Booker Shortlist Reading Guide

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders.
George Saunders.PHOTO: CHLOE AFTEL

Who: American writer George Saunders, 58, has made a long career out of short fiction, with six short story collections and novellas to his name. He spent 20 years contemplating Lincoln In The Bardo, his first full-length novel, which has since been turned into an audiobook with a cast of 166, as well as a short virtual-reality film.

Death is probably confusing at first. Not that we would know, of course. But it is with the muddled senses with which one presumably enters the afterlife that the reader tumbles into the bardo of George Saunders' first novel. His highly experimental undertaking is an acquired taste, a book that challenges our notions of what a novel should be.

We might try to define it as historical fiction, a ghost story, a choral play or a scrapbook of quotes - but what it achieves is far more than the sum of its very many parts.

The novel takes place on a single night after the funeral and entombing of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, the son of United States President Abraham Lincoln. The boy likely died of typhoid fever.

Willie, like other inhabitants of the graveyard, now exists in the bardo, a liminal state in between death and whatever lies beyond.

There is much inventive body horror as the ghosts manifest in shifting, grotesque forms, their mutations emblematic of what haunts them from their previous lives.

  • LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

  • Bloomsbury Publishing/ Paperback/ 355 pages/ $29.95/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

Roger Bevins III, who committed suicide after his affections were rejected by another man, manifests as an "overgrown fleshly bouquet" of multiple eyes, noses and hands, all slashed at the wrists. All four limbs of former slave Francis Hodge appear worn to nubs, leaving bloody trails wherever she goes.

The ghosts are in denial about their state, believing themselves to be merely ill and occupying "sick-boxes", which are in fact their coffins, and this prevents them from moving on from this world.

When President Lincoln enters the crypt late at night to cradle his son's corpse, the spectral masses regard this unprecedented transgression as a miracle.

The narration is shared by the voices of a staggering 166 characters, as well as fragments of historical essays and verbatim accounts, in a slipstream of cacophony.

From the raucous profanity of drunk tramps Eddie and Betsy Baron to the voiceless slave girl Litzie, who talks in strings of asterisks for most of the novel, Saunders renders his dizzying array of characters with virtuosic diversity and a firm hand that rarely allows this controlled chaos to meander too far.

This strange, transcendent novel may put readers off with its structure, but its technical tricks are underpinned by great human emotion as sweeping as the babel of a nation in crisis and as private and profound as a father's grief.

If you like this, read: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (Vintage, 1996, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a 1930 American southern Gothic novel narrated by 15 characters as the impoverished family of Addie Bundren struggle to honour her wish to be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi.

Olivia Ho

•A version of this review first ran in Life on April 18.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders'. Print Edition | Subscribe