Short-story virtuoso Saunders' (Tenth of December, 2013, etc.) first novel is an exhilarating change of pace.
The bardo is a key concept of Tibetan Buddhism: a middle, or liminal, spiritual landscape where we are sent between physical lives. It's also a fitting master metaphor for Saunders’ first novel, which is about suspension: historical, personal, familial, and otherwise. The Lincoln of the title is our 16th president, sort of, although he is not yet dead. Rather, he is in a despair so deep it cannot be called mere mourning over his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862. Saunders deftly interweaves historical accounts with his own fragmentary, multivoiced narration as young Willie is visited in the netherworld by his father, who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, at least temporarily. But the sneaky brilliance of the book is in the way Saunders uses these encounters—not so much to excavate an individual’s sense of loss as to connect it to a more national state of disarray. 1862, after all, was the height of the Civil War, when the outcome was far from assured. Lincoln was widely seen as being out of his depth, “a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.” Among Saunders’ most essential insights is that, in his grief over Willie, Lincoln began to develop a hard-edged empathy, out of which he decided that “the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest.” This is a hard truth, insisting that brutality now might save lives later, and it gives this novel a bitter moral edge. For those familiar with Saunders’ astonishing short fiction, such complexity is hardly unexpected, although this book is a departure for him stylistically and formally; longer, yes, but also more of a collage, a convocation of voices that overlap and argue, enlarging the scope of the narrative. It is also ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us. Lincoln, after all, has become a shade now, like all the ghosts who populate this book. “Strange, isn’t it?” one character reflects. “To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labors utterly forgotten?”
With this book, Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur.