What sparks these conversations is the arrival of a new person to their bardo — Abraham's Lincoln's son Willie, who has just died of typhoid fever. It's February 1862, the nation is at war, and Lincoln is doing all he can to hold both his personal life and the country together. Lincoln periodically visits to mourn his son. It's funny, and perhaps significant, that Lincoln himself, despite the title, is never actually IN the bardo. He's in the grave yard where the other occupants of the bardo are stuck, but he himself isn't in that interstitial state. He's still alive!!
Much of the "action" of the novel reads like a play. Our main three "actors" include a guy named Hans Vollman, who died getting brained with a falling ceiling beam, a freak accident. Poor Hans had recently gotten married, and was about to finally consummate his marriage with his beautiful young wife when he's abruptly ripped from life and deposited in the bardo. Roger Bevins III is a gay man whose lover made fun of him in front of their friends, so he killed himself. And finally, there's a reverend named Everly Thomas, who acts as the sort of conscience of the novel. While we don't know how he died, he knows more than all the the ghosts — he's the only who knows he's dead, having actually made it all the way to the pearly gates before absconding to the bardo. But he has a secret.
And so the occupants of the bardo — including Willie — learn that they can "enter" corporeal bodies (as well as each other), and hear that person's thoughts. It's sort of a literal way of seeing the world through someone else's eyes, and trying to understand their sides of things — a constant theme throughout the novel.
Interspersed throughout these conversations are snippets from real newspapers and letters from historical people detailing the mood of the country at this point in history. It's not good, to say the least. For instance, Lincoln is crushed in the press for having a big party at the White House, both while the country is at war and also while his son is sick.
While the novel clocks in about 320 pages, you can probably read it two or three sittings. It's not text heavy at all. But to truly unlock what Saunders is up to here, it definitely requires a re-reading or two. I have not yet done that, mostly because it was a novel I sometimes felt like I was enduring more than I was enjoying. I mean, this novel is unquestionably the work of a genius writer. There's no doubt about that. And I would recommend it highly just for the wholly unique reading experience, as well as it's quite-frequent profundity. But it's certainly not something you'll want to bring to the beach with you this summer.
(Finally, if you're interested, here's my favorite paragraph from the novel, that helps tie together the themes of empathy and grief:
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, it’s like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”)