Saunders does a fine job—and has a fine time—quickening his little necropolis to literary life ... Although readers may feel that Lincoln in the Bardo has little in common with the author’s dystopian short stories, there’s actually quite a lot of similarity in preoccupation and technique. Saunders often pays imaginative attention to corporations, bureaucracies, and nomenclature, and he has a predilection for creepy theme parks...In Saunders’s hands, Oak Hill, too, is a kind of theme park, with various rules and precincts and spectacles, as well as opportunities for the author’s parodic gifts ... Even with this granular structure and its comic interludes, the book gathers a satisfying momentum, enough to reveal what Saunders has called, in one of his essays, a novel’s Apparent Narrative Rationale—what the writer and the reader have tacitly agreed the book is ‘about' ... he also elects to venture into Lincoln’s awareness and perceptions, and, when he does, it’s an all-in enterprise, a physical incursion undertaken not only to extract characterizing thoughts but also to influence them...Saunders is giving us an imaginative truth in keeping with a number of startling and benevolent short stories he has written, ones that end with characters reaching a low point and then pulling themselves back up.
Lincoln in the Bardo is part-historical novel, part-carnivalesque phantasmagoria. It may well be the most strange and brilliant book you’ll read this year ... Saunders presents Willie’s death as a turning point for Lincoln — will he be able to move on from his grief, to draw on it as a source of strength in the battle ahead, or will it crush him, the acuity of his own loss meaning that he sees Willie in every dead soldier? ... At a time when his office is held by a monstrous buffoon, there’s enormous power in this image of the noble, broken, moral president, who wrests such a brave message from his son’s life and death: 'Love, love, I know what you are' ... This is a novel that’s so intimate and human, so profound, that it seems like an act of grace.
...a luminous feat of generosity and humanism ... The souls crowd around this uncanny child. As the cast grows, so does our perspective; the novel’s concerns expand, and we see this human business as an angel does, looking down. In the midst of the Civil War, saying farewell to one son foreshadows all those impending farewells to sons, the hundreds of thousands of those who will fall in the battlefields. The stakes grow, from our heavenly vantage, for we are talking about not just the ghostly residents of a few acres, but the citizens of a nation — in the graveyard’s slaves and slavers, drunkards and priests, soldiers of doomed regiments, suicides and virgins, are assembled a country. The wretched and the brave, and such is Saunders’s magnificent portraiture that readers will recognize in this wretchedness and bravery aspects of their own characters as well. He has gathered 'sweet fools' here, and we are counted among their number ... The narrator is a curator, arranging disparate sources to assemble a linear story. It may take a few pages to get your footing, depending. The more limber won’t be bothered. We’ve had plenty of otherworldly choruses before, from Grover’s Corners to Spoon River, and with so many walking dead in the pop culture nowadays, why not a corresponding increase in the talking dead? Are the nonfiction excerpts — from presidential historians, Lincoln biographers, Civil War chroniclers — real or fake? Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later ... the war here is a crucible for a heroic American identity: fearful but unflagging; hopeful even in tragedy; staggering, however tentatively, toward a better world ... events sometimes conspire to make a work of art, like a novel set in the past, supremely timely. In describing Lincoln’s call to action, Saunders provides an appeal for his limbo denizens — for citizens everywhere — to step up and join the cause.
...a strikingly original production, a divisively odd book bound either to dazzle or alienate readers ... This is a book that confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like. It seems at first a clever clip-job, an extended series of brief quotations from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, personal testimonies and later scholars, each one meticulously attributed...But quickly Lincoln in the Bardo teaches us how to read it. The quotations gathered from scores of different voices begin to cohere into a hypnotic conversation that moves with the mysterious undulations of a flock of birds ... Indeed, the ghosts threaten to overtake the novel. Clearly, Saunders enjoys their macabre antics — but the heart of the story remains Abraham Lincoln, the shattered father who rides alone to the graveyard at night to caress the head of his lifeless boy...It’s at this point in the novel that Saunders’s deep compassion shines through most clearly.
The supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times — the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning — but their voices gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition ... In these pages, Saunders’s extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life ... Saunders’s novel is at its most potent and compelling when it is focused on Lincoln: a grave, deeply compassionate figure, burdened by both personal grief and the weight of the war, and captured here in the full depth of his humanity. In fact, it is Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln — caught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were — that powers this book over its more static sections and attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.
...one of the strangest and most remarkable books about love, loss, and the afterlife ... Fans of Saunders’s stories — some of the most original work in American history — have craved this book for a long time, and he has not disappointed. Saunders has disassembled the novel as a form and put it back together in a fascinating shape. Dozens of voices spread out across the page like floating spirits ... Saunders veers compellingly between high and low, hideous and heartbreaking. Raped slaves run into the racist generals who fought against their freedom. Two men enraptured by each other’s flattery conjoin in an endless circular back-patting ... In the past two decades, in short stories and essays largely about America, Saunders has often revealed characters in their worst moments and managed to look upon them with love and forgiveness. Lincoln in the Bardo, for all its zooming silliness, manages to do something similar on the level of metaphysics. It finds in reasons grand and grotesque a similarity between our greed to live and our need to die.
It’s a premise loaded with pathos but thin on dramatic tension. Of course, there’s the noise of history just outside the frame, the war raging beyond the Potomac. But what provides the novel with its action, with most of its characters, with its moral weight, is the bardo itself. There are rules that govern this spiritual interzone, but in effect it’s a free range for Saunders’s imagination ... Whether Willie Lincoln will leave the bardo is something of a MacGuffin, however. What, then, is this novel about? In whole, it’s Saunders’s Old American Book of the Dead. The novel belongs less to the Lincolns than to the ghosts who tell the story ... The effects of this polyphonic approach can be dizzying. It’s also disappointing. Saunders is one of the most thrilling prose writers alive. Across several collections he’s reinvented his style many times, but many of his classic stories we hear the voice of a good-hearted and fucked-up American loser...I can’t be alone in having hoped to hear some version of that voice blown out and sustained over the course of a novel ... [a] visionary and suspenseful but also sentimental and cartoonish novel.
In anyone else's hands, this premise would be too ridiculous to generate pathos, but Saunders has long excelled at creating alternate realities ... Though Bardo is a novel, in many ways Saunders continues to capitalize on his skills as a miniaturist. The individual ghosts' monologues function as short stories unto themselves, sometimes freestanding, sometimes doled out in increments and interspersed with other characters' speeches. Saunders churns out ghost after ghost with virtuosic brio, endowing each with a unique voice and reason for being trapped in limbo ... These images start out vivid but then somehow turn vague. It is hard, even for Saunders, to maintain his typical level of absurdity, his stylistic comfort zone, over the course of an entire novel. The ghosts don't often describe themselves or one another and are tricky to keep in the mind's eye as one reads. Saunders struggles with some of the more unwieldy aspects of supernatural-world building ... The interior monologues that we overhear as Lincoln caresses his dead son's face and hands are almost unbearably sad. His struggles are all the more affecting in contrast with the ghosts' stories. Theirs, while perpetually replayed, are over. His suffering, his chances, and the consequences of his choices are still all works in progress ... Saunders takes a delightfully playful, salad-bar approach to various versions of limbo previously depicted in fiction ... It was poignant and bizarre to read this book in the week following the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, but not for the reasons I'd initially thought it might be. The brand of absurdist dystopia that was once synonymous with 'George Saunders story' has been rendered obsolete: Stories about a corporatized world full of near-slave workers ruled by murderous idiots are now impossible to read as satire, and are becoming tougher to distinguish from realist fiction. Soon they will be impossible to distinguish from reportage. It's lucky, then, that Saunders has turned his gifts toward historical fiction, giving us a glimpse of an imagined past when our country was divided yet eventually reunited...This long meditation on the importance of having someone wise and thoughtful and deeply sad at the helm of our democracy seems to be arriving just a moment too late.
Lincoln in the Bardo doesn’t resemble any of his previous books apart from the thematic concerns already noted, nor does it really resemble anyone else’s novel, present or past. In fact, I have never read anything like it ... It is as if Saunders had somehow grafted the oral history mode of George Plimpton’s book on Edie Sedgwick onto the historical facts surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie and then decided to extend that technique into the afterlife ... The events of the last one hundred pages...comprise some of the most remarkable American fiction writing it has been my pleasure to read in the last few years ... The wonder of Lincoln in the Bardo is that the treatment of that subject is neither morbid nor lugubrious. Besides, in the afterlife there is no such thing as realism. With this book, George Saunders has managed to do something entirely original, with a narrative that’s wonderfully odd, funny, and very moving.
