Genre in the Mainstream

This American Afterlife: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I hate the phrase “now more than ever.” I hate the implications that come with it, the idea that one moment of history is somehow more fraught than all the others. And yet, part of me wants to say that we need George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, now more than ever, because I want you to drop everything and read it. Like, right now. (OK, read this review first, but seriously right after that.) The truth is, this book would have been vital if it had been released in 1950 or 1980, or on September 12, 2001. It will still be necessary in three hundred years, whether or not humans are here to experience it—maybe by then the cockroaches and ants that inherit the earth will have learned to read, and it can inspire them to be better than we have been.

Over a thirty-year writing career, George Saunders has crafted a very precise tone in his stories—wry and absurdist, with an occasional flash of sadness so deep that you start crying before you understand why. His stories make for a particularly good lens to view our current climate, and I always feel like I understand life in modern America better after I’ve read his work. So it might seem odd at first that in his debut as a novelist, Saunders has decided to excavate a moment from our nation’s past. Bardo’s story is simple and based in heartbreaking fact: Abraham Lincoln’s third son, Willie, died of typhoid fever in 1862. Since the Lincolns didn’t have a family plot in D.C., Willie was buried in a borrowed tomb in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. His mother was too distraught to attend the funeral; the president went to the service, and then, according to stories circulated at the time, returned to the crypt late in the night to hold his son’s body one last time.

Saunders takes this sliver of grief and turns it into a meditation on loss which in turn becomes a consideration of the Civil War and the existence of America itself.

The first thing that strikes you about Lincoln in the Bardo is its cacophony of voices. George Saunders has corralled historical records, newspaper clippings, diary entries, correspondence, and pure fiction into a wall of noise. The reader is introduced to the three men who will be our main human characters Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and The Reverend Everly Thomas. We soon realize that these three worthy gentlemen are dead. They are ghosts living (for lack of a better term) in Oak Hill Cemetery. The year is 1862; the Civil War rages; most people, even those who sympathize with his grief, consider Lincoln a failure. Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend greet the young Willie Lincoln upon his arrival, comfort him, but also urge him to leave as soon as possible. The Bardo, you see, is no place for children.

There are different ways of defining Bardo. In some branches of Buddhism, it’s the time/place/state-of-mind that occurs immediately after death, before the ineffable part of the person that just stopped being a person moves on to a new incarnation. In Tibetan Buddhism there are six Bardos—one of which lasts from the moment of incarnation until the moment of death. So, in this way of thinking, we’re all in Bardo right now. (Unless some of you reading this are ghosts, in which case, hello! Thank you for spending a few moments of your eternity on Tor.com.)

Saunders, a practicing Buddhist, draws on these traditions while embroidering for the purposes of his fiction. The dead are clinging to a half-life, in denial of the finality of their situation, much the way the living make it through each day ignoring the fact that someday they, and everyone they love, will be dead. Their chief way of holding onto their existence is an incantatory, unchanging recitation of how they died, and why they need to be returned to life. Occasionally the dead are assaulted with visions of people they loved in life, who cajole them into “letting go” and moving on into the unknown of death. When a dead person succumbs, their leaving is accompanied by a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon that nauseates the other dead people. The only people this doesn’t apply to are children. And herein lies the plot: if children refuse to leave, they’re quickly overwhelmed by a “carapace”—a hideous white shell that pins them in one spot forever. This is the fate awaiting Willie Lincoln if he can’t be convinced to leave.

Even for adults the choice to remain in the Bardo distorts a person—certain aspects of their lives have become exaggerated. Hans Vollman stumbles about the cemetery practically tripping over his enormous erection. But it isn’t there as some sort of ironic punishment for lust—on the day he died, he and his young wife were finally planning to consummate their marriage. Now she’s all he can think of, as he clings to the idea that he’ll be revived and permitted to return to his life with her. After all, they had their whole lives ahead of them, and as soon as he’s well, he’ll travel the world with her, learn with her, maybe even have children with her. How can he possibly leave this world with that waiting for him?

Roger Bevins III, who committed suicide rather than live a life in the closet, is completely covered with eyes, ears, noses—not, again, as a joke on his existence, but simply because he experiences so much beauty in the world, why confine himself to only a single pair of eyes, ears, and nostrils? Better to see and hear and smell everything.

Only Reverend Everly has a more sinister reason for remaining behind—but I’m certainly not spoiling that.

This sounds like the set-up for a horror novel, a spooky ghost story, but we’re in Saundersland, so regular rules don’t apply. The book creates a create a humanistic fugue, with noble voices jostling against the vulgar until the concept of class becomes meaningless. Each character in the story lived a life that they valued, from a repugnant racist, to the sweet 14-year-old girl who just wanted to know love, to the town drunks who ignored their children in favor of their addictions. The book is shot through with humor, from wry observations on the human condition to pure silliness, like the three young bachelors who fly around the cemetery teasing other ghosts by dropping showers of tiny hats on them. As the book opens, we meet only the spirits of whites, because the blacks are buried in a common pit outside. When the spirits of the enslaved blacks come into the cemetery to observe Lincoln’s grief they face violent attacks by some of the whites, but they persist, and gradually move closer and closer both to the center of the cemetery and to the center of the novel. And in a mirror to their movement, the narrative shifts from immediate worries about Willie’s eternal home to the state of the country just outside the cemetery fence.

Here, in this liminal space, Lincoln can grieve and gather himself, but beyond that wall history is churning and other men’s sons are dying, and for what? As the black characters begin to come in and speak, we start to get the stark vision of life in America that isn’t considered in the white-written history texts and upper-class diary entries that made up the novel’s first chapters.

