Lincoln in the Bardo, the powerful first novel by short-story master George Saunders, represents a new genre: metaphysical oral history. Set after the funeral of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, in the early days of the Civil War, it is written partly as a series of fictional news clippings and partly in the voice of the dead-but-not-departed residents of a Georgetown cemetery. It reads like a play, albeit an unstageable one, given the dream logic of Saunders’s spiritual world. That and the 166 speaking parts.
The latter challenge presented an opportunity for the audiobook. “I had this notion to try and get a different person for each voice in the book,” Saunders says. He called on friends and family to read the “historical” portions. To play the ghosts, meanwhile, Random House assembled a cast that would make TV executives drool, including Emmy winners (Ben Stiller, Jeffrey Tambor, Bradley Whitford); Oscar winners (Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore); comedians (Bill Hader, Keegan-Michael Key); musicians (Carrie Brownstein, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy); and writers (David Sedaris, Lena Dunham).
“I love the idea that, by casting actors and nonactors, we were able to simulate that ‘I hear America singing’ notion,” Saunders says. “They all combine to make this sort of egalitarian polyphony that I think is very true to the spirit of the book.” The audiobook of Lincoln in the Bardo is out now.