Lincoln in the Bardo (Saunders)

Lincoln in the Bardo 
George Saunders, 2017
Random House
368 pp.

*Winner, 2017 Man Booker Prize

A moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle.

Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery.

“My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us.

Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end? (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 2, 1958
Where—Amarillo, Texas, USA
Education—B.S., Colorado School of Mines; M.F.A., Syracuse University
Awards—Man Booker Award; PEN/Malamud Award (more below)
Currently—lives in Syracuse, New York

George Saunders is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas and children's books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, McSweeney's and GQ. He also contributed a weekly column, "American Psyche," to the weekend magazine of The Guardian (UK) until October 2008. In 2017, he won the Man Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Early life and education
Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas. He grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, graduating from Oak Forest High School in Oak Forest, Illinois. In 1981 he received a B.S. in geophysical engineering from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.

In 1988, Saunders was awarded an M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University. While at Syracuse he met fellow writer and future wife Paula Redick: "we [got] engaged in three weeks, a Syracuse Creative Writing Program record that, I believe, still stands," he wrote.

Early career
From 1989 to 1996, Saunders worked as a technical writer and geophysical engineer for Radian International, an environmental engineering firm in Rochester, New York. He also worked for a time with an oil exploration crew in Sumatra.

Of his scientific background, Saunders has said:

...any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.

Welders and dresses aside, those years also proved highly productive for Saunders in terms of fiction writing. In 1994 and 1996, he won the National Magazine Award for his short stories, "The 400-Pound CEO" and "Bounty," respectively. Both were published in Harper's. In 1996 he published his first short-story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which became a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award. That same year, another story, "The Falls," appeared in The New Yorker, and a year later won second prize in the 1997 O. Henry Awards.

It was in 1997 that Saunders joined the faculty of Syracuse University where he still teaches creative writing in the school's MFA program. He has continued to publish fiction and nonfiction.

From 2000 on
Saunders won his third National Magazine Award  in 2000 for his short story, "The Barber's Unhappiness,"published in The New Yorker. His his fourth NMA came in 2004 for the "The Red Bow," published in Esquire.

In 2006, he was awarded two highly regarded fellowships: a MacArthur Fellowship (with its prize of $500,000) and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His first nonfiction collection, The Braindead Megaphone came out in 2007. In 2009, Saunders received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In 2013, Saunders won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, and in 2014, he was elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Saunders gained national attention with his 2013 publication of Tenth of December, a collection of short stories. The book won the 2013 Story Prize for short-story collections and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Editors of the New York Times named it one of the "10 Best Books of 2013,"and the headline for a cover story in the paper's Magazine, called it "the best book you'll read this year."

Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders' long awaited first novel, came out in 2017 to wide acclaim.

Thematic concerns
Saunders's fiction often focuses on the absurdity of consumerism, corporate culture and the role of mass media. While many reviewers mention the satirical tone in Saunders's writing, his work also raises moral and philosophical questions. The tragicomic element in his writing has earned Saunders comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut, whose work inspired Saunders.

In a November 2015 conversation with American writer Jennifer Egan for the New York Times Saunders said that he was writing a novel set in the 19th century, which while "ostensibly historical" was also closer to science fiction than much of his previous work.

Saunders considered himself an Objectivist in his twenties but is now repulsed by the philosophy, comparing it to neoconservative thinking.  He is now a student of Nyingma Buddhism. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/8/2017.)

Book Reviews
The hype surrounding the book’s release is well deserved: this is a wildly imaginative story of Abraham Lincoln’s near paralyzing grief over the death of his youngest son. Saunders then deftly unites that personal grief with the grief of an entire nation in the throes of civil war.  READ MORE.
Molly Lundquist - LitLovers

Saunders's short stories…tend to vacillate between two impulses: satire and black comedy, reminiscent of Nathanael West and Kurt Vonnegut; and a more empathetic mode, closer to [Sherwood] Anderson and William Trevor. Though there are moments of dark humor in some of the ghost stories here, Bardo definitely falls into the more introspective part of that spectrum. 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.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

[A]n extended national ghost story, an erratically funny and piteous seance of grief. [T]he Bardo...refers to an intermediate plane between our world and the next…. [The book] seems at first a clever clip-job, an extended series of brief quotations from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, personal testimonies....  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…. Stirred heavily into the mix…are dead people…corpses in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.... Saunders’s deep compassion shines…[i]n the darkness of that cemetery, [as] the president realizes…his own grief has already been endured by tens of thousands of fathers and mothers across the country.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Ingenious…Saunders—well on his way toward becoming a twenty-first-century Twain—crafts an American patchwork of love and loss, giving shape to our foundational sorrows.

The novel beats with a present-day urgency—a nation at war with itself, the unbearable grief of a father who has lost a child, and a howling congregation of ghosts, as divided in death as in life, unwilling to move on.
Vanity Fair

A brilliant, Buddhist reimagining of an American story of great loss and great love…. Saunders has written 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.

(Starred review.) Saunders’s mesmerizing historical novel is also a moving ghost story. A Dantesque tour through a Georgetown cemetery…[where] Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently interred 11-year-old son, Willie.… [A] haunting American ballad that will inspire increased devotion among Saunders’s admirers.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) A stunningly powerful work, both in its imagery and its intense focus on death, this remarkable work of historical fiction gives an intimate view of 19th-century fears and mores through the voices of the bardo's denizens. —Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Among Saunders' most essential insights is that, in his grief over Willie, Lincoln began to develop a hard-edged empathy, out of which he decided that "the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest."…Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, consider our LitLovers talking points to start a discussion for Lincoln in the Bardo … then take off on your own:

1. What is the bardo, and how does it function in George Saunder's book? In what way does the bardo apply to those who are living as well as the dead?

2. Talk about the various denizens of the cemetery, the ghosts who narrate and chatter among themselves. Which ghost stories did you find particularly engaging …funny …moving …sad …even irritable? Were you disoriented, even put off, by the multiplicity of voices, or were you able to maintain your footing? Was there a point at which the ghosts took on a "life" of their own … when their actions developed into a cohesive plot?

3. Follow-up to Question 2: How do the ghosts' feelings — their anger, resentments, and desires — reflect the events of their previous lives?

4. Talk about the ghosts' reactions to Lincoln's loving attention to his son. Why were they surprised by the fact that he cradled Will in his arms?

5. What does Lincoln come to understand, through his own personal loss, about the carnage of the war and the cost in lives and misery for an entire nation?

6. Talk about the two old codgers, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. Would you consider them the "heroes" of the novel? Why are they so eager to have Will leave the cemetery. Where do they want him to go? What will happen should he "tarry"?

7. Why is the Reverend, unlike all the other spirits, willing to admit he is dead? And why is he convinced he will be excluded from heaven?

8. In what way does the cemetery reflect the class structure of the 19th Century? What do you make of the Rev. Thomas's explanation: "It is not about wealth. It is about comportment. It is about, let us say, being 'wealthy in spirit.'" Who among the spirits, if any of them, are "wealthy in spirit"?

9. Although the preponderant mood of the novel is dark, there is also a fair amount of hilarity. Can you you point to some passages/episodes that you found particularly funny? The bachelor ghosts, for instance?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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