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March 1, 2017

American Anxiety in Saunders’s Novel Lincoln in the Bardo

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Though many authors have tackled the character of Abraham Lincoln, few are able to dive into the complex psyche of one of America’s most beloved presidents like George Saunders. In his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders brilliantly captures a deeply emotional story between father and son with a balance of poise and comedy. The novel had potential to fall flat due to its unconventional structure, but Saunders’s risk-taking pays off and works to tell a truly unique and engaging narrative that certainly makes the novel one of Saunders’s best executed works to date.

George Saunders is a renowned short story writer commended for tackling dystopian satire and straying from literary convention. A recipient of both the inaugural Folio Prize and the Story Prize for his tongue-curling cleverness and comical narratives, Saunders modestly embarked on the next milestone in his career by writing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, released February 14th, 2017. Saunders’s signature wit has typically harnessed enough fuel to power through emotionally charged, and, at times, wacky short stories and novellas, and his first crack at a novel was no exception. Saunders’s long-awaited novel poses as historical fiction and is centered on the untimely death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. In his signature style and a granular structure, Saunders delivers a seemingly disjointed narrative told through the voices of historical figures, fictional characters, purgatorial spirits and other published authors documenting Lincoln’s life. In writing through the perspective of such a variety of characters, Saunders puts his reader in the minds of speakers with diverse points of view that overlap groups and identities, invoking sometimes-contradictory accounts of one of America’s most notable presidents’ personality and life experience.

The story is navigated primarily through the perspectives of three distinctively estranged spirits: a nineteenth century printer, a extra-limbed and closeted gay man and a surprisingly clear-sighted reverend. These spirits live in the “Bardo,” a Buddhist term that Saunders employs to describe the period between a ghost’s separation from its body and its departure for whatever sort of afterlife that is yet to come. Saunders’s Bardo is located in Oak Hill Cemetery where Willie’s body is temporarily resting, and becomes the setting for the spirits’ encounter with post-mortem Willie’s similarly detached spirit. These fallible, yet compelling characters, among the other diverse spirits that appear in the Bardo, exhibit a profound denial of their position, but find 11-year-old Willie an endearing newcomer to their middle-state, and aim to help him reconnect with his father, who returns to visit Willie’s “sick-box,” his coffin.

While Abraham Lincoln’s character says very little, his name is certainly eye-catching on the page, and allows him to rise as one of, if not the most, central character in the narrative. The novel’s distinct voices orbit a single narrative filled with profound poignancy that neither glorifies, nor vilifies, one of America’s most-esteemed presidents. Rather, Saunders deflates our view of the president and portrays him with an ambivalent attitude by turning Lincoln into a sympathetic character filled with human emotions of guilt, anxiety, sadness and joy. Lincoln, a paragon of American-ness, reconciles his own suffering from the loss of his son with the realization that all are suffering. This message underlies the major themes of freedom and bondage, the material and the spiritual and the American history that traverses contemporary political affairs. Lincoln’s internal monologue prompted by his interaction with Willie’s body and told through the dubious accounts of spirits of the Bardo, is largely a call to empathy and reflection. It is Saunders’s unique storytelling prowess that allows such a layered story to tell such a simple message.

Victoria Horrocks is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at vrh23@cornell.edu

2 thoughts on “American Anxiety in Saunders’s Novel Lincoln in the Bardo

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