How to Read George Saunders' “Lincoln in the Bardo”

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo, the novel by George Saunders, has become one of those books everyone is talking about. It spent two weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and has been the subject of numerous hot takes, think pieces, and other literary essays. Not many debut novelists get this kind of adulation and attention.

Not all debut novelists are George Saunders. Saunders has already made his reputation as a modern master of the short story—which explains his low profile, even among avid readers. Short stories usually don’t get much attention unless your name is Hemingway or Stephen King—but the story has been having a bit of a Moment in recent years as Hollywood has discovered that you can base entire feature films on shorter works, as they did with the Oscar-nominated Arrival (based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang).

Saunders is a delightful writer who combines a sharp intelligence and wit with science fiction tropes and a keen understanding of how people live and think to produce unexpected, unusual, and often thrilling stories that go in directions no one can possibly claim to have predicted. Before you rush off to buy a copy of Lincoln in the Bardo, however, a word of warning: Saunders is deep stuff. You can’t—or at least you shouldn’t—just dive in. Saunders has created a novel that really is different from any other that has come before, and here are a few tips on how to read it.

Read His Shorts

This is a novel, it really is, but Saunders honed his craft in the field of short stories, and it shows. Saunders divides his story up in smaller stories—the basic plot is that Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has just died of fever in 1862 (which really happened). Willie’s soul is now in the Bardo, a state of being in-between death and what comes later. Adults can remain in the Bardo indefinitely through sheer willpower, but if children don’t shuffle off quickly they start to suffer horribly. When the President visits his son and cradles his body, Willie decides not to move on—and the other ghosts in the graveyard decide they must convince him to go for his own good.

Each ghost gets to tell stories, and Saunders further divides the book into other snippets. Essentially, reading the novel is like reading dozens of interconnected short stories—so bone up on Saunders’ short work. For starters, check out CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which is not at all what you think it is. Two others you can’t miss would be 400 Pound CEO (in the same collection) and The Semplica Girl Diaries, in his collection Tenth of December.

Don’t Panic

Some folks might be tempted to assume this is too much for them—too much history, too much literary trickery, too many characters. Saunders doesn’t hold your hand, that’s true, and the opening of the book is deep, lush, and extremely detailed. But don’t panic—Saunders knows that what he’s done here might be overwhelming to some, and he’s structured the book with alternating waves of energy—highs and lows. Make it through the first few dozen pages and you’ll start to see how Saunders offers up a moment to catch your breath as he slides in and out of the main narrative.

Watch for the Fake News

When Saunders dives out of the narrative, he offers up the personal stories of the ghosts as well as glimpses of Lincoln’s life before and after his son died. While these scenes are offered up realistically, with the dry tone of historical fact, they’re not all true; Saunders mixes real events with imagined ones pretty freely, and without warning. So don’t assume that anything Saunders describes in the book as part of history really happened.

Ignore the Citations

Those historic snippets are often offered with citations, which serve to both burnish that sense of realism (even for the imagined moments) and root the story in the real 19th century. But a curious thing will happen if you simply ignore the credits—the veracity of the scenes ceases to matter, and the voice of history becomes just another ghost telling its tale, which is a little mind blowing if you allow yourself to sit with it a while. Skip the citations and the book will be even more entertaining, and a little easier to read.

George Saunders is a genius, and Lincoln in the Bardo will no doubt remain one of those books that people want to talk about for years to come. The only question is, will Saunders come back with another long-form story, or will he go back to short stories?