This cacophony, and the grotesquerie of the deformed spirits, lends the novel a texture that is superficially unlike the work that has made Saunders popular, stories that often play off the tension between a casual vernacular voice and a surreal situation. Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a blend of Victorian gothic with one of the more sfx-heavy horror franchises ... In Lincoln in the Bardo, the immense pathos of the father mourning his son, all the while burdened with affairs of state, gives these sections of the book a depth that isn’t always there when Lincoln is off stage. The busy doings of the spirits are entertaining, and Saunders voices them with great virtuosity, but the tug of Lincoln’s grief is sometimes too strong for them not to feel like a distraction ... Lincoln in the Bardo is a performance of great formal daring. It perhaps won’t be to everyone’s taste, but minor missteps aside it stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.
Saunders has finally produced his first full length novel — though that word hardly begins to convey the literary wonder contained within its pages, an extraordinary alchemy of free-verse ghost story, tender father-son devotional, and backdoor presidential biography ... Slipping between hallucinatory fragments of dialogue and real historical accounts, Saunders weaves a wild high-wire pastiche. He’s always been a dazzlingly clever voice in fiction, but Bardo is something else: a heartfelt marvel, sad and funny and surreal.
Lincoln in the Bardo is remarkable; let’s get that out of the way first ... Saunders develops his narrative in pieces, building it through the accretion of dozens of voices, all talking in tandem or on top of one another, to create a kaleidoscopic point of view ... what else is Lincoln in the Bardo but a book of memory, the way memory lingers and shapes us, both as individuals and in a more collective sense? That is the source of Lincoln’s grieving, that he can’t escape, or reconcile, his memories, that he has come, alone, to this graveyard to sit with his dead son in a futile attempt to bring him back ... a book of singular grace and beauty, an inquiry into all the most important things: life and death, family and loss and loving, duty and perseverance in the face of excruciating circumstance.
Into the phantasmagoria, Mr. Saunders introduces a chorus of dead souls representing all strata of American society, from soldiers to slaveholders to poor farmers. Each is granted a turn to speak, and their monologues contain despairing recollections of the persecutions they suffered as well as hopeless rationalizations for the crimes they committed ... The weakest parts of Lincoln in the Bardo are those that seek to evoke this signal era in American history. Some of the shades speak about racist oppression or the carnage of the Civil War, but such details feel patched in. The novel is too dreamy and philosophical to capture the passions and hatreds that animated these years ... Yet if readers can imagine away the novel’s historical ballast, Lincoln in the Bardo is a moving and heartfelt treatise about grief.
Opening Lincoln in the Bardo is like alighting suddenly on an unfamiliar moonscape, where disembodied voices are already deep in conversation. The only thing you can do is listen keenly for a while, until you begin to make out the contours of the situation. Each of Saunders' sentences are exquisitely composed, swiftly bringing you into the hearts of his strange, fascinating characters ... Lincoln in the Bardo is weird, disorienting, funny and incredibly moving. Scenes of Lincoln contemplating Willie's death brought me to tears. The rhythms Saunders has crafted for Lincoln's grief, working solely in dialogue and racing internal thoughts, echo the most heartbreaking scenes in literature — Cordelia forgiving her wayward father Lear, for one ... You get the sense that the intensity of Lincoln's love for his son was equivalent to the intensity with which he loved this nation. It's a hard and grief-inviting task to love such a fallible thing — a human being, or a nation made up of fallible humans.
