Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I didn’t know what a bardo was before reading George Saunders’s new novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and I can’t say I was sure afterward, either. I knew Saunders’s work, though, as many do; he’s the author of several acclaimed collections of short stories, novellas, and essays. Not long ago, one of his pieces appeared on a brown paper bag from a fast-food burrito chain, in a fitting pairing of genuine heart and highly commodified object. Even though it was only a few paragraphs, there were many familiar elements of Saunders’s work: fabulism, absurdism, (obvious) commentary on commercialism, humor, and death. It was written with concentrated language in a pronounced style absent from mimetic realism. Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’s first novel, is both remarkably different from his earlier work and a logical, expertly wrought progression of his style and sensibilities. It makes perfect sense that it is both his longest and his best book.
But you won’t necessarily know that from the novel’s opening. The first chapter begins subtly, with microcosmic disorientation: a disembodied voice tells the story of life after his second marriage. Saunders quickly establishes the setting of 19th-century America. A few pages later, the nature of the narrative begins to reveal itself in tandem with the fact that this character, like many of the characters throughout the novel, is already dead—a ghost trapped in a graveyard having a conversation with another ghost. Not long after this revelation comes a poop joke. This prefatory story-in-miniature isn’t just an early hijink, though. (There are several poop jokes throughout the book,). Nor is it a set-up for a two-person dialogue à la Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, although this novel does bear some tonal similarities to that work. Instead, the novel contains many stories delivered through a growing chorus of ghosts. Sometimes the ghosts tell their personal histories—inevitably marked with death and often dealing with societal issues that are still, sadly, relevant today, such as racial injustice, gender inequality, and homophobia. But the ghosts of this particular graveyard also band together to tell the larger narrative of one ghost—Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie Lincoln.
William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln died at the age of eleven in 1862 almost a year after the start of the American Civil War. Historians suspect he died of typhoid fever, contracted through contamination in his diet; the White House, at the time, gathered its water from the Potomac River where thousands of men and horses camped, ate, and defecated. (That much I learned from Wikipedia.) But Saunders’s ghosts, as opposed to reiterating “the facts,” tell a narrative that follows what happens after Willie’s brief life, as he is interred and visited by a grief-stricken father.
That’s not to say that the novel isn’t concerned with historicity. Throughout the dialogue, the reader encounters historical anecdotes—some real, some fictional, all cited—about the Lincolns and a country divided. Between these and the dead there are dozens of distinct voices, all in conversation. This builds toward the dismantling of traditional literary narration and a shockingly raw testament to the most primordial elements—character and communication. Perhaps that is why the one voice noticeably absent is that of Abraham Lincoln himself. There is no real way to express grief in letters; it is never enough.
But letters are all these lost characters have. At first glance, the chorus of ghosts feels tailored for the stage, but what Saunders executes is more than just a transcript. Lincoln in the Bardo, with a uniquely literary novel form, is conscious of its existence as text and concerned with words themselves. The dead can’t bear to say the word “coffin” and, instead, interrupt one another to come up with euphemisms—the “sick-box,” they say, as if death is an illness that can be overcome. And, in a way, through language and literature it can be. Abraham Lincoln never gets a truly attributed utterance because Saunders makes the case for the made-up. Stories, whether fiction or fact, matter. Words matter both on the page and out in the rest of the world. And in the sick, orange face of demagoguery—cliché and hateful rhetoric—this novel explores what the United States of America must now do: not collapse in grief, but go on in the dark wake of adversity.
Saunders’s latest is about death, but it’s undeniably a joy to read. The novel is funny, poignant, and smart. But it’s not an escape, just like it’s not really about history. The short life of Willie Lincoln can be Googled. The American Civil War has been reinterpreted countless times already in art. A bardo, according to Wikipedia, is a Buddhist concept of an intermediate state—not purgatory, but an existence between two lives. The implication is that there is no end, but endless possibility for change. Reading Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo bravely encourages the same.
Theodore Yurevitch is a writer currently living in Florida, where he is a graduate student and instructor at Florida State University. His writing has appeared in journals including Breakwater Review, Nashville Review and BookPage.