Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

 “What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.”

Most novels are, in one way or another, about loss. The loss of innocence, youth, love – all convey the most universal and human experience of learning to live with the inherent transience of everything around us. Writing about loss is, therefore, perhaps the easiest way for an author to ensure that his or her work is immediately relatable. Yet the tremendous body of literature that already grapples with the topic of loss – whether in death or something more insubstantial – makes it incredibly difficult to explore the experience in a way that is both unique and creative. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve spent a good part of this year reading books that deal explicitly with loss. From the poignant grief portrayed in Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen to the eerie supernaturalism of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, there are many ways in which literature can explore grief, absence, and the process of rebuilding in the wake of these experiences. Yet no book has navigated the subject with the gravity, raw emotion, and originality of George Saunders’s debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo is built on the foundation of historical myth. Following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie Lincoln, of typhoid fever on February 20th, 1862, it was reported that Lincoln had returned several times to the crypt in which his son’s body was temporarily entombed. Although it cannot be certain what actually occurred during these visitations, Lincoln in the Bardo explores the possibility that Lincoln removed his son’s body, held it, and spoke with it. As morbid a picture as this paints, the skill of the novel rests in its ability to explore the weightiness of grief with true empathy and beauty. The novel alternates in structure to achieve this end. Chapters are told alternately in a jigsaw of facts retrieved from historical sources (works by the like of Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as first hand historical accounts), and as a chaos of conversation between the ghosts that Saunders imagines to populate the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln is entombed. The story follows the history of these ghosts, all of whom have confined themselves to a purgatorial state, in denial of their own deaths and convinced that they are instead suffering from temporary sickness. As Willie awakens to find himself in the graveyard, in the company of his living father, he must grapple with what it means to consign himself to a half-life as a ghost in the world, invisible to those he loves.

“None of it was real; nothing was real. Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent with a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now we must lose them. I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant.”

The uniqueness of Lincoln in the Bardo is immediately apparent in its structure. I came to the novel with no prior knowledge and it took me a few chapters to work out what was going on. It was not immediately clear to me why Saunders would have chosen to relate the historical background of Willie’s death – and the context of the Civil War in which the event occurred – in the form of extracts from historical sources. In my view, however, this method helped to deliver the emotional punch of the chapters related by the cemetery ghosts. Historical facts, often inconsistent and emotionally cool, bear little relation to the raw experience of loss. The heaviness of Lincoln’s grief, presented alongside the confusion and fear of the ghosts living in the cemetery, is palpable. It is almost unimaginable in its humanity. Grief of this nature is something at which so many of us will refuse to look directly.

As such, the lifeblood of this book and its emotional momentum are undoubtedly attached to the graveyard scenes in which the ghosts converse. Saunders’s lyrical prose and beautifully realised characters are entertaining, amusing, and infuriating. Attempting to tell a story through the words of such a diverse array of voices is no mean feat. The chapters in which the ghosts speak are truly choral and, once you allow yourself to sink into the writing, the interruptions and back-and-forths of the conversations are fascinating. While some of the death stories related are amusing (the physical manifestation of the ghosts represents their manner of death, to often comic effect), there are many that are equally as heart-rending and steeped in the setting’s historical context. One character, for example, relates the life and death of an African American girl, a ghost who cannot speak:

“What was done to her was done to her many times, by many. What was done to her could not be resisted, was not resisted, sometimes was resisted, which resulted, sometimes, in her being sent away to some far worse place, other times in that resistance simply being forcibly overcome (by fist, knee, board-strike etc.). What was done to her was done and done. Or just done once. What was done to her affected her not at all, affected her very much, drove her to the nervous shakes, drove her to hateful speech, drove her to leap off the Cedar Creek Bridge, drove her to this obstinate silence.”

Moments such as this make Lincoln in the Bardo an oftentimes uncomfortable read. Death and grief are often hard for us to consider directly, when not immediately confronted with them through our own experiences. The diversity of the voices that Saunders employs forces us to expand our understanding by considering, in intimate detail, the choices of his characters. This is something at which the author is clearly incredibly skilled. The novel’s impressive characterisation makes Lincoln in the Bardo feel extraordinarily expansive for its short 343 pages. That the characters have chosen to live their deaths in an eternal purgatory, denying death to the point of terming coffins ‘sick boxes’, makes their stories even more interesting. The word ‘bardo’ is itself taken from Tibetan Buddhism. It refers to the purgatorial state that exists between life and death. In the case of the novel, therefore, ‘bardo’ is harping directly to the refusal of the dead to move on. The ghosts are attached to life for many reasons and the explorations of the fears these characters experience, even in death, are some of the novel’s most profoundly human moments.

While the constant supernatural chatter can feel, at times, slightly repetitive, the momentum that the novel gathers towards its final pages is truly sublime. Lincoln must reconcile his personal grief with the knowledge that he is sending so many American sons into battle and to their deaths. Although the novel is told through the lens of one man’s grief, this historical backdrop, as well as the inclusion of its supernatural chorus, widens the scope of what Lincoln in the Bardo is able to achieve. It is a meditation on compassion and soul-wrenching humanity. It takes a peculiar historical moment and translates it into the most universal of all human experiences. This is something upon which Saunders has reflected:

“You always hope that a book will lead you somewhere you didn’t plan to go. And in this one, it was kind of unrelenting in leading me to think about that strange conundrum we’re in here. We seem to be born to love – that seems to be what we do naturally and what we crave to do. And then all along, we sort of know that everything is conditional. So how do you, in this world, live joyfully and productively in the fact of those two truths?” (NPR Interview)

Whether Lincoln in the Bardo answers this question is uncertain. As Saunders himself goes on to express, denial is not something that Lincoln can afford. Yet, many of us continue to be stuck between these two distinct and frictious realities. What the novel does achieve, however, is a reminder of the indelible mark left behind through love. I can imagine that many will struggle to read this book. The structure and slow progression ensure that this is not a novel driven by its plot. It is, however, easily one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. Its critical acclaim only affirms the brilliance that Saunders has achieved in his first step away from short story form. Lincoln in the Bardo reads as a homage to both those lost and those losing. We all have something to gain from learning to better confront the realities of life as temporary beings. How we navigate this is truly up to us, but reading novels like Lincoln in the Bardo will surely equip us to better appreciate the connection that we all share through life’s transience.


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