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Lincoln in the Bardo
Cover of Lincoln in the Bardo
Lincoln in the Bardo
A Novel
Borrow
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE
The “devastatingly moving” (Peoplefirst novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented

Named One of Pastes Best Novels of the Decade • Named One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, USA Today, and Maureen Corrigan, NPR • One of Time’s Ten Best Novels of the Year • A New York Times Notable Book • One of O: The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of the Year

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo
 is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review

“A masterpiece.”Zadie Smith
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE
The “devastatingly moving” (Peoplefirst novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented

Named One of Pastes Best Novels of the Decade • Named One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, USA Today, and Maureen Corrigan, NPR • One of Time’s Ten Best Novels of the Year • A New York Times Notable Book • One of O: The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of the Year

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo
 is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review

“A masterpiece.”Zadie Smith
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  • From the book
    XXI.

    Mouth at the worm's ear, Father said:

    We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.

    Then let out a sob

    Dear Father crying That was hard to see And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no

    You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.

    Saying all this to the worm! How I wished him to say it to me And to feel his eyes on me So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me And in I went It was no bother at all Say, it felt all right Like I somewhat belonged in

    In there, held so tight, I was now partly also in Father

    And could know exactly what he was

    Could feel the way his long legs lay How it is to have a beard Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten some- what already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar from when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to—

    It has done me good.


    I believe it has.


    It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.


    Then Father touched his head to mine.

    Dear boy, he said, I will come again. That is a promise.

    willie lincoln
About the Author-
  • George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time's list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from August 8, 2016
    Saunders’s (Tenth of December) mesmerizing historical novel is also a moving ghost story. A Dantesque tour through a Georgetown cemetery teeming with spirits, the book takes place on a February night in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently interred 11-year-old son, Willie. The distraught Lincoln’s nocturnal visit has a “vivifying effect” on the graveyard’s spectral denizens, a gallery of grotesques who have chosen to loiter “in the Bardo”—a Tibetan term for a liminal state—rather than face final judgment. Among this community, which is still riven by racial and class divisions, are Roger Bevins III, who slashed his wrists after being spurned by a lover, and Hans Vollman, a “wooden-toothed forty-six-year-old printer” struck in the head by a falling beam shortly after marrying his young wife. As irritable, chatty, and bored in their purgatory as Beckett characters, Bevins and Vollman devote themselves to saving Willie from their fate: “The young ones,” Bevins explains, “are not meant to tarry.” Periodically interrupting the graveyard action are slyly arranged assemblies of historical accounts of the Lincoln era. These excerpts and Lincoln’s anguished musings compose a collage-like portrait of a wartime president burdened by private and public grief, mourning his son’s death as staggering battlefield reports test his (and the nation’s) resolve. Saunders’s enlivening imagination runs wild in detailing the ghosts’ bizarre manifestations, but melancholy is the novel’s dominant tone. Two sad strains, the spirits’ stubborn, nostalgic attachment to the world of the living and Lincoln’s monumental sorrow, make up a haunting American ballad that will inspire increased devotion among Saunders’s admirers.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from May 15, 2016
    Short-story virtuoso Saunders' (Tenth of December, 2013, etc.) first novel is an exhilarating change of pace. The bardo is a key concept of Tibetan Buddhism: a middle, or liminal, spiritual landscape where we are sent between physical lives. It's also a fitting master metaphor for Saunders' first novel, which is about suspension: historical, personal, familial, and otherwise. The Lincoln of the title is our 16th president, sort of, although he is not yet dead. Rather, he is in a despair so deep it cannot be called mere mourning over his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862. Saunders deftly interweaves historical accounts with his own fragmentary, multivoiced narration as young Willie is visited in the netherworld by his father, who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, at least temporarily. But the sneaky brilliance of the book is in the way Saunders uses these encounters--not so much to excavate an individual's sense of loss as to connect it to a more national state of disarray. 1862, after all, was the height of the Civil War, when the outcome was far from assured. Lincoln was widely seen as being out of his depth, "a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis." Among Saunders' most essential insights is that, in his grief over Willie, Lincoln began to develop a hard-edged empathy, out of which he decided that "the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest." This is a hard truth, insisting that brutality now might save lives later, and it gives this novel a bitter moral edge. For those familiar with Saunders' astonishing short fiction, such complexity is hardly unexpected, although this book is a departure for him stylistically and formally; longer, yes, but also more of a collage, a convocation of voices that overlap and argue, enlarging the scope of the narrative. It is also ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us. Lincoln, after all, has become a shade now, like all the ghosts who populate this book. "Strange, isn't it?" one character reflects. "To have dedicated one's life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one's life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one's labors utterly forgotten?" With this book, Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from October 1, 2016

    Short story master Saunders (Tenth of December) eagerly awaited first novel may not be what fans of his dystopic, sf-like short stories have expected. It begins with snippets of historical fact, accompanied by citations--presumably both actual and fictionalized--that set the novel at the time of the death of Abraham Lincoln's son Willie. The entries shift to quips made by individuals, and we realize we are hearing conversations among spirits that haunt the Washington graveyard where Willie is buried. When Lincoln returns for a grieving nighttime visit, these apparitions attempt to reunite Willie's spirit with his father. Bardo is a term from Tibetan Buddhism referring to the transitional state between death and the next realm; the wraiths in this amorphous space chatter, float about, see visions, and change shape in disorienting ways. Yet they are confined, both by their previous lives and by a fear of final judgment, of which Saunders provides a truly horrifying glimpse. VERDICT A stunningly powerful work, both in its imagery and its intense focus on death, this remarkable work of historical fiction gives an intimate view of 19th-century fears and mores through the voices of the bardo's denizens. [See Prepub Alert, 6/29/16.]--Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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