It’s not that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t worthwhile. It has many moments of power, and even passages of the sort of lushly sensual prose that hasn’t previously been a Saunders specialty. It definitely marks an advance into new formal territory. It’s just that the timing on this thing is really, really bad. A George Saunders novel seems like just what we need right now, but chances are Lincoln in the Bardo is not the George Saunders novel you’re looking for ... Jaded readers may suspect that Saunders needed to contrive a selfless cause—saving Willie—to unite all the ghosts in a group effort, thereby providing a plot and the opportunity for redemption in community. The metaphysical apparatus must be explained to some extent, and those explanations are both a bit tedious and at odds with the moral center of the book, which is the grief of Lincoln ... [a] melancholy, inward-looking, often lovely and moving but fundamentally private novel ... Saunders is a writer whose satire has long seemed a bit too monstrous for mainstream success, yet now that he has published what is surely his most gently accessible work, reality has abruptly caught up to his darkest visions.
This is a fairly awful peril—in fact, so cartoonishly awful that as a reader I rebelled. Whatever Willie’s sins may have been, surely death in childhood was punishment enough? Moreover, as perils go, it’s a bit contrived ... It’s awkward, too, that the outcome of the novel hinges on whether Willie can acknowledge in time that he’s dead...The book’s crux, in other words, is either impossible or trivial ... The vignettes are miniatures of the cruel, satirical stories that have won Saunders fans, and several are poignant, but they don’t have much connection to Willie’s story ... There’s quite a bit of schmaltz in Lincoln in the Bardo. In some of the historical eyewitness testimony that Saunders has fabricated, he rivals the Victorians at death kitsch—no mean achievement ... Lincoln in the Bardo is CivilWarLand under new management, sleek and professional. The sets are brightly painted; the period detail is well curated; the reenactors have had top-notch dialect coaches. The ghosts, formerly dupes, are now heroes, and if you like a salty-sweet mix of cruelty and sappiness, you’ll enjoy your visit. But you can’t see backstage anymore. The new administration has much tighter message discipline.
Though it's early to say, I feel pretty safe in predicting that this is going to be one of the year's most acclaimed novels. Lincoln in the Bardo is searing, inventive and bizarre ... If this overview makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem too static, too reminiscent of that sluggish classic Spoon River Anthology, be assured that the wild plot swerves of Saunders' short stories have been transplanted and multiplied in his debut novel ... Like the president who graces its pages, it's monumental.
It's remarkable ... If Lincoln in the Bardo were only the polyphonic narrative of Oak Hill's residents, it would be a beguiling book...But its truly transcendent moments begin when, just as Willie himself is going to disperse, his father, the president, strides into the cemetery alone in the middle of the night ... profound, funny and vital, a meditation on loss and power, every bit as good as Tenth of December. The work of a great writer.
Saunders conjures a breathtakingly agile narrative, a polyphony (and occasional cacophony) of the voices of the dead that surround Willie ... his book is also profoundly worldly, committed to the accurate presentation of each voice, its particular context, its variations and sensibilities ... his revivification of Lincoln dramatises not only a general sense of the conflict between private and public selves, duty and inclination, doubt and resolve, but a very specifically American one. Lincoln in the Bardo was clearly conceived before the present circumstances, but it is nonetheless inflected with the tensions between the individual and the commonwealth that characterise the American psyche ... His first novel is a brilliant, exhausting, emotionally involving attempt to get up again, to fight for empathy, kindness and self-sacrifice, and to resist.
If, to you, the notion of a book built on a little boy’s corpse sounds depressing, that’s because it’s a depressing book. It’s also very fun: dramatic, witty, and unabashedly sentimental ... Reading Lincoln in the Bardo might, at times, call to mind funeral dirges, throngs of ululating women. The book wears its mawkishness like a crown, and it works: isn’t grief, a huge emotion, best expressed hugely? ... too concerned with closing every circle, Lincoln in the Bardo rambles on for a few more chapters after it should’ve ended ... Outside of its title, Lincoln in the Bardo skews far more Christian than Buddhist. Engaging with Christianity is understandable, probably unavoidable, being that we’re dealing with a cast of dead white antebellum men...But still, paired with the quickie slavery dialectic, what we see is a thin veneer of multiculturalism, clearly well-meaning but little more than cosmetic ... The fleet-footed sentences, prodigious research, unabashed sentiment, and rollicking plot, in the end, are all glacé. Underneath is an acrid core, which makes Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders’s most complex and satisfying work to date.
