Reading Matters

Saunders’ debut novel a bean stalk of hilarity and heartbreak

Yes, I’m going to use the B-word. George Saunders’ first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is brilliant. Absolutely. It’s funny and clever and heart-ripping. That’s Lincoln, as in Abraham, and Bardo, as in the Tibetan place where souls go to “mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel and enact bizarre acts of penance.”

You’ll likely remember that the Lincolns’ 11-year-old son Willie died upstairs in the White House of typhoid fever in 1862, and that his bereft father – this is fact – went several times to open the boy’s crypt and hold his body. Saunders takes this seed and grows it into a bean stalk of hilarity and heartbreak, casting in bas relief life’s sweet fleetingness.

Indeed, the story needs a bit of a snip here and a bit of a whack there. But Saunders weaves in the Civil War dead piling up – “A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys.” – and the fury hurled at the President and the sad fact that Saunders cleverly laces throughout that, “Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.”

Saunders will speak at CPCC April 5. I may attempt to kiss his feet.