Lincoln in the Bardo: A uniquely structured tale of great empathy

Lincoln in the Bardo by George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders fantasy book reviewsLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’ve long been a huge fan of George Saunders’ short stories, which I consider to be generally brilliant both individually and taken as a whole in terms of their commentary on this world and the strange creatures (us) who inhabit it. That commentary is often a blend of satirical fireworks and a warmer, more human exploration of the human condition, and it is the latter of those two that one recognizes most often in his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, though Saunders doesn’t wholly dispense with the darkly comical.

The precipitating event for Lincoln in the Bardo is the death in 1862 of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln and his entombment in a Georgetown Cemetery, and Abraham Lincoln’s ensuing grief, expressed by several visits to the tomb that go so far as to see him removing the body from its coffin and cradling it in his arms. That’s what happens in this world. But in the “bardo” (a Buddhist concept of the stage between one’s death and one’s rebirth), we see Willie appear in a strange and frighteningly surreal world filled with the shades of those who have not “gone on,” each of their body’s a strange manifestation of their earlier life. More precisely, of a particular regret or singular missed opportunity they dwell on.

One (Hans Vollman), for example, carries around a massive erection thanks to his untimely death just a few hours before he was to finally consummate his wedding to a much younger woman. Vollman’s friend Roger Bevins III, meanwhile, displays a startling number (one that varies) of eyes, apparently as expression of his desire to experience everything — all the lush sensuality of the world — which he had not done as a repressed homosexual who killed himself at a young age.

We come to know these characters, and sundry others in this odd little community, via their own words in a sort of script format, each of them offering up anywhere from a single line to a page or two of dialogue, followed by their name at the bottom of their passage. These play-style dialogues are just one aspect of the unique structure of Lincoln in the Bardo, for Saunders surrounds and interrupts the characters’ speeches with a host of “quotations” from an impressively large number of memoirs, news reports, and biographies. I put quotations in, well, quotation marks, because some, perhaps many, maybe even most, of these references are Saunders’ own creation, and I’d be lying if I said I always knew which was which.

The references fly fast and frequent, sometimes working in concert, at other times startlingly at odds (which in itself makes for a sharp commentary on our concept of “history,” no matter if they are invented or not). Here, for example, are a smattering of a few lines describing the night of Willie’s death from various sources (I’ve removed the citations that follow each):

A common feature of these narratives is the golden moon, hanging quaintly above
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds
A fat green crescent hung above …
The full moon that night was yellow-red …
The night continued dark and moonless …

The guests began to depart as the full yellow moon hung among morning stars.
The clouds were heavy, leaden, and low … There was no moon.”

We see the same sort of contradictions in sections discussing Lincoln’s looks, the appropriateness of throwing a White House party the night Willie was sick, his handling of the war, and others. Between the “historical quotations” and the individual voices of the characters, Lincoln in the Bardo has a collage feel to it, as well as a sense of a communal narration, similar in some ways to Spoon River Anthology, Winesburg, Ohio, or Our Town. This style may be off-putting to some at the start, but I strongly recommend forging on through, for the disparate elements meld themselves into a whole to moving effect. The same is true of the individual stories many of the Bardo residents relate to young Willie (no surprise, given Saunders’ proficiency in the short form). Saunders offers up a lot to unpack in these tales despite the characters’ relatively brief moments of time (save for a main trio of ghosts) on stage — relations between the races, between husband and wife, slave and owner, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, issues of gender, sexuality, violence.

The largest impact on the reader, though, is likely to come from when Lincoln himself enters the tale, “An exceedingly tall and unkempt fellow” later described as “a sculpture on the theme of loss.” His grief is palpable, but for me the most arresting moments in the book come when Lincoln connects the death of his beloved boy to all those other boys, also beloved, who have been dying in droves out on the battlefields of the war he is waging. These passages are among the most powerful, and I would quote them here to support that statement save that I think it best for the reader to experience them on their own.

Lincoln’s appearance in the tomb, and more so his son’s arrival in the Bardo, throw much of the Bardo into a whirlwind of unprecedented activity and reaction, introspection and decision-making, rippling hugely outward in its impact. One small nitpick I have with the novel comes with the Bardo’s impact on poor Willie, for it turns out that something special (and not in a good way) awaits youngsters who tarry too long in the Bardo. This was one of Saunders’ few slight missteps (others being perhaps a bit of over-sentimentality), the one place that felt a bit artificial or contrived, an attempt I think — and an unnecessary one I feel — to add a sense of urgency and perhaps suspense to the story; perhaps he worried that the novel’s non-traditional structure and slow build might need something more typically “story-like” to keep the reader’s attention.

Saunders need not have worried, however. Lincoln in the Bardo builds and accumulates, its many small parts — snippets of quotations, brief life-stories, short segments of dialogue/monologue — coming together to convey concisely and often beautifully the individuality of life and the tragic inevitability of its ending, creating a profoundly moving experience. Highly recommended.

Published February 17, 2017. #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented. February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body. From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul. Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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