Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders is an award-winning master of the American short story. Over the past three decades he has produced several collections and a body of work that is characterised by formal ingenuity and ventriloquistic flair. That he would produce his first novel at this point in his career, he is nearing 60, seems an unlikely turn of events. From interviews it appears Saunders is as surprised as anyone.
But, as he has been forced to explain, form follows story. Each story tells him “how long it wants to be and how it wants to be told”. And this story wanted to be told via a multitude of voices. Once it was no longer a play, it could only really be a novel.
Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over just one night in the life of Abraham Lincoln, but we see this night from dozens of angles. Passages from letters, diaries, and histories – real and invented – sit alongside a chaotic hubbub of voices to create a patchwork of competing narratives and often contradictory accounts of this night, perhaps among the hardest of his life.
It is February 1862. The Civil War’s first bloody battles have made it clear it will not be easily won and Lincoln doubts his course of action. Then Willie Lincoln, by all reports Abe’s favourite son, dies suddenly of a fever. Lincoln is so overcome with grief that after the burial he sneaks back into the graveyard, enters the tomb and pulls the boy out to hold him.
This is where the historical record ends. In Saunders’ account he is not alone. His invisible audience, who have already met Willie, are the inhabitants of the Bardo, a death-realm based loosely on the Buddhist conception of the afterlife. This is a place where ghosts can tarry and avoid judgement, for a time, if they resist the entreaties of angels.
The traces of the play it once was are strong. It looks like a script – below each quotation and line of dialogue there is an attribution, serving to visually enhance the fragmented nature of the narrative – and structurally it resembles a play, the ghosts functioning as its Greek chorus. Instead of speaking as one, however, the three guiding voices of Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas – who are in comic mode most of the time, a kind of Three Stooges of the afterlife – finish each other’s sentences and offer unreliable versions not only of events as they unfold but their own stories as well. In fact, the aggrieved presences in the Bardo are desperate to tell their own stories – they tell them to anyone who’ll listen, and they hope that if they tell their stories to Willie, whose father has so strangely visited him, he might help them return to the living.
Physically these ghosts are grotesque. They appear as something of a mix of the state in which they died and a manifestation of their subconscious. Their narrative styles are also wildly divergent. Hans Vollman, an older man with a young wife, has a swollen member that belies his dignified story of woe, while Roger Bevins III, a suicide who is many-eyed and many-mouthed, will, until stopped, list endlessly the sensual delights of the world: “swarms of insects dancing in slant rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-toe in a field of snow”.
All this wonderfully indulges Saunders’ gifts for voice and language and he has a lot of fun with these competing narratives. At one point, there are two pages of differing accounts on what kind of moon hung in the sky that night.
Despite the contradictions, however, the disparate sources provide a rich portrait of Lincoln in his moment of crisis. While some cast doubts on his temperament and his loose parenting, the prevailing impression is of a wise and empathetic listener who wins people over.
Lincoln himself, who only speaks when a ghost inhabits him and channels his thoughts, is perfectly pitched. The rhythms of his private language read convincingly like the vexed thoughts of the man behind the speeches.
Here he is doubting the cause: “Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?” He has class resentments. Despite how much “king-types” would happily see him fail, he mocks them: “the rabble cannot manage itself. Well, the rabble could. The rabble would. He would lead the rabble in managing. The thing would be won.”
Lincoln the emergent abolitionist is also well captured. A black man, Thomas Havens, feels Lincoln pass through him and decides to stay a while. Saunders does a good job of not whitewashing Lincoln here, but has Havens comment: “He had no aversion to me, is how I might put it. Or rather, he had once had such an aversion, and still bore traces of it, but, in examining this aversion, pushing it into the light, had somewhat, already, eroded it.”
Lincoln in the Bardo is an ingenious, hugely entertaining creation that plays brilliantly to Saunders’ strengths, but it is not a flawless work. As convincing a host of characters as they are, the human and no-longer-human drama never entirely overcomes the artificiality of the conceit. There are also moments when the story feels forced, stretched to make the requisite lifts in dramatic tension.
But it is an affecting novel. Saunders has said that the central question while writing it was, “How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?”, and the anguish of this question is beautifully rendered. The book also raises questions about the unreliable nature of the stories we tell and the delusions that sometimes allow us to live. There is an ironic tone, but as with so much of Saunders’ work, it manages to be ironic and deeply serious at the same time – this is his genius. SH
Bloomsbury, 368pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo". Subscribe here.