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Lincoln in the Bardo
368 pages; Random House
What's past is prologue, as Shakespeare noted; that's the theme George Saunders teases out in his gut-wrenching first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Long considered a preeminent short-story stylist, Saunders sets his dreamlike narrative in a Washington cemetery at the height of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln, cloaked by darkness, visits the mausoleum of his just-deceased son, Willie. We haven't seen anything like Saunders's singular technique. With humorous spectral touches, the novel is written like a play. It has a voice reminiscent of Joyce's nighttown sections of Ulysses, while also weaving in selectively edited nonfiction accounts to create a compulsively readable story taut with drama, a devastating fable for our own time. Although invisible to Lincoln, a hilarious trio of bumbling ghosts and the spirit of Willie himself steer the conflict-weary president through a long night's journey into day as he encounters a range of phantoms—from proper Victorian ladies to angry slaves—who embody America devouring itself. Saunders probes Lincoln's grief and wavering conviction that the union must be preserved: "It is out of control. Who is doing it. Who caused it.... What am I doing here."  
— Hamilton Cain