BY BRYAN REESMAN
author George Saunders
likes to enrich his readers.
His first novel, Lincoln in the
Bardo, succeeds grandly as
he serves up a philosophical
and at times whimsical tale
of ghosts trapped in their
own purgatories. The narrative is presented in a new,
challenging and ultimately rewarding format.
“My litmus test about literature is that I
really want people to be moved by it somehow,”
Saunders tells The Connection from his home in
San Jose, California. “First of all, to believe it’s
really happening even though they know it isn’t,
and then they get invested enough in the charac-
ters that they feel something. One of the things I
found with this book is that people really struggle
with the first ;; pages—it’s not an easy read at
the beginning, and I love that.” He hopes there is
a big emotional and narrative payoff for readers
by the end “because together we learn how to read
this strange form.”
The story is constructed with quotes from
historical texts describing Lincoln and Civil
War–torn ;;;;, and with monologues from the
fictional characters expressing their individual
points of views about the events that are transpir-
ing. Each source is cited at the end—the reverse
of screenplay format, in which characters’ names
appear above their dialogue.
“It made it nice in conveying what these
beings are,” notes Saunders. “You might hear
them before you see them or you might hear
them and not be able to quite make them out.
They’re not standing here in three dimen-
sions the way you or I would be, and they’re
not ghosts in sheets. They’re presences who
might show up in weird ways. I invested in
that idea that the reader was going to have
to wait a bit to find out [who’s speaking].”
Ghosts ranging from soldiers to libertines
are trapped in a graveyard and tell personal
stories as they try reconciling their unresolved
life endings. The “stars” are Hans Vollman,
Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly
Thomas. When President Lincoln comes to
visit the body of his newly deceased ;;-year-old
son, Willie, he revives the false hopes of the
spirits that their loved ones will retrieve the
deluded inhabitants. However, some realize
that the young boy’s soul must move on and
want to make that happen.
Readers will notice the cursing spewed forth
from a few minor characters, but it is not gratu-
itous and is rather funny. “It turns out they had
all the swear words we have, but they were mostly
redacted in newspapers and public documents,”
explains the ;;-year-old author. “The one place
they weren’t [redacted] was in court records. If
you go to court records of that time they very
much sound like the court records today.”
Saunders has been enamored of writing since
he was a child, but did not know how to make it a
profession. He studied exploration geophysics at
the Colorado School of Mines, then worked in oil
fields in Asia.
After an illness necessitated his return to
America, Saunders roamed the country for a
couple of years doing various jobs before pursuing his original passion and successfully mining
his fertile imagination, starting with a master of
fine arts (MFA) degree in creative writing at
Syracuse. A ;;;; graduate, he has taught in the
MFA program since ;;;;.
Saunders has received literary fello wships—
Guggenheim and MacArthur among them—and
numerous awards, including the ;;;; Man
Booker Prize for Bardo. In ;;;;, he was named
as one of Time’s ;;; most influential people in
What makes Lincoln in the Bardo so engrossing is how its protagonists are struggling with the
same issues that living people do, especially
becoming trapped within one’s own mantras as a
“In Buddhism, they talk about [how] you get
attached to certain things. You build your identity and your ego, and at least in my case I do it out
of insecurity,” says Saunders. “It’s hard to go
through a day truly open. It’s much easier to say
‘I’m a good writer, I’m a good dad, I’m a professor.’ It’s almost like you have to build those things
around yourself to make the day doable. As you
get older those supports get more and more
addictive. You can end up as somebody who isn’t
at all open to actual experience because you’re so
invested in your narrative.” C
Bryan Reesman is a writer in New York.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, our 16th
president, has always been
one of my favorite historical
figures. So it should be little
surprise that George Saunders’
Lincoln in the Bardo is my book
buyer’s pick this month.
“Bardo” is a Tibetan word
for the state of the soul
between death and rebirth.
Using the real-life death of
Lincoln’s son Willie, Saunders
weaves the story of Willie’s
time in purgatory. There he listens to ghosts as they argue,
snipe and engage in odd acts
It’s been a long time since
I’ve read anything as clever
and creative as this novel. It
encompasses tragedy, joy,
lightness and tender moments
between father and son.
Saunder’s writing is everything
I could want in a book.
Lincoln in the Bardo (Item
#1219574; 2/6) is available in
most Costco warehouses.
For more book picks,
see page 81.
—Pennie Clark Ianniciello,
Costco has 50 copies of George Saunders’
Lincoln in the Bardo with signed book plates
to give away. To enter, go to costcoconnection
NO PURCHASE, PAYMENT OR OPT-IN OF ANY KIND IS
NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPS TAKES.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. Sweepstakes
is sponsored by Costco Wholesale, 1045 Lake Drive,
Issaquah, WA 98027. Open to legal residents of the U. S.
(except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at the time of
entry. One entry per household. Entries must be received
before the March issue is available online, which will happen
around February 26, 2018. Winners will be randomly selected
and noti;ed by mail on or before April 1, 2018.
The value of the prize is $17. Void where prohibited. Winners
are responsible for all applicable federal, state and local
taxes. Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible
entries received. Employees of Costco or Penguin Random
House and their families are not eligible.
SIGNED BOOK GIVEAWAY
The bard of the Bardo
George Saunders reshapes the narrative