Lincoln In The Bardo is a postmodern masterpiece ... Saunders’ genius in Lincoln In The Bardo is the culminating effect of the disparate parcels of information that, taken together, create a spellbinding story of love and loss ... Saunders is best known for his satirical bite, but Lincoln In The Bardo is a deeper examination of life, explored through the dead, unable to move on for various reasons. He’s never written anything quite so poignant and moving as this story about death.
Rarely has a novel about the dead felt so thrillingly, achingly, alive ... he has devised a richly hybrid work that defies easy categorization. Chapters of whirligigging dialogue between the cemetery denizens are interleaved with chapters holding excerpts from news accounts, biographies, memoirs, and diaries of the era (many actual, many invented), which ballast the fantasy with the gravitas of real occurrence ... A philosophical principle runs throughout Saunders’ novel that keeps the engine of his story spinning. That principle is that even the most private tragedy plays an integral part in the natural order.
Lincoln in the Bardo challenges the conventions of narrative. It’s a book without a central narrator and with a young ghost, who appears fleetingly and whose dialogue is limited. It’s a novel of fragmented voices that come together to form a kind of American collage. Magical realism meets historical novel. Portrait of an American icon at his most vulnerable and human meets bawdy comedy of ghost orgies and poop jokes. Some of the novel’s most graceful and touching moments are those of greatest risk, when the ghosts — black and white, male and female — enter the president’s body and give the reader his tormented thoughts ... Saunders has crafted a rare thing: a novel that manages to be both a moving tribute and silly fun that is richly unique in form. Lincoln in the Bardo shows us grief and love experienced by the most famous and obscure of American history and speculates on how the death of a little boy shaped the direction of the war and of our nation.
The strategy takes a little getting used to, but Saunders is so adept in differentiating each character’s voice that it is usually easy to determine who is speaking at any given time ... A virtuoso of the short form, Saunders demonstrates that his considerable gifts work just as splendidly on a wider canvas. Sad, funny and wise, Lincoln in the Bardo marks a new level of excellence for an author already in ascendance.
...[a] strange, profound, melancholy and often silly book ... Only George Saunders would think of such a bizarre and elaborate conceit to address those questions, and wrest from it so much feeling, so much humor and sorrow. Historical fiction will never be the same.
Out of this gemlike, poignant, unsettling historical moment, George Saunders has risen an unsentimental novel of Shakespearean proportions, gorgeously stuffed with tragic characters, bawdy humor, terrifying visions, throat-catching tenderness, and a galloping narrative, all twined around the luminous cord connecting a father and son and backlit by a nation engulfed in fire ... Saunders earned literary fame as a short-story writer, celebrated by his peers for his virtuosity and for his quiet insistence that fiction has a job to do in the world, a role to play in the opening of the reader's heart. That he achieves this effect over the course of this, his first novel, has left deep ruts in a road he often seems to be driving all by himself ... a novel unlike any other.
His formal innovation, beautiful use of language and signature blend of postmodernism and surrealism are compelling — but what really resonates in his fiction is its deep sense of empathy, even for the strangest of characters in the most bizarre situations. Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, is a showcase for all of those qualities ... I rarely read a single book straight through, because I'm always shifting among several. Lincoln in the Bardo was an exception, because I couldn't put it down, reading it in a single afternoon ... Saunders is a satirist and a masterful comic writer, but he is up to something deeper as well. Lincoln in the Bardo is a virtuoso show of surrealism, but it also lets us, along with its ghosts, feel what is in the heart of a father who has lost his boy — and who must face the responsibility of sending countless other boys to battle. It is, finally, a human story, no matter which side of the veil those humans are on.
Lincoln In The Bardo is not an easy book, but it gets easier with the reading. At the start, it jags, loops, interrupts itself a thousand times. Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent. But there are moments that are almost transcendently beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep ... Lincoln's grief, as witnessed by the ghosts, as experienced by Willie, is enormous. The pain of it radiant as the President languishes in his own private bardo. In comparison to the grief of America at war, it is infinitesimal, but at the same time, no less potent or real. And in the friction between these two true things, Saunders finds his terrible, brutal truth: That all lives end too soon. That no one leaves complete. That letting go is the best, hardest thing anyone — even the dead — can do.
