Lincoln in the Bardo



“I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and lovingly, and earnestly, muttering, ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!'”   – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the title refers to Abraham Lincoln, and the bardo is, in Tibetan tradition, the suspended state between lives when the soul is separate from the body. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has entered the bardo upon death from typhoid, where he meets all manner of discontented souls who are similarly suspended, unable to let go of their former lives and move on to whatever comes next. In this bardo, whatever obsessed the person or remained unresolved at the time of death looms large (literally).

After Willie’s funeral, a stricken Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery alone in the night to assuage his grief, according to historical sources. In this extraordinary novel, at the cemetery, Lincoln is unable to see the panoply of ghost-souls around him desperately trying to persuade the young Willie to move on because, in Saunders’ conception of the bardo, children who remain suffer a terrible fate.

It is the early stages of the Civil War, which weighs heavily on the President. Three years of staggering bloodshed loom and over half a million deaths, mostly sons of other grieving parents.

During this one chaotic evening, all of the restless souls, living and dead, are changed.

“The gentleman had much on his mind. He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps, in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It has hard. Hard for him.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is not an ordinary novel by any means, but Saunders is no ordinary writer. (See my post about his collection of short stories which I loved, Tenth of December.) Bardo reads like a play, and I believe plans are already in the making to produce a play. If so, I predict it will be every bit as popular as Hamilton. 

George Saunders is a consummate writer of short stories, and he has often said in interviews that novels aren’t his thing – he’s tried without success to write three or four. And then, Lincoln in the Bardo, came along.

It took me a few pages to acclimate to this strange story, which is essentially a collection of formally cited historical sources, a few brilliantly conceived fictional sources, and lots of dialogue by a grand chorus of characters. It’s a quick read and vintage Saunders: funny, heartbreaking, with piercing, essential truths about life. When I reached the end, I went back to page one to begin again, so I could pick up on what I missed. I missed a lot, there is so much nuance in every scene.

You must read Lincoln in the Bardo. Besides, everyone is talking about it, and you want to be in on the conversation too, don’t you? If you love it, I recommend you follow it with Tenth of December.

“And there was nothing left for me to do, but go. Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.”

Here, George Saunders talks with Stephen Colbert: (Fair warning, there is some talk of Trump here and the cultural divide.)



Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or any of George Saunders’ extraordinary short stories? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Tenth of December, National Book Award nominee

“…we all know that one way to do a job poorly is to be negative about it. Say we need to clean a shelf. If we spend the hour before the shelf-cleaning talking down the process of cleaning the shelf, complaining about it, dreading it, investigating the moral niceties of cleaning the shelf, whatever, then what happens is, we make the process of cleaning the shelf more difficult than it really is. We all know very well that that “shelf” is going to be cleaned, given the current climate, either by you or the guy who replaces you and gets your paycheck….So the point of this memo is: Positive.”  -“Exhortation” in Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December book cover

The “shelf” that has to be cleaned is a euphemism for…what?

I don’t often read short stories, but I’d heard so many good things about Tenth of December by George Saunderswhen I saw the book in our local library’s “Most Wanted” display I checked it out.

Saunders has been called the Kurt Vonnegut of our day. He says he’s been influenced by Monty Python. Many highly regarded writers (Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, among others) can’t say enough good things about Saunders, who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.

Before he became a highly praised short story writer, Saunders lived here in Rochester, where he was a contract worker for Kodak and a technical writer for a local consulting firm.

I was once a Kodak contract worker, too, and that’s partly why I’m so fascinated with Saunders. He writes about the workplace in a liberating, irreverent and hilarious way. In an interview, Saunders has said that he’s grateful for the corporate jobs he held early on that helped support his young family, but that working in a corporate culture long-term can be difficult if you have a creative calling.

You can listen to the full interview with Saunders at the link further down in this post. You’ll hear the writer interviewing Saunders tell how she started off in book publishing (as I did) and at times she considered stealing the toilet paper as a small revenge. Working for a prestigious publisher in a Manhattan skyscraper was glamorous but, on the other hand, her salary was tiny, and many employees were exploited.

Getting back to Saunders’ stories, they are darkly comic, subversive, strange, and compelling. They’ve been called “alarming” and “tender.” Some are dystopian. You’ll be disturbed, aroused and, perhaps, comforted by the fact that someone recognizes and so eloquently expresses the absurdities of how we live our lives and the dreadful possibilities for the future if certain trends continue.

This week Tenth of December was named one of the finalists for the National Book Award.

Pastoralia coverYou can listen to Saunders read an excerpt from one of his older stories, “Sea Oak,” (from his collection, Pastoralia) on the National Book Award website, which features audio recordings of all the nominees. (Start listening at the 10-minute mark unless you want to hear the program host brag about how Brooklyn is now the literary capital of America.)

I’ll warn you in advance, though, that Saunders doesn’t read the ending of “Sea Oak.” He’d prefer that you buy the book, of course. In an interview after the reading, Saunders said it took him four years to come up with an ending to “Sea Oak” that he was satisfied with.

I, for one, can’t get out of my mind the two teenagers in the opening story, “Victory Lap,” in Tenth of December. Or the strange and horrifying lawn ornaments that are the ultimate status symbols in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Or the poor guy who’s in prison and becomes a guinea pig in a pharmaceutical experiment and must choose how it will end.

There’s really nothing like a George Saunders short story.

Great book club reading, too, guaranteed to spark excellent conversation.

“It’s time for you to pull yourselves up by the bootstraps like I done….Let me tell you something, something about this country. Anybody can do anything….It’s the frickin’ American way. You start out in a dangerous crap hole. And work hard. So you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous crap hole. And finally maybe you get a mansion.” – “Sea Oak,” by George Saunders


Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Pastoralia, by George Saunders

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Collected Works of Katherine Anne Porter

Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman

The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro (2013 Nobel Prize in Literature)

Joyce Maynard, Elizabeth Gilbert, George Saunders coming up

Been away for a bit while designer Nicole Bateman of The Pixel Boutique gives Books Can Save a Life a fresh, new look. (Thank you, Nicole!) But I’ve been reading, as always, and here’s what’s coming up:

After Her book coverAfter HerJoyce Maynard’s latest novel. Joyce has written several novels as well as the memoir, At Home in the World. After Her is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late 1970s.

Tenth of December – I don’t usually read short stories, but I’d heard so many wonderful things about George Saunders I had to pick up a copy of his latest collection when I saw it on our public library’s “Most Wanted” shelf. Besides, he teaches a stone’s throw away at Syracuse University – he’s someone I should know about.

Sons of MadnessI’ve written about Susan Nathiel’s excellent Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Mother, a collection of interviews with adult women. Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Parent is a companion volume.

The Art of the Commonplace – I’ve always wanted to know what Wendell Berry is all about, so I’m reading his collection of agrarian essays.

Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has been made into a movie and will be released November 22. I wrote about the first movie and book here, so I just have to check out the next installment.

The Signature of All Things book coverAnd last but not least, I can’t wait to dip into Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. Beautiful book jacket and end papers. The epigraph: “What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.”  Lord Perceval

I’ll be back with a closer look at all of these.