Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel
“Saunders sustains his great talent.”
Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie died in February 1862. The grieving president visited the boy's crypt in Georgetown's cemetery several times. Out of this setting of a "white stone house," George Saunders constructs his first novel. Adapting the Tibetan concept of the afterlife perceived as the transitional state of the misleading bardo, he populates his otherworldly realm with 166 voices.
Drawing from the narrative accounts in contemporary newspapers, oral accounts, and narrative histories, Saunders incorporates his research into his fiction. In an appropriately numbered 108 chapters, his tellers from the bardo alternate rapidly and fitfully. Interspersed separately are snippets from the reports of journalists, witnesses, and scholars. It makes a dizzying experience for a reader.
Gradually, one gets used to the format. Two inhabitants of the next realm, the voluble tale-teller Roger Bevins III, and his calming companion Hans Vollman, dominate. They guide us into this strange world. Preparing us for the arrival of Willie, they also enable us to understand the novelty of Abraham's entry into this space out of time. For the father dares to touch the "sick-form" of his boy.
The significance of this gesture resonates. Such loving appears rare in this situation. Delusions abound, and a few in the bardo succumb to a fate uncertain to those who resist, but a state that hints at being less amenable than their current predicament. Saunders subtly reveals the setup of this Buddhist-inspired but very Yankee take. In elegant or demotic prose, he captures the mid-19th century styles of speech, and he immerses his audience in the ways of expression during the Civil War. He also blends the perspectives of fallen soldiers, slaves, servants, and the lower classes, complicating the milieu to expand it far beyond the White House and its chroniclers, then and now.
Within this "serendipitous mass co-habitation," the beings ponder why they are there. They agree on the fact that their entry into this enclosure has saddened their loved ones: "Our departure caused pain." Fate, time, destiny emerge as possible reasons. Another does, too, the question of "innate evil" within humans. Saunders places us among fellow inquirers. Even the president "could only stand and watch, eyes wide, having no power at all in this new-arrived and brutal realm." The Reverend Everly Thomas faces the ultimate question of all humanity once they have perished: "How did you live?"
The answers vary among those gathered. Some have been there a while, some recently transported. Suddenly, among them and throughout this story, a "familiar, yet always bonechilling, firesound associated with the matter-lightblooming phenomenon" reveals the departure of particular denizens.
Persisting as mystery to those left behind and to us as readers, Saunders does not reveal the complete rationale for his situation within which he places his diverse men, women, and children. But an aside from Hans Vollmann suggests a struggle toward a truth. "Trap. Horrible trap. At one's birth it is sprung."
In language reminiscent of James Joyce's inventive interior monologues, and contentious scenes recalling the graveyard bickering of fellow Irish novelist Máirtín Ó Cadhain's Cré na Cille (translated into two new versions, The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay, both from Yale U.P.), Lincoln in the Bardo fulfills the promise of Saunders' twisted, inventive, and compassionate short stories.
In a helpful afterword, the author elaborates his conception of the next life here: "Our habits of thought just get supersized." For those who have wondered why George Saunders has taken so long to move from one type of story to another, he reasons that each "story is as long as it needs to be." He's moved this time from "making custom yurts" as if he was granted a "commission to build a mansion." In such typically quirky and aptly analogized phrasing, Saunders sustains his great talent.