It took me a while to realise that Lincoln in the Bardo had been written by George Saunders. I had previously read his story story My Flamboyant Grandson, a moving story about a grandfather’s dedication to his grandson’s happiness, even as it ran counter to his own sense of normality. As well as being a moving story of familial love, it was also comically absurd, set in a modern dystopia, where computers only show you the things that you like and where people trade their freedoms for free stuff on the internet.
My Flamboyant Grandson struck me as the kind of story that Kurt Vonnegut would write, because of the characters’ stoic yet comic acceptance of the indignities and absurdities of war and technology. However, Saunders transcends Vonnegut, because the characters in his stories possess a wisdom that seems beyond the capacity of many of Vonnegut’s characters.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story, set in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln has just buried his ten-year-old son Willie, who died of typhus. The protagonists in the story are all, well, dead. Over the course of the novel, the ghosts explain why they have remained behind on earth and the arrival of Willie Lincoln is a catalyst for the resolution of many of their long-suspended stories.
The characters speak in the florid and formal manner of Nineteenth Century people, in a style that – given that it’s a fundamentally bleak ghost story – reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe. Saunders cannot resist making it funny and the antics of the ghosts keep the story moving in a bumptious manner.
Saunders once remarked in an interview that he had little success in his writing career until he gave up being serious and embraced the gallows humour of his youth. While the narrative never loses sight of the pain of bereavement, humour works as an effective coping mechanism, in a story where the brightest possible outcome is a resolute acceptance of death.