I’m making my way through George Saunders’s newest book, Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders has been one of my favorite authors, and biggest influence on my work, ever since I first read one of his stories two years ago. He’s got this magnificently original voice, each character in each story being entirely distinct from any other. It’s magical as a reader, to discover wholly new people and perspectives from the same author whenever you pick up one of their books. This skill is something I’ve clung to as I’ve set forth in my own writing, something I still have yet to figure out completely.
Last week, I had the extreme fortune of meeting George Saunders (a.k.a. my writing hero). It’s was super awesome to hear him speak and read from Lincoln in the Bardo, plus he personalized and signed two of my books, which will sit proudly on my bookshelf coveted forever.
Before the event, a friend and I grabbed dinner at the Mexican place next door, and I *swear* Saunders sat only a few tables away from us, enjoying his own pre-show feast. I could be wrong, of course (and I probably am), but he had the same jacket and glasses and old man way about him that I’m choosing to believe it was actually him. Choosing to believe, simply so I can say: I ate dinner next to George Saunders.
Best. Meal. Ever.
Going into the event, I didn’t really know anything about this new book beyond that Saunders had written it so it must be amazing. Every attendee got a signed copy of Lincoln in the Bardo, and I remember being surprised upon opening up the book. I was struck by how unfamiliar the pages looked because I was expecting typical prose pages. It was a novel after all, and novels are full of words and paragraphs and chapters.
Saunders is a fascinating writer, one whose skills will forever lead him to create increasingly imaginative stories.
But the structure of this novel was different. Written almost like a script, with each character getting their own chance to narrate the story at certain times, the book toggles between perspectives and narrative form. One chapter might be exclusively historical fact, passages pulled from real historical artifacts and voices of the day. Another might be the inner monologue of one character, or the bantering and observations of multiple different characters. The structure is compelling and something I’ve never yet experienced in other literary works.
I suppose I should provide a brief synopsis: Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story at its most simple. Young Willie Lincoln passes away, still just a child, but President Lincoln is unable to work through his grief. So Lincoln revisits the crypt Willie is laid to rest in, and a quiet form of chaos ensues among the graveyard ghost inhabitants who haven’t yet been able to pass on into afterlife. At the heart of it all is the relationship between father and son and coming to terms with grief in the wake of great loss.
Saunders said at the event that the idea for this book took many years to fully realize. Years ago, someone had mentioned to Saunders that President Lincoln was rumored to have visited Willie’s crypt, held his dead son, in an attempt to heal his breaking heart. The image was haunting and never left Saunders, but the timing for actually writing the book was never quite right. After finishing Tenth of December, it finally felt right for him to explore the idea further. And now, four years after his most masterful short story collection comes an equally, if not more, captivating narrative.
The reason I’ve always been drawn to Saunders is because of his characters’ voices. They’ve always felt so alive to me–like real people–and that is no different in this novel. The voices are just as strong as usual, perhaps even enhanced by the structure of the story. Saunders is a fascinating writer, one whose skills will forever lead him to create increasingly imaginative stories.
A Saunders story makes the world a better place indeed. Anyone who chooses to read his work will surely tilt their head and view their surroundings in a different, perhaps novel, way.