George Saunders: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

 

George Saunders: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, 2017, Bloomsbury, 343 pages, ISBN 978-1-4088-7174-4

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ has been talked up as the first novel of the remarkable short-fiction writer George Saunders. We would do better not to put it in a genre pigeonhole. It may run to 343 pages like a novel but on most of them the print is floating in white space and what the print says isn’t novel-speak.

Bardo refers in a loose way to what is a kind of purgatory in Buddhist lore. The dead remain there a while getting ready to move on to a definitive state. The book--let’s call it a text--consists of three elements. The first consists of quotations from myriad authors concerned with President Abraham Lincoln and the event at the center of the text, the death of his son Willie of typhoid fever at eleven. The quoted bits, grouped in sections, come and go in the narrative. They paint the historical background as seen by contemporaries and are entertaining in their period flavor. At times they also give space to Saunders’ irony, because first-hand witnesses and learned historians regularly contradict one another. Each short quote is labelled with a line or two giving its source, which means that a large part of the wordage of the text isn’t Saunders’ the writer, but the researcher.

What belongs to him, the heart of the text, is the give and take between the dwellers of the Bardo. It’s arranged as in the script of a play, each speaker named (repeatedly) which, again, makes for much blank space. Materially the Bardo is a Washington cemetery where fantastical conditions operate. To simplify, let’s call the inhabitants ‘ghosts’. They leave their caskets at night to socialize and squabble.

Invisible except to each other, the ghosts can, if stirred from their indolence, enter the minds of visitors and by dint of great effort influence them. They can pass through real objects and tend, against their will, to lose their shape, fall apart and die for good. They are stubbornly resisting the slide toward the absolute of death. Either so attached to their lives or bent on completing them, they want to hang around.

Saunders’ rendering of their nights in the cemetery is masterful. We are treated to a cross section of humanity in period dress. One ghost after another reveals the essence of his personality, what drove him through life. One savory potted history follows another. At this point the reader understands that he’s dealing with a contemporary Divine Comedy. Instead of Virgil guiding Dante through the nether world we have three long resident ghosts doing the job, Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. Though flawed, unwilling to face the truth and move on, they are big hearted, recognizable good guys. We immediately see that our contemporary Dante has a tender streak. Moreover, if the form of the text recalls the 13th century Italian’s momentous poem, there is also a taste of 19th century Lewis Carroll and the world of Alice. The Bardo amid tombstones, upsetting the laws of nature, is a Wonderland sort of place.

The third element of the text is the supposedly real world of President Lincoln whose backdrop has been sketched in by all those quotes. We are let into his mind that has been obsessively fixed on the death of his son. His mourning and how he manages to end it, expelling Willie from the Bardo, is the dramatic kernel of the text but not at all its most illuminating part.

Unlike bitter, revengeful and scarred Dante, Saunders has a soft center. (His Lincoln, by the way, isn’t the atheist many of his intimates considered him.) We could be kind and call it cut-rate optimism or North American boosterism. But it seems more like a mechanical avoidance of dark conclusions. (His -isms, feminism, anti-racism and egalitarianism are all pretty conventional.)

After showing up the rich and varied disagreements of humanity in the ghosts, Saunders has them abruptly throw off their differences, their egoism, and work together. Oh how good they suddenly feel, he tells us. It’s as if they’ve suddenly put in practice the advice of some self-help guru. Lincoln’s great moral victory comes when he decides to leave off mourning and go back to waging war. He reasons very much like a general on this morning’s news: Yes, we’re killing many civilians, but the sooner we kill a lot more we can stop killing so many.

George Saunders’ ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, text, book, novel, call it what you will, is a remarkable composition, in places a vibrant read, a fine exercise in originality without obscurity, and a notable advance in his writing.

Peter Byrne

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