...this remarkable novel is far more than the story of a son's death and a father's grief. The Civil War looms as a backdrop, but Lincoln feels fresh and persistently personal. Through characters who are palpably real and genuinely funny, Saunders pries open the door between life and death, poking at the boundary between the two. It's a dazzling ride ... Saunders has written a big-hearted text, one full of grief and love in equal measure. There's not a false note in this story.
...[a] hypnotic if occasionally rambling novel ... So far, so ghostly, but what distinguishes Lincoln in the Bardo are two ingenious decisions by Mr. Saunders. One is to create a Rashomon-like symphony of voices and contradictory perspectives, with quotes from actual historical accounts of the period mixed among the laments of the cemetery denizens...And, as Ó Cadhain did [in The Dirty Dust], Mr. Saunders uses his setting as a commentary on politics ... As sometimes happens when a short-story writer pens a novel, parts of Lincoln in the Bardo go on for too long, especially when Mr. Saunders chronicles the backstories of minor characters in the cemetery. But this is an original and devastating novel.
...a novel that like Faulkner’s masterpiece uses multiple narrators, stream of consciousness, and the fractured thoughts of an innocent child to tell a story about the destruction of a family and the struggle and endurance of a country stained by slavery ... In a 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University, Saunders implored the new graduates to incline toward the big questions, ignore the trivial, and discover 'the luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will.' His novel follows the same path, and gets there.
...a brilliant, empathetic and wonderfully weird novel, both emotionally and technically stirring ... In between bardo scenes, Saunders intersperses short quotes from memoirs and contemporary accounts of Willie's death, President Lincoln's grief, and how both were viewed by their contemporaries (often harshly). These provide enriching detail and context, but also reinforce the novel's theme of faulty perception: President Lincoln's contemporaries can't even agree on what color his eyes were.
This sweet-natured longform work is a new direction for Saunders, the satirical short-story writer — but it’s a fruitful one ... It takes a few pages to ease into the rapidfire transition from voice to voice, but eventually the momentum of the piece takes over and you can sink into it. Always, the monologues are stylized and compelling, and periodically, they launch into ecstatic lyrical arias ... a thoughtful, readable, and beautifully constructed novel.
Lincoln is about facing grief (something of a daily exercise for many of us) and is set during a moment of national schism. For those and many other reasons, it is the first essential novel of the Donald Trump era ... Saunders formats the book like an oral history, with short sections narrated by different denizens of the cemetery. This polyvocal narration plays to Saunders's strength with voice and turn of phrase, and gifts him with an enormous cast of characters ... In lesser hands, much of Lincoln in the Bardo—especially its last 40 pages—would be merely sentimental. But Saunders, as he's done for his entire career, pulls off something ardently, unapologetically humane. This is a strange and wonderful book, one that reminds us that we, individually and nationally, have persevered through tremendous suffering before, and will do so again.
Saunders is as qualified to build mansions as he is to build yurts. His virtuosic range of narrative voice — previously on display in his several short story collections — finds expression in this novel thanks to an inventive formal arrangement that allows for literally dozens of narrators ... Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is thus, itself, its own kind of bardo. If anything, its formal qualities condition its readers to develop a palate for the bardo’s active ingredients: dynamism, plurality, impermanence ... The bardo — for its ghostly inhabitants, for the reader, for Abe and Willie Lincoln — is a training in the hard work of choosing generosity, sensitivity, and tolerance over hate, frustration, and ignorance; needless to say, this makes Lincoln in the Bardo a timely read.
[Saunders] hadn’t written a work of sustained length. So readers were left to wonder: Could he write a novel? And would it be any good? The answer to both questions is yes ... it swings from hilarious to crushing and back again with astonishing dexterity ... This is not to say that the brilliance of the book rests merely in its allegorical relevance. If the story existed in a vacuum—that is, if it knew a world where an authoritarian oaf were not leading the most powerful country in the world—it would still brim with surprising and affecting prose and ultimately be worthy of veneration. In past work, Saunders’s biggest problem has been the tendency to turn his stories into complicated games that prize intellectual over emotional engagement. He’s at his best when the two collide, and throughout Lincoln in the Bardo, he’s at his best.
