Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders has been renowned over the last two decades for his short stories. Since we are running a review of the book by Brent Schnipke in our Lent 2017 magazine, I asked Brett Wiley to write a short reflection that was less review and more setting the novel in the context of his earlier work…
By W. Brett Wiley
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, like many of the stories in earlier collections, creates a strange version of the real world, but, remarkably, it all seems entirely plausible. The novel, Saunders’ first, meets Aristotle’s famous requirement for art: “a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” The impossible is easy to identify. The novel is populated, mostly, by ghosts of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery who, as the title of the novel suggests, are in the bardo, a liminal space between death and rebirth described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The novel opens with three main characters, all ghosts, welcoming Willie Lincoln—the sixteenth president’s second son who died on February 20, 1862—to the afterlife. The historical event of Willie’s death suggests that the book is historical fiction, but it is not. In fact, like many of Saunders’ short stories, the genre is difficult to nail down. Previous stories have taken unusual forms including a lab report, a corporate complaint letter response, a memo, and diary entries.