Author: George Saunders
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: April 2018
When I knew that a new Saunders story was coming, I should have known what was coming. I should have known that he would pierce to the center of pain with the self-assigned task to crawl back up from it to grasp at human heights. Or at least illustrate characters who then tumble down then try again.
Lincoln in the Bardo intrigues by its title. There’s only one Lincoln who gets called to mind: the towering (in memory and physical stature) Abraham. The “bardo” is unexplained within the book itself, which is a minor gripe of mine, but Saunders apparently chose the word because he didn’t want Western readers to bring preconceived notions of the afterlife to the story. The “bardo” is a transitional place between life and death in one of the Buddhist traditions.
Technically the Lincoln who sits confused in the bardo is not Abraham but his son, Willie. The painting chosen for the book’s cover is a scene of Abraham and Isaac, underscoring the burden of a father forced to give up everything. But while the Abraham of the Bible did not end up making the sacrifice under his malicious god’s pathetic trickery, the real Abraham did actually lose a child. Which has to be one of the worst fucking things imaginable.
Saunders famously interweaves both historical recollections of people who knew Abraham Lincoln and a chorus of ghosts who live in the graveyard where Willie’s body is temporarily stored. They don’t know they’re dead and describe the living as “people from that previous place.” The concept definitely puts the “new” back in “novel,” even if the length of the book stretched my patience for the peculiar style. One confusion I couldn’t get my head around is why some of the main ghosts relay what a second one says, while on the next page the second ghost might be saying it himself. Then there’s the suspicion that Saunders fudged the lines between historical record and his own voice, in particular when it came to the cemetery worker. But when I pause I realize this gray line is a great strength: only George Saunders could have matched the real voices to his own style so well.
The author’s colloquial lyricism is evident throughout. For example, he writes that grandmothers are “tolerant and frank, recipients of certain dark secrets, who, by the quality of their unjudging listening, granted tacit forgiveness, and thus let in the sun” and tells of how the ghosts are taunted by tempting memories of past lives comes on a breeze “fragrant with all manner of things that give comfort: grass, sun, beer, bread, quilts, cream.” He’s also a modern master of the value of pairing the sacred and profane, alternating lines like these with descriptions of the dangling genitals of a ghost or the awful actions of a trashy couple who remain just as low-life in the afterlife as they did in their real lives.
Sometimes, though, there are just too many ghosts bobbing around in this book. The bitter delicacy lies in the analysis of a grieving Lincoln, an often unpopular president in his time who is responsible for a civil war while also facing a horrific parental moment. The historical narrators describe the pain:
“The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will.” In “Selected Civil War Letters of Edwine Willow,” edited by Constance Mays.
“One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world. From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.” In “Essay Upon the Loss of a Child,” by Mrs. Rose Milland.
Eventually we get into the mind of Lincoln himself (by way of the ghosts temporarily occupying him):
Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. The baby must also depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.
I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.
It is that which used to bear him around. The essential thing (that which was borne, that which we loved) is gone. Though this was part of what we loved (we loved the way he, the combination of spark and bearer, looked and walked and skipped and laughed and played the clown), this, this here, is the lesser part of that beloved contraption.
Lincoln had to find a way to emerge out of his sorrow because otherwise he would be no good to anyone; he understood the universal sorrow that “had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time” and that if he could find a way to see the war through, perhaps on balance he could lift a mound of suffering off the nation. Nothing would bring back those dead soldiers, though.
And nothing would bring back his boy. Saunders’ book, brilliantly conceived, intriguingly executed, and imperfectly human, is one that both magnetizes and repels. Like life. Like a walk through a graveyard on a sunshower day.