In short story collections such as “Tenth of December,” “Pastoralia” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” George Saunders has repeatedly proved himself one of our most versatile, irreverent and sharp-eyed storytellers.
Whether crafting dystopian visions of the near-future or dissecting the domestic tragedies of the here and now, the Syracuse University professor and MacArthur Award winner has long been recognized for his use of absurdist humor, his willingness to experiment with form and voice and the compassion he feels for his put-upon characters.
Now Saunders has written his long-awaited first novel.
Set during the course of a single night, “Lincoln in the Bardo” takes a little-known historical incident and spins from it a work of fiction that plays to his greatest strengths, his eye for the intermingling of the tragic and hilarious, his ear for the speech and thought patterns of the wounded and confused.
It’s February of 1862, in the thick of the Civil War, and 11-year-old Willie Lincoln has died and left the president and his wife grief-stricken.
So deep is the elder Lincoln’s misery that he is compelled to leave the White House in the middle of the night, ride to the Georgetown cemetery, enter the crypt and gather his son’s body in his arms.
What should be an inviolably private moment is witnessed by a crowd, though one not visible to Abraham Lincoln.
Other, more spectral, inhabitants of the graveyard gather to watch what transpires. One restless spirit observes, “The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and, with surprising grace for one so ill-made, sat all at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap.”
The ghosts find the tableau mesmerizing, but some fear that the boy’s spirit will be stuck in the purgatory in which they have found themselves.
Chief among the ghostly interlocutors are Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III.
A middle-aged printer with a teenage wife, Vollman was on the verge of consummating his marriage when he was exiled to his “sick-box” (aka “coffin”).
Young Bevins rashly slit his wrists after his lover affirmed his intention to henceforth “live correctly.”
Vollman appears more or less in human form — naked, fat and sporting a huge erection. Bevins, however, seems to be composed of hundreds of blinking eyes.
Joining those two in concern over Willie Lincoln’s ultimate fate is the Rev. Everly Thomas.
He believes he has been told what lies beyond the cemetery, but he has been sworn to secrecy unless he wants to risk eternal hellfire.
In “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Saunders chooses a unique narrative format.
As in a playscript, narration, exposition and conversation are all rendered mostly in staccato bursts. Here, though, the attribution follows the passage in question, rather than preceding it.
Saunders also offers quotes — some real, some invented — that offer differing opinions of Lincoln, the Civil War and other topics in the historical record.
The strategy takes a little getting used to, but Saunders is so adept in differentiating each character’s voice that it is usually easy to determine who is speaking at any given time, whether it be the former robber Flanders Quinn (“Bevins, I’ll piss a line of toxic in yr wretched twin wristcuts”) or the rough-and-tumble married couple Eddie and Betsy Baron (“Ah, sweet C—, you protect the G—ed little f—ers from everything, next thing they’re calling you to the privy to wipe their a—holes.”).
In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is an interstitial space, a launchpad for the transition from flesh to spirit.
In Saunders’ Georgetown version, Vollman, Bevins, Thomas and their cohort can’t let go of the unfinished business of living, repeating unproductive behaviors while denying that they are actually dead.
But the arrival of innocent Willie and his bereft father motivates some of them to muster the courage to move on, to submit to the explosive “matterlightblooming phenomenon” that signals their departure from the bardo.
Young dead Willie is the Lincoln who enters the bardo, but it is his father who inhabits the center of the novel.
Saunders does not present Abraham as a saint, but as a father brought low by senseless tragedy.
Although he can’t see the spectral inhabitants, Abraham can feel them as they pass through his living body, and it is the diversity of their experiences that grants him some understanding of how to love and live with the knowledge that everything ends.
Vollman says of the elder Lincoln, “His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that 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 do to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.”
A virtuoso of the short form, Saunders demonstrates that his considerable gifts work just as splendidly on a wider canvas. Sad, funny and wise, “Lincoln in the Bardo” marks a new level of excellence for an author already in ascendance.