The long wait for a novel from short story genius George Saunders is finally over. And as anyone who knows Saunders's work would expect, his first novel is a strikingly original production, a divisively odd book bound either to dazzle or alienate readers.
Distinct from the poignant satires he has published in the New Yorker and elsewhere, Lincoln in the Bardo is an extended national ghost story, an erratically funny and piteous séance of grief. The Lincoln of the title is our 16th president; the Bardo is probably far less familiar. That Tibetan concept refers to an intermediate plane between our world and the next, a kind of Buddhist limbo experienced just after death.
The spirit of this story arises from a tragic footnote in American history: During the second year of the Civil War, in February 1862, the Lincolns' 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever. The horror of that loss was compounded by cruel circumstances: encouraged by their son's doctor, Lincoln declined to cancel a party at the White House, which later gave rise to accusations that the president and his wife were celebrating not only as their country was bleeding, but even as their own child lay dying upstairs.
But Lincoln in the Bardo is no solemn work of historical fiction. This is a book that confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like. It seems at first a clever clip-job, an extended series of brief quotations from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, personal testimonies and later scholars, each one meticulously attributed. We hear from people who worked for the president, his friends, colleagues and enemies, 19th century biographers and more recent ones such as Doris Kearns Goodwin. Saunders has said he came to see his role as a novelist expanding to include the role of “curator.”
So, is this actually a novel or a script? At first, the conscientious reader struggles to consider these passages as though they comprised a tall stack of individual epigraphs. But quickly, Lincoln in the Bardo teaches us how to read it. The quotations gathered from scores of different voices begin to cohere into a hypnotic conversation that moves with the mysterious undulations of a flock of birds.
This form, though, is not the novel's only radical element. Stirred heavily into the mix of what Saunders calls “historical nuggets” are the voices of fictional characters, invented witnesses and commentators. And the majority of these are dead people.
The lead characters in Lincoln in the Bardo are corpses in Georgetown's Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie is laid to rest. From the moment the little body arrives, the shades gather “round and strike up a boisterous conversation that lasts all night.” (The audiobook version released alongside the novel employs a glitzy constellation of 166 stars, including Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, David Sedaris and Ben Stiller — arguably the largest cast ever assembled for a single audiobook. A film deal is also reportedly in the works.)
Saunders has said he was inspired by Our Town, but his ghoulish gabfest is nothing like the stock-still pronouncements of Thornton Wilder's sepia-toned play. Saunders's ghosts are in full motion, in a fluid state of decay based on the moment of their deaths. In prose that rivals Hollywood special effects, we see, for instance, Roger Bevins III, a gay man who committed suicide and grows “so many extra eyes and noses and hands that his body all but vanished.” The roof over one burial vault is composed of tiny, shrivelled souls, like a coral reef of wraiths. A lieutenant's corporeal form swells as he roars on about the sexual assaults he committed against his slaves: “Lieutenant Stone's bodily mass would be swept upwards into an elongated vertical body-coiffe,” Saunders writes. “His body-volume remaining constant, this increase in height would render him quite thin, literally pencil-thin in places.”
As in Georgetown proper, the dearly departed of the Oak Hill Cemetery maintain a huffy propriety and class structure, despite their gory frames. “It is not about wealth,” the Reverend Everly Thomas explains with antique gentility. “It is about comportment. It is about, let us say, 'being wealthy in spirit'.” But that is a quality in short supply among these graves. As the night wears on, Bevins, Thomas and their companion Hans Vollman—the novel's leading trio—struggle to maintain order in their chaotic cemetery, arguing and pleading with alcoholics, murderers, victims and all manner of raging, despairing spirits.
Through willed ignorance, these ghosts floating around their graves don't allow themselves to acknowledge that they're dead. Instead, referring to their coffins as “sick-boxes”, they insist that they are merely suffering “with some previously unknown malady” from which they will eventually recover. And it's not easy to stay here in this liminal state; it requires intense effort, even manic singleness of mind to resist the angels that sweep through periodically to lure souls on to the level beyond.
The spirits of Oak Hill Cemetery present a ghoulish gallery of desiccated lives, minds dehydrated until all that remains are the central anxieties and preoccupations of their lives above ground. Miserly Mr Ellenby is fixated on finding his missing “seven dolers”; the Three Bachelors, “terrified of boredom”, are determined not to feel committed to anything; Mr Collier “was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.” It's impossible to tarry with these spirits—some comic, some tragic, all grotesquely distorted—without reflecting on the pathetic concerns, desires or offences that each of us allows to eclipse our time on Earth.
Indeed, the ghosts threaten to overtake the novel. Clearly, Saunders enjoys their macabre antics, but the heart of the story remains Abraham Lincoln, the shattered father who rides alone to the graveyard at night to caress the head of his lifeless boy. He barely speaks, but as Bevins and Vollman pass through the president's body like light through a glass, they catch his thoughts and fears. We can hear Lincoln wrestling with his faith, struggling to maintain his composure against an avalanche of grief and a torrent of criticism from a nation shocked by the American carnage.
It's at this point in the novel that Saunders's deep compassion shines through most clearly. In the darkness of that cemetery, the president realises as never before that his own grief has already been endured by tens of thousands of fathers and mothers across the country. He hovers perilously between giving up or transforming that sorrow into renewed determination to bring the national crisis to conclusion. Finally, he realises that “though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. ... Whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.”
That's essentially Saunders's Golden Rule, the same moral advice he gave at a commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2013, a speech that went viral online and was later published as a small book called Congratulations, by the Way. But now, in the pages of this fantastical book, rooted in the soil of a cemetery and watered with the blood of so many Americans, that advice feels harder won and more necessary.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World at The Washington Post.
*By arrangement with Dawn, an Asian News Network (ANN) partner.