Published: February 14th, 2017
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical, Ghost Story
Length: 7 hrs and 25 mins
George Saunders is an amazing short story author. I’d put him up there with Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser and Jorge Luis Borges in my pantheon of personal favorites.
However, until Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders had never published a novel. This is a common trait among the short story authors I love; they rarely, if ever, turn their talents to novel-length works.
Lincoln in the Bardo is also unique because of its audiobook, which involves 166 different narrators acting out the massive cast of characters.
Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and Saunders himself take top billing. Voices you’ll probably recognize from movies, TV and audiobooks surround them on all sides. The care that clearly went into the audiobook production easily makes it the definitive version of Saunders’ novel.
At its heart, Lincoln in the Bardo tells a fairly straightforward story. After young Willie Lincoln dies from a protracted illness, Lincoln visits his son’s grave in the middle of the night, setting off a chain reaction that forces the other ghosts in the cemetery to examine their existence (or lack thereof).
Stories about the restless dead alternate with scholarly citations explaining the national attitudes towards Lincoln before and after the death of his son. The ghosts and citations interrupt and build upon each other, blending into long streams of conversation and contradiction. The effect is simultaneously poetic, hilarious and ironic.
And Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely funny, even though it is also filled with stories about incredible tragedy and heartbreak. One of the first ghosts we meet – Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman – spends his afterlife walking around naked with a giant boner, insisting that he isn’t dead, just “sick”.
One of my favorite parts of the book was nothing but quotations describing Lincoln’s eyes; the quotes come one after the other, oftentimes directly contradicting each other on very simple information like his eye color. It’s a subtle way of emphasizing the subjective nature of historical narratives. I often wondered if any of the quotations were from real works or if Saunders invented them all.
I definitely enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo, and would hold it up as an example of why audiobooks are a fantastic way to read, but I do think it feels a bit like a short story that grew to escape the confines of its word count.
The sheer avalanche of details, both personal and historical, are definitely compelling. I felt like I learned things about Lincoln that I’d never known, and Saunders is a master of characterization with a sensibility like none other. That said, the book felt a little slight thanks to its minimal plot.
Even still, I highly recommend checking out Lincoln in the Bardo, especially as an audiobook.