Many of Saunders’ most famous stories, “Escape from Spider Island,” “Pastoralia,” “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” and (my personal favorite) “Sea Oak,” seem to present us with a near-future that is subtly funhouse-mirrored—slightly more drug-addled, poorer, meaner, more desperate. So at first it might seem off-putting that he’s written a historical novel. Isn’t our current world ripe for a darkly hilarious George Saunders story?

Well, no.

The world is a darkly hilarious George Saunders story.

The fact that his first novel, a work of historical fiction, happens to come to us during our most Saunders-ian (?) era yet is (probably) an accident, as he’s been working on this book for almost two decades. But through whatever alchemy or serendipity or sheer chain of coincidence, he has given us the perfect book for our time. He has given us a portrait of our greatest president at a turning point not only in his own life but in our nation’s history, and rather than shying away from it, Saunders takes us right into Lincoln’s tortured stream of consciousness:

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? Now he recalled the boy he had been (hiding from Father to read Bunyan; raising rabbits to gain a few coins; standing in town as the gaunt daily parade drawled out the hard talk hunger made; having to reel back when one of those more fortunate passed merrily by in a carriage), feeling strange and odd (smart too, superior), long-legged always knocking things over, called named (Ape Lincoln, Spider, Ape-a-ham, Monstrous-Tall), but also thinking, quietly, there inside himself, that he might someday get something for himself. And then, going out to get it, he had found the way clear—his wit was quick, people liked him for his bumbling and his ferocity of purpose, and the peachfields and haystacks and young girls and ancient wild meadows drove him nearly mad with their beauty, and strange animals moved in lazy mobs along muddy rivers, rivers crossable only with the aid of some old rowing hermit who spoke a language barely English , and all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free, than any man, any free white man, could come from as low a place as he had…might rise, here, as high as he was inclined to go…. Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.
Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.
He would lead the rabble in managing.
The thing would be won.

Can the rabble manage themselves? Can the people of this country unite again, after being so divided? And, most important, should they?

This is where the book goes from being a lovely meditation on grief (much like Universal Harvester, which I reviewed last week) and becomes instead something greater. Saunders leaps right over the usual walls of fiction to ask instead questions more suited to religion and philosophy: What makes a good person? Who gets to be fully human?

And again, as he increasingly uses Lincoln to stand in for the nation itself: who is America for?

Are the black spirits to be left outside the fence? Are the spirits of the poor simply sources of amusement for the rich? Are orphaned children to be abandoned to their fate? What is the point of re-forming the union unless we’re going to deal with the horrors that were brought down on the heads of the enslaved, the massacred, the exploited? Who is to be held accountable? How do we hold an accounting?

Any true consideration of this country has to take into account the fact that we are built on blood, on forced labor, slavery, genocide, rape. These things are woven into the fabric of our country just as much as the words of the Declaration of Independence—words that even most white people will now admit were written by a rapist who thought he could own humans—and the Constitution. But the amazing thing about America is that we are also capable of change. If the Revolutionary War was to declare that we were in fact a nation, and The War of 1812 was to affirm our permanent separation from Mother England, the Civil War was the moment when we decided who we are, and who we were going to become. Fine, we exist. But what are we here for? Who are we here for? What is our purpose as a nation? Some of us believe that we are here for everyone—an idea more than a place, held together with spit and duct tape and the fervent hope that this space can be held sacred for people who need refuge, who are fleeing war or oppression, or who simply love the idea enough that they want to become part of it. This idea holds within it the hope that someday, with enough work, everyone will be part of it—that the children of oppressors will do the necessary work to make sure the children of the oppressed know they are part of it.

We’ve had to decide who we are over and over again. We turned boats filled with refugees away, dooming them to Auschwitz; we sacrificed our own people to join Britain, fight the Nazis, and liberate those same concentration camps. We put our own people in internment camps, ruining a generation of lives; we made reparations for that act, and publicly apologized four decades later (well before, say, Britain finally apologized to the war hero Alan Turing, so go America). We bombed a pair of civilian cities, killing more than 120,000 people; we took in almost 85,000 refugees last year. We call ourselves America, honoring an Italian man who never set foot in this country, while erasing the generations of Indigenous people who were here before the Revolutionary War; American veterans are acting as human shields to protect protesters on the sacred ground of Standing Rock.

There is no state of is—we are, always, as a nation and as individuals, becoming.

George Saunders makes you love Willie Lincoln, then reminds you that (as far as we can know) he came from nothing and returned to nothing, his life a brief, lovable flash. Saunders makes you love his father, but all the while you know Ford’s Theater is waiting, a fixed point in the future. He makes you love the America that sacrificed so many lives and so much blood to try to become the better version of itself.

But here we are, in their future, in our present. Are we any better?

Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a lifeline being thrown from some other, better world, one in which empathy rules human interaction and people are united in a quest to glean whatever beauty they can from existence. In immersing himself in the world of the dead, George Saunders has captured life, in all of its transience and beauty, and created a vision of love that not only outlasts loss, but that opens up to hold everyone it touches. This book is lovely, heartbreaking, and often very funny, but all of that is just a cascade of cherries on top of the fact that reading this book will make you a better person.

Lincoln in the Bardo is available from Random House.

Leah Schnelbach intends to hang out in the Bardo for as long as possible. The idea of having extra eyes seems pretty sweet! In the meantime, you can join her in the Purgatory of Twitter.

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