Not all five-star reviews are equal. It’s just a fact of life that you deal with as a reviewer – although grades and ratings are helpful, they’re not the be-all and end-all. No, the best you can do is choose a rating, and then hope to explain what the book/movie really deserves. And that’s doubly so in the case of George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Because I’ve given five-star rankings on this site, more than a few times, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a book I’ve read in recent years that moved me, floored me, stunned me, and simply blew me away like Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s not just the best book of the last several years; it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read, period, full stop.
It’s going to be hard to convey the experience of Lincoln in the Bardo in a simple review – at least, in a way that doesn’t either reduce it to its barest outline, or explain it in a way that doesn’t make it sound pretentious and insufferably complicated. Taken at its simplest, Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s time of grief after the death of his young son Willie, near the onset of the Civil War; taken as a novel, it’s a tale told through 100+ narrators, from distorted ghosts to primary sources (letters from the Civil War) to academic texts both real and fictional, all of which work together to tell a story about grief, war, public responsibility, and leadership. The former sounds simple and possibly saccharine; the latter sounds daunting and exhausting.
The truth, as you might imagine, comes somewhere in the middle. It undeniably takes a couple of chapters to get into Saunders’ rhythms, watching as he weaves in and out of his historical texts (both real and imagined), and slowly establishes his various narrators. And yes, as the book builds towards various “big” moments, the result can be overwhelming sometimes, creating a cacophonous effect that’s hard to escape. And yes, more importantly, this is a book about grief in its most primal form, as a man grieves for his son, who died before he ever truly lived.
And yet, none of that comes close to truly capturing the experience of Saunders’ book, which clearly proves the maxim that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Saunders’ miscellaneous excerpts from historical documents and academic texts, for instance, do more than simply setting the stage of the novel; they allow us to immerse ourselves into the difficult political situation of Abraham Lincoln, a president dealing with an unthinkable conflict that was far from popular, as well as the bloody guilt that came with each new battle report. In Saunders’ hands, we don’t just read about the war; we find ourselves plunged into that time period, seeing both the ardent supporters and the fervent opponents of the war, to say nothing of the wide range of opinions on Lincoln, whose beatified reputation is stripped away with a reminder of how he was received by his contemporaries.
But it’s Saunders’ bardo – the transitional state between life and death – in which Lincoln in the Bardo truly soars. Populating his graveyard with a slew of figures unable to leave their lives behind, Saunders fills his pages with Dante-like invention, letting figures be altered by their lives in poetic fashion. (One man, who began to see the beauty of the world as he died, is now entirely composed of eyes looking in every direction; another, who died awaiting his first night with his wife, finds his spectral form to be in a constantly aroused state, to an absurd degree.) Each provides their own unique voice, their own concerns, and Saunders widely allows them to be from all classes, all genders and sexualities, all races, turning this from the story of one man’s grief and into a universal exploration of regret, loss, and life. Whether it’s hearing the stories of regretful suicides, anger at children who abandoned them, concern for their businesses that they built – whatever their loss, Saunders brings it to life, turning the book into something more universal than one man’s story.
And yet, this is Lincoln’s story – and by extension, a fascinatingly American story. Here is a man who is mourning the loss of his son, even as the war he’s overseeing sent so many other people’s childrens to their own deaths – a fact that Lincoln is increasingly unable to forget, and which haunts him. At the same time, this is a father, grieving for his son, and there is something painful and heartrending in how Saunders approaches this, dealing with it in degrees, with both father and son unable to move on from this loss.
All of this makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound daunting, and that’s a shame – not only is it surprisingly accessible, it’s also surprisingly funny, with Saunders’ dry wit and ability to inject silliness and anarchy into his stories often in clear view. And in a lesser book, all of that – the humor, the grief, the Civil War allegories, the personal stories, the slew of narrators, the historical documents, the guilt, the supernatural elements, the poetic justice – might overwhelm the book, or turn it into chaos. But in Saunders’ able hands, all of it works together, creating something that reads and feels like nothing else you’ve ever read. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking; it’s profound and it’s childish; it’s complex and it’s simplistic; it’s universal and it’s incredibly specific. But more than that, it’s also truly, astonishingly beautiful – a work of art that explores grief, loss, and guilt as parts of the human experience. It grapples with big questions about what it all means, and it tries to find answers, and it does so while telling an incredible story and bringing to life a world unlike anything else in fiction.
It is, in short, a masterpiece of the highest order, and one of the finest books I’ve ever read. And I can’t wait to read it all again.