“Lincoln in the Bardo” By George Saunders. Random House, 2017. 368 pages. $28.
George Saunders is not the first to channel Abraham Lincoln during Lincoln’s torturous term as Civil War president, but he is a courageous and ambitious writer all the same. In his new, bestselling debut novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” short story writer Saunders has come up with a bold literary form with which to tell stories and explore themes starting with the most basic and compelling — doing what is right.
It is the night of Feb. 25, 1862. William Wallace Lincoln (Willie), age 11, has been laid to rest in a crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. There is some evidence that his father, President Abraham Lincoln, visited his dead son inside the crypt that night and may have extracted him from his casket and touched or held him.
George Saunders, the storyteller, takes over from there. In the bardo, many of the cemetery’s dead persist, their spirits unresolved. They are animated, ghost-like shapeshifters — a lively, passionate, often ill-informed bunch. Anything is possible, including contradiction. Each spirit is a caricature of his or her former self — uniquely, symbolically and often hilariously tied to their physical form from “that previous place.” Saunders, in interviews, says that bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional state between death and rebirth. In Saunders’ imaginative bardo, the Oak Hill Cemetery possesses at one end of the human spectrum, elements of the circus freak show (including the conjoined and the unnatural acts) and at the other, a grief-stricken president’s first-hand reckoning of the horrific losses he demands from his country.
The book is immediately reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ book of narrative poems titled “Spoon River Anthology,” an all-American reading experience many schools assign their students. In both books, spirits talk from the grave. Saunders’ world of spirits — murderers, rapists, slaves, a reverend, laborers and a mother worried about her three daughters, among others — has a lot to say, but so do the living. The cemetery watchman speaks poignantly as does Lincoln, though Lincoln never speaks directly to us. We hear from Lincoln when his son or other ghosts enter his body and experience him.
Excerpts from journalists, memoirists and letter-writers make up another set of voices, and these voices are often real. Saunders placed the excerpts amid the fictional accounts. He has said, again in interviews, that he considered himself a bit of a curator as he decided what excerpts to place where among the chorus of voices. Some of the most affecting voices are the nonfiction excerpts describing Willie’s suffering from typhoid fever and his mother and father’s grief. Also affecting are the testimonials of those who loved and hated Lincoln.
Three spirits are among the most reliable of the narrators in this book. Hans Vollman, 46, is a newlywed killed by a ceiling beam before he consummates his marriage. He is doomed to a form that is naked, fat and ever demonstrating the man’s amazing state of arousal. Roger Bevins III is a gay, heartbroken man who slits his wrists and then immediately regrets it. His spirit form is marked by several sets of eyes, noses and hands because his last impressions were extremely sensual and vivid. He died in a state of great wonder of life’s glorious offerings. Rev. Early Thomas, by contrast, has a look of surprise and terror on his face though his words and actions are at odds with his face. Every character is an unresolved drama, tied to Saunders’ greater narrative, and readers eventually see these dramas play out.
Vollman and Bevins are among the majority who do not understand that they’re dead. As spirits, they seem confused about time, as well. They call the caskets sick-boxes and their bodies sick-forms. There was no finish line for them, only an awakening in a place full of chatter and sick-forms behaving outlandishly. The three bachelors, for instance, race about the heavens, dropping loads of hats upon those in the cemetery. The bachelors love their “freedom” and think they must inhabit their sick-boxes every day and come out at night to hold onto their freedom. They have never been loved nor have they loved.
The heart of Saunders’ story is Willie Lincoln, a wise and likable boy who refuses to exit the bardo because of his father’s visits. We learn from our reliable narrators that sweet, anxious Willie, weakening by the minute, is in grave danger. Children must quickly move out of the bardo or they are doomed in sadistic and horrible ways. Willie stays put. He must be there for his grieving father, who returns more than once to his crypt. Willie’s love and concern for his father is beautiful and devastating. Parents, who sense this selfless devotion in their children, will find this depiction especially wrenching. Vollman, Bevins and the reverend go to great lengths to intervene in Willie’s fate because it is the right thing to do. They are vulnerable, too, and subject to the whims of an unruly mass of restless and irreverent souls.
And, yes, spirits do exit the bardo. Doing so is dramatic and requires an honest reckoning, though no one understands the process. Nor do these ghosts, stuck in an unknowing limbo, even know that they can transition out.
We read on, primarily for Willie and his father, often elbow to elbow with a raft of curious, aroused spirits. The only boundary these ghosts seem to honor is a fence that separates the cemetery from the rest of society. Once inside Lincoln’s body, they are privy to the way he grapples with the loss of Willie and his grief-stricken ambivalence. He does not know if he can rise to the demands of his office in this time of unprecedented war and devastation.
The book’s form — a series of statements from a large cast of characters — maintains a somewhat ragged momentum. It’s a bit of a jerky ride, with stops and starts, in part because readers are problem solvers and we want to understand instantly what’s going on in this book. Why are there contradictions? Which of these excerpts are real and which are made up? What are we to believe? And … when are those ruffians and scofflaws going to shut up? It’s like being imprisoned in a giant subway car that’s made stops at every neighborhood from Santa Barbara to New York City — and every rider has a voice and a grievance. The doors won’t open and you can’t get out. And then, there at the far end of your car stands Abraham Lincoln, brooding and bent over and in emotional peril, all the while holding the fate of our nation in his heart.
— Rae Francoeur is a freelance journalist and author. She can be reached at email@example.com.