Likely Stories: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Apr 20, 2017

A debut novel by noted writer George Saunders who tells a tale of the afterlife.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.


George Saunders has received enormous praise for his first novel, Lincoln at the Bardo.  I avoid over-hyped books, but one of my several trusted friends spoke so highly of it, so I decided to read it.  At first, I noticed an obvious peculiarity regarding the structure, but then I became intrigued.  The “bardo” is a Tibetan word for the time after death and before the soul is “taken away.”


Saunders is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, and children’s books.  His writing has appeared in The New Yorker as well as other magazines.  He has won a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as several other awards.  His influences include Kurt Vonnegut, Pynchon, Flannery O’Conner, John Updike, and Steinbeck.  He is a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University.

The story begins casually enough with a man who marries a woman much younger than himself.  On the day after his wedding, he goes to his office, Saunders writes, “A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk.  And so our [honeymoon] must be deferred, while I recovered.  Per the advice of my physician, I took to my-- // A sort of sick box was judged to be—[said] hans vollman // Efficacious.  [said] roger bevins iii // Efficacious, yes,  Thank you, friend.  hans vollman // Always a pleasure.  roger bevins iii” // There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor, the very parlor through which we had recently (gleefully, guiltily, her hand in mine) passed en route to her bedroom.  Then the physician returned, and his assistant carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that—I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed” (5).  As I am sure you are aware, hans and roger are dead.  The names appear on the page as if they are scripts for a film.  The names of hans, roger, and all others in the bardo are in lower case with about an 8 point font.  The rest of the novel involves conversations with more than forty deceased characters.

When Willie Lincoln appears in the Bardo, the other souls try to reconnect him with his father who pays daily visits his tomb.  They believe that a connection to Lincoln can save Willie for a life in the Bardo, so he won’t be taken away.  Most of the conversation takes place among, hans, bevins, and the reverend everly thomas.  There are some characters who provide a tiny dab of humor.  The barons use a stream of obscenities each time they talk, and thankfully, only the first and last letter of each word appears with a dash between them.  Another character, actually corrects the grammar of the deceased. 

The novel has 108 chapters, some with only a single line of text.  Occasionally, Saunders places what appear to be newspaper, magazine articles, and quotes from faux works of history regarding Willie’s death and Lincoln’s presidency.  This 343-page novel can be read in a single sitting.

This interesting novel, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a novel that will keep you in your chair to find out what happens next!  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!