face is on our money, could inspire this odd but beautiful book 150 years later.

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If it seems too weird to start here, maybe try a story from Tenth of December, Saunders’ lauded 2013 short story collection. I recommend “Sticks” which is only two paragraphs long.

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