Published by Random House
Publication date: February 14th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
Witty, somber, irreverent—just a few of the words I’d use to describe George Saunders’s new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. And because I know you’re wondering: bardo is the Buddhist concept of the interim place the soul goes before moving into its next reincarnation. In this case, the soul belongs to Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son who dies of typhoid fever one year after the beginning of the Civil War.
Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the Georgetown cemetery where Willie’s body is interred. Saunders populates this macabre setting with a panoply of characters, ranging from the pious to the sin filled. Two gentleman, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, welcome Willie to his new reality and try and help him when his father returns in the early morning hours after the funeral to be with his beloved son again. New arrivals to the bardo don’t exactly know where they are or why and Willie is understandably upset that his father is talking to him but cannot see him or hear his responses, especially when Lincoln actually takes his body out of its coffin and holds him.
Saunders has a beautiful ability to take a tragic moment in time—not only the death of a child for a parent, but also for a man who is faced with the greatest moral and political crisis in American history, and to humanize it even as he elevates it. The inhabitants of the cemetery are there because they don’t recognize themselves as dead. Instead, they are “sick-forms” sleeping in “sick-boxes”. Even Bevins and Vollman, as they try and guide Willie to the next stage, are themselves trapped. Each believes that they are merely waiting to be revived to finish out their life. As we see them in death, is how they were in life—each holding onto whatever they did then, be it money, revenge, love, fear. Lincoln, on the other hand, is there to mourn his son, but as the long night passes he is also besieged with his real-life concerns. What to do about the war: Settle? Or watch as more and more of the nation’s young men are slaughtered? What is right?
Initially, Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a wacky Waiting for Godot but when chapters alternate between the fictional and snippets from historical documents of the times it swiftly takes on a somber feel. Eyewitness accounts of Lincoln the man, his wife Mary, their sons, his presidency, and the war—writings of admiration, frustration and anger play against the ongoing action of the bardo. These contradictions are evidence that Saunders is an author who likes nothing so much as to take expected responses and twist them.
Nothing is sacrosanct with Saunders, he recreates heaven, hell and even the process of Judgment with such clarity that even if it is not what you believe you might believe it after reading his descriptions. And while these visual speculations dazzle or frighten, it is the human emotions of Lincoln in the Bardo that tug and pull. Like a grief maddened parent cradling their dead child’s body in the hopes that, even for an instant, they will come back to life
Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten somewhat already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers…
Or, for the others, the sadness of feeling unheard and forgotten.
What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departure caused pain.
Lincoln in the Bardo is one graveyard, hundreds of inhabitants, one desperate father whose duty to his country battles with his grief, one night and a whole host of ruminations and discoveries about death, grieving, the afterlife and who we are. The novel lulls with a sense of its lightness and even farce before tenderly revealing its truth. It feels a bit much to say that Saunders’s ability to harness humor with pathos, the profane with the pure, the comic with the tragic, is genius, but that’s how it reads.