Catharsis With a Side of Comedy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
When has an artist done enough of the same? For the adoring public, the answer is most often never. Even the highest-brow audiences crave familiarity, intellectual comfort food. And as one of the most universally adored short prose stylists alive, one gets the sense George Saunders could write just as he has, like the master he is, for all eternity, and no one would complain. If he ever released a career anthology, it'd become the Eagles’ Greatest Hits of literary fiction overnight. Staleness is often in the eye of the creator, and no one else.
And yet, here we are. Right when most were expecting Saunders’s first novel would be the culmination of decades of his distinctively ecstatic and earnest comic stylings, the man has thoroughly zigged that zag with Lincoln in the Bardo, a book that is, whatever else it may be, nothing anyone was likely expecting.
The story centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, who succumbed to typhoid fever at age eleven. According to contemporary accounts, the president was so grief-stricken by the boy’s death that he cradled the body in the Oak Hill cemetery crypt for days. In Saunders’s rendition, however, the angelic Willie does not arrive at heaven or hell but rather the Tibetan Buddhist bardo, a liminal state between life and rebirth. The inhabitants of this particular bardo do not know (or will not accept) they are dead, refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes,” and avoid the epidemic spread of a “matterlightblooming phenomenon”—that is, the comprehension of their own demise, which they fear will erase their existences forever. Then, the arrival of still-living President Lincoln disturbs the status quo of the cemetery; here to mourn, he desires nothing more than his son ending up “in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”
The novel is narrated by a zoo of voices composed of both various bardo denizens and quotations from primary and secondary sources detailing the real history of the Lincolns and their loss. The names of each appear in postscript below every line or paragraph, allowing the writer to alternate freely between perspectives, like in a stage script or a nonfictional oral history. (It’s worth noting that because of this whitespace-heavy approach, the book is a much brisker read than its 368 pages imply.) The specter-contingent consists mainly of a trio of focal narrators: Hans Vollman, who had finally found love with his much younger wife right before being killed by a falling ceiling beam; Roger Bevins III, a closeted man who slit his wrists after his love left him in order to “live correctly”; and Reverend Everly Thomas, who unlike all the others knows he is dead—but vexingly (for a reverend), he has no idea why he’s been sentenced to a seemingly good old-fashioned Christian damnation. After Willie’s spirit insists he’s unable to proceed to the after-afterlife until he communicates with his father, our trio attempts to both possess the body of Abe and nudge him on over to Willie’s body so the two can have their final conciliation. And only then do we have our plot—a barebones fetch-quest that suffices to propel us through the world of the bardo and toward these characters’ final destinations.
It’s wildly imaginative, but is it trademark Saunders, the literary brand we all know and love? In many ways, yes. Despite the somber historical setting and the obvious spiritual tones, Lincoln in the Bardo is funny. Often, this humor comes from the cast of side characters giving personal accounts of their biographies. The trademark comedic irony of Saunders’s characters’ naïve genuflections is present here, as well as the manic surrealist imagination that has powered stories like “In Persuasion Nation” or “Sea Dog.” The theme of giddy consumerism run amok even finds its way in via the story of a man and his well-marketed pickle factory. A young lady proclaiming herself too dumb to learn to sew or land a suitor says, “When a young man come a-courting he would say something such as about the guv’ment and I would say, oh, yes, the guv’ment, my aunts teaching me to sew. And his face’d go blank.” It’s an awkward bit of conversational slapstick that wouldn’t feel out of place on, say, The Office. But what is identifiably Saunders-ian about these voices is also altogether more muted, less ecstatic, and dampened, seemingly, by the same purgatorial fog that permeates the bardo itself, by the real-life tragedy that forms its emotional core.
Lincoln looms large across all the observers' accounts, first as a historical titan seen only through peripheral eyes, but eventually—breaking with the tradition of fictionalizing a man who often seems too nationally monumental to be humanized—through the thoughts of the legend himself. This version of the great big great-man is a powerful representation of paternal love and grief that eventually becomes a rumination on the burdens of leadership—how one guides a country and shoulders the death of thousands while personally wracked with pain at the death of an intimate one. Interspersed among all the major and minor apparitions are lamentations and accounts of regret, of a life not lived or lived poorly, prematurely un-lifed. Though not as overtly humorous as the author’s past oeuvre, what is retained here is Saunders’s true trademark, the one that perhaps matters more than any of the high-wire prose stylings and guffaws—the ability to complement satire with maximal earnestness, to make even the most hardened readers, in this age of irony, turn the last page and cry.
One imagines that Saunders's body of work has bought him considerable patience from readers: this novel will sell, and people will, at the very least, get some of the way into it. Perhaps Saunders has decided he’s had enough of entertaining us, and wants us to do the hard work of readership for a turn, the attentive digestion of truth and morality. If that is his intent, then Lincoln contains the corresponding depth, nested under its more somber surface. And if attention is what he's bought from us, then it's credit well spent.
Dennis Tang is an MFA candidate at Columbia University. A former magazine editor, his work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere, and he is currently working on his first novel.