Let me make this clear and explicit at the outset: this is a very good, very entertaining, provocative and clever novel. But it is, I fear, not as good as one might hope. The undefined “Bardo” of the title is a kind of Limbo, where souls transition from reality to eternity, and where some of them linger, afraid or unwilling to leave behind the past. It is where young Willie Lincoln, son of honest Abe, finds himself, having succumbed to illness at the age of 11. The night after the funeral, his father, President of the United States comes secretly to visit the grave.
It is a polyphony of a novel, where extracts from books about Lincoln are quoted to forward the narrative and the ghosts are always given the dignity of a citation to their utterances. It is a kind of dialogue, with two voices especially – a gay man who committed suicide and a middle-aged printer knocked on the noggin – acting as our Vladimir and Estragon in this purgatorial place.
What Saunders excels at is sentimentality, and I do not mean that as a criticism. Done well it can be sublime. It is here. It is not just that a novel about a grieving father and a dead son waiting to hear his last words isn’t inherently catch-in-the-throat stuff, it is also politically sentimental. At one point the ghosts swarm into Lincoln’s body. More than the representative of the people and their will, he literally becomes a walking version of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the encapsulation and incarnation of all. No doubt in the days of President Trump, such a fiction has consolatory appeal. But even this seems awkwardly cribbed from a novel like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, where Richard Nixon is “possessed” by Uncle Sam, to continue his fight against “The Phantom” of Communism.
Saunders is the old-fashioned avant-garde. This is the acceptable radicalism. I would be disappointed in any reader who failed to enjoy it, and equally annoyed if any reader thinks this is the best we can do – or the most pressing response to a changing world.