Abraham Lincoln is alive and well, at least judging by pop culture. Not long ago, he got
remade as the hero of a Steven Spielberg movie, a rare honor which puts him up in the
stratosphere alongside Indiana Jones and E.T. Around that same time, another film featured
the exploits of
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter—perhaps the strangest cinematic depiction
of a US President in the history of Hollywood. Not to be outdone, the TV series
Parks and
followed up with an episode featuring a stripper, dressed as 16th president,
who exercises a very different kind of executive privilege at a bachelorette party.

Talk about versatility!

Yet for sheer conceptual daring, it would be hard to top
Lincoln in the Bardo, the Man Booker Prize-winning 2017
novel by George Saunders. Much like the vampire-hunting
Lincoln, the protagonist of this book is intent on dispatching
the undead on their journey to the hereafter. But the odd quirk
to Saunders’ novel is the author's commitment to historical
accuracy even while he embraces the most fanciful aspects
of the supernatural.

In fact, roughly a quarter of this book is presented in the form
of direct quotes from memoirs and scholarly works about the
Civil War era. Not all of the extracts are real, but these
passages still manage to convey a sense of scrupulous
verisimilitude. But the rest of the book is presented through
the shifting perspectives of more than a dozen ghost narrators.
They reside in the
bardo—a term from Tibetan Buddhism
that refers to an intermediate zone between life and death. Saunders refuses to provide
much theological background here, and the readers are allowed (or perhaps forced) to
assign their own metaphysical interpretations to the unfolding incidents.

In fact, even the ghosts here aren’t sure where they are or what they’re doing. They prefer
to believe—or at least pretend—that they aren’t really dead, just sick. Coffins, for example,
are described as sick boxes, and a host of other circumlocutions are employed to avoid
confronting the truth of their condition. But even these souls in denial are aware that there
is another stage of the afterlife awaiting them outside the bardo. But who knows what it
involves—perhaps a final judgment, maybe reincarnation, or total annihilation?  Our
various narrators are drawn from the ranks of those who remain behind in this intermediate
zone, unwilling to move onward, whether out of fear or denial. Yet staying behind comes
with some downsides: these ghosts must periodically return to their deteriorating physical
bodies and are limited in their ability to move outside the precincts of the cemetery.

In an intriguing twist, Abraham Lincoln holds the key to liberating these souls in the bardo,
just as he freed the slaves in actual American history. He remains the Great Emancipator
even in the context of this eccentric ghost story.

But here’s where it gets stranger. The Lincoln in this bardo isn’t the famous president, but
rather his son. This is where our historical sources fill in the gaps. Willie Lincoln died at
age eleven of typhoid fever, shortly after the start of the Civil War. President Lincoln was
so overwhelmed with grief at the loss of his son that he made several visits to the crypt
after the funeral in order to hold the dead lad’s body. When Saunders learned about
these emotionally-charged interactions between the most powerful man in the United
States and a lifeless corpse, he saw the potential for a very different kind of historical novel.
This book has nothing in common with, say,
Gone With the Wind or The Red Badge of
. Perhaps the closest counterpart to Lincoln in the Bardo is Toni Morrison’s
Beloved, another work of fiction set during the mid-nineteenth century that merges a
ghost story with a charged account of the tumult and sufferings of American life at a
decisive juncture in history.

But unlike Morrison’s book,
Lincoln in the Bardo is
unabashedly postmodern, constructed out of fragments
and citations. Saunders’ book consists of 108 brief
chapters, and most of the chapters juxtapose different
narrative voices. At times, the experience of reading
this book resembles paging through a notebook or journal
filled with isolated self-contained paragraphs. Eventually
a series of stories emerge, both about President Lincoln
and his son, as well as the various spirits lingering on the
premises of the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.

Abraham Lincoln’s visits to this cemetery set off a series
of crises and conflicts among the bardo community. The
focal point of the story is Willie Lincoln’s uncertainty as he
counterbalances his desire to stay around in close proximity to his father, or go on to
the next stage in the mysterious cycle of the afterlife. But other characters are faced with
similar decisions and beset with mixed emotions. Saunders artfully shows how the
President manages to resolve these unseen problems even as he deals with his own
mourning and melancholy disposition.

I admire this novel, but must express intense dissatisfaction with a literary establishment
that refuses to acknowledge that this book is, at its heart, a work of supernatural fiction.
How can
Lincoln in the Bardo win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, yet not even get
considered for the Hugo Award?  Why wasn’t Saunders’ work nominated for the World
Fantasy Award? How could it fail to get mentioned as a contender for the Bram Stoker
Award—a prize that’s even named after an author who made his reputation via a
that deals with a similar intermediate zone between life and death? I can understand, at
least to some degree, the marketing-driven decisions of publishers, but the people voting
on these awards should know better. Do they really want to exclude books from
consideration merely because they are bold and well written, and not stuffed to the brim
with genre formulas?

Perhaps we should acknowledge that books can also exist in strange intermediate zones.
But those literary ghetto exists only because of biases among the people who make
these peculiar distinctions and inexcusably bad decisions. I’d like to see that bardo
eliminated, its gates torn asunder by another great emancipator, perhaps one wielding
a pen. But I fear it will outlive all of us.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most
recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: March 26, 2018
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

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Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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The Blind Assassin

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The Handmaid's Tale

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The Windup Girl

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The State of the Art

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The Demolished Man

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A Case of Conscience

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Fahrenheit 451

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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World War Z

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A Clockwork Orange

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Demons by Daylight

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The Nameless

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Stories of Your Life and Others

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Childhood's End

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Ready Player One

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Jurassic Park

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Little, Big

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House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

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Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

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The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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A Maggot

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Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

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Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

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The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

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The Centauri Device

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Stranger in a Strange Land

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

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Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Off Season

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Flowers for Algernon

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King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
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Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
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Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

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Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

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Doctor Faustus

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100 Years of Solitude

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Hell House

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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Ada, or Ardor

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Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

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North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

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The Tiger's Wife

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At Swim-Two-Birds

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The Famished Road

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White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

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Tales of Mystery & Imagination

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Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

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Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

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Midnight's Children

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The Female Man

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Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

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Store of the Worlds

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Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
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Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

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Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

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Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

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Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

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Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

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Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

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The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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All rights reserved.
How can Lincoln in the Bardo
win the prestigious Man Booker
Prize, yet not even get
considered for the Hugo
Award? Why wasn’t Saunders’
work nominated for the World
Fantasy Award? How could it
fail to get mentioned as a contender
for the Bram Stoker Award?