Lincoln in the Bardo

Any critique of the overtly postmodern debut novel by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, should include praise for the book’s complex and aptly constructed montage of human voices. Set in Civil War-era America, with much of it taking place in the “bardo”—a Tibetan Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth—the novel’s varying points of view depict Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to reconcile his presidential duties with the grief of losing his young son Willie, just as the lost souls inhabiting the bardo struggle to accept their fate in the afterlife. Lincoln in the Bardo is a fragmented, at times disturbing, tale told in the letters, brief dialogue and observations of an extensive cast of characters—some fictional, and some historical. However, as the meaning of truth and justice continues to vary wildly across the historically divisive American political landscape, Saunders’ radical departure from traditional prose forms is justified, providing a glimpse of a new common truth that gives equal voice to the living and the dead, to the wealthy and the poor, to the past and to the present.