We're only a month in, and already Donald Trump's presidency seems like something George Saunders would concoct: a regressive, hyper-capitalist fever dream in which language is hilariously corrupted, fairness is thrown out the window, and the foundational tenets of civil society start to give way. As in Trump's America, so in a Saunders story: Everything seems absurd until it breaks your heart.
Now, after years of success writing short fiction and essays, Saunders has written his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. No one wants their highly anticipated novel to debut just as a bunch of revanchist goblins are rearranging the furniture in the Oval Office, and it is unfair to freight a single book with a bunch of political and existential baggage. But 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.
The premise is funny, moving, and brazenly weird. Young Willie Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, has died of typhoid and is interred in a crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That night, according to newspaper reports, his grief-stricken father visits the crypt and cradles the 11-year-old boy's body.
Willie Lincoln is dead, but his spirit is very much alive. He is in the titular bardo, a sort of limbo derived from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, where the soul may linger before moving on.
In the bardo, Willie's spectral form meets the ghosts of Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, the book's twin Virgils. A twist: Vollman and Bevins do not believe they are dead. This is not an uncommon affliction. The graveyard is populated by hundreds of stubborn, delusional spirits, all of whom believe they may, in good time, shuffle back onto this mortal coil.
Willie, though, can't stay in purgatory. While the adult ghosts undergo only some superficial postmortem mutations (Vollman, who dies just before consummating his marriage, manifests with a yards-long, waggling erection), lingering in the graveyard fundamentally corrupts the young, and so they must transcend ASAP. This transcendence is described, in Saundersian fashion, as "the matterlightblooming phenomenon." Willie is on his way out of the bardo, until his father shows up and cradles his body. Then things get screwy, and the struggle for Willie Lincoln's soul is on.
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. Meet the miserly widow, the foul-mouthed career alcoholics, and the four ghosts perpetually mid-coitus with one another. A group of ghost bros, known as the Bachelors, fly around the cemetery raining hats on passersby. There are ghosts of slaves, of soldiers, of pompous professors, and of pickle magnates.
At this point, it would be fair to say that this phantasmagoric history lesson seems a little much. Like Hieronymus Bosch meets Ken Burns, maybe? Saunders is a great short-story writer, but his stories are their own matterlightblooming phenomena, and that sort of energy is often unsustainable over the course of a novel.
Saunders seems aware of this, and he ballasts the mania in the cemetery with chapters composed of historical excerpts that contextualize Willie's death and the Civil War. Some of these excerpts are fictional, but all are played straight, and they conjure affecting portraits of Willie, his father, and the pressures of the presidency.
Toward the end, Lincoln drifts away from Willie's story and settles on his father's. It is a brutal, formative time for President Lincoln. Willie dies just as the casualties from the Battle of Fort Donelson are posted: almost a thousand dead, with thousands more wounded. It is a reaping of American sons and the first time much of the public understands the severity of the conflict.
Saunders weds these deaths to Willie's and describes a Lincoln beset, transformed, and refocused by loss. Bevins recounts the president's newfound resolve: "Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch." We should consider this advice evergreen.
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. "We must," as Lincoln thinks, "win the thing." And we will.