The truth is, this book would have been vital if it had been released in 1950 or 1980, or on September 12, 2001. It will still be necessary in three hundred years, whether or not humans are here to experience it—maybe by then the cockroaches and ants that inherit the earth will have learned to read, and it can inspire them to be better than we have been ... Saunders takes this sliver of grief and turns it into a meditation on loss which in turn becomes a consideration of the Civil War and the existence of America itself ... The fact that his first novel, a work of historical fiction, happens to come to us during our most Saunders-ian (?) era yet is (probably) an accident, as he’s been working on this book for almost two decades. But through whatever alchemy or serendipity or sheer chain of coincidence, he has given us the perfect book for our time.
Probably the best way for me to describe Lincoln in the Bardo is as melancholy absurdism. It’s a meditation on loss, the preciousness of life (and the absolute ridiculousness of it), and of how humanity is so unwilling to let go of the dead. The ghosts who occupy Lincoln in the Bardo aren’t the ones who are holding desperately onto life (and if they are, it is because they are in denial that they’re even dead). It is, instead, the living who are held fast by their former loved ones, even if said loved ones rarely, if ever, come to visit their graves. Much like Saunders' satirical forefathers, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, you either love or hate him with very little middle ground in-between. For longtime fans of Saunders, Bardo’s stylistic, absurd prose is a cause for celebration. For the less adventurous types who need their art spoon fed to them, or don’t want to be intellectually challenged while reading, just go ahead and skip this one. For everyone else, Lincoln in the Bardo may not be what you would describe as a read-in-one-sitting kind of novel, but it will stick with you long after you've finished it.
The novel is structured a bit like a play script sans stage directions, and it takes time to settle into an easy rhythm. Saunders collages several ghosts’ speeches with inner monologues from Lincoln and clipped passages from secondary sources, real and imagined. The ping-pong material, particularly from the secondary sources, can be distracting. But the pantheon of confessional voices allows Saunders to play around with different levels of intensity, poetry or abstraction, tuning erratically into new frequencies as if spinning a radio dial ... the novel’s sharpest delight is Saunders’ spasmodic splicing of pop-culture casual and old-world prim ... Magically — and this is in many respects a magical book — Saunders never shortchanges sentiment. Music lovers all know the hair-raising pleasure of a suspended, dissonant chord finally resolving into a major key. Saunders achieves something similar here. Readers patient enough to stick with the fractured chorus are rewarded with a fireworks display of spontaneous feeling all the more acute for the obstacles overcome.
That sense of human connection and dignity is one of the key threads in Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ stunning and surprising first novel ... While the fragmented narrative with its lack of a standard expository framework is initially unsettling, the story quickly comes into focus, bawdy and hilarious, thrilling and heartbreaking by turns, building to a climax which is both emotionally devastating and surprisingly thought-provoking. By composing the story through a polyglot of voices, each retaining their individuality without ever becoming a mere chorus (while also drawing attention to issues of race, gender, sexuality and power), Saunders has created a stirring, intimate panorama, an American Book of the Dead, which, despite its historical distance, feels not only topical, but seethes with contemporary significance. Lincoln in the Bardo is a potent reminder of our connectedness, of the value of empathy — of kindness — in even the most divisive of times.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a remarkable achievement; it’s also so unique in form and style that readers new to Saunders may feel a bit confounded ... Saunders’ experiments are situated firmly in the style of postmodern pastiche, in both senses of the term: a collage of voices and perspectives, and an homage of sorts to the great poets and writers contemporaneous to Lincoln ... I recommend both formats [text and audiobook] simultaneously. Hearing skilled voices inhabit the characters will no doubt enhance the story’s resonance, but you’ll want to read along and hit the pause button to meditate on the novel’s finer aphorisms.
As a novel about a white hero of the Civil War era by a white author, Lincoln in the Bardo enters this fractious scene with Saunders’s characteristic humor and expansive sensibility. In this respect, it feels more like the last presidential fiction of the Obama era than the first of the Trump administration … [Saunders’s] short fiction has long been guided by a sense of economic justice, but here we also find (especially in the later pages) fully developed Black and queer characters in determining roles. The writing in these later pages, which observes the transformation of Lincoln’s melancholia to political resolution via the spirits, is downright gorgeous, rewarding those who might find the citational disjunctiveness of the novel exhausting.