Lincoln in the Bardo
Penguin Random House
2017, 368 pp., $37.00,
If film critic Pauline Kael’s assertion is true that “If there is such a thing as an American tragedy, it must be funny,” it has been proven nowhere more so than in the fiction of George Saunders. Reading Saunders in public is to laugh and cry in public, to subject yourself to the gaze of baffled strangers. He has an uncanny knack for making the unlovable lovable. His characters are losers and weirdos: stooges that work at theme parks, anti-social kids, convicted murderers. In his short fiction, Saunders’s characters yearn for something better, daydreaming so aggressively that their reveries spill onto the page, hijacking the narrative. His canvas is typically a sad and destitute America where providing for one’s family and maintaining one’s dignity are mutually exclusive endeavours.
Saunders’s writing exemplifies precision and economy. His consistent output suggests a disciplined, unrelenting work ethic. Over a long, simmering career he has published a collection of essays, a children’s book, and numerous celebrated novellas and short story collections. In two of his best stories, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Escape from Spiderhead,” Saunders’s protagonists perish and are liberated from their bodies. They float above the earth and are struck by dual epiphanies concerning the fragility of humanity and the beauty of the existence. Although these characters are shortsighted in life, in death they are granted a taste of enlightenment that betrays Saunders’s own philosophical leanings—he is a practicing Buddhist. These transcendental passages, which appear in a variety of forms across his oeuvre, tend to linger in the reader’s memory after the finer details have grown blurry, as if they were laced with the concentrated essence of the stories containing them.
In his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, this penchant for removing characters from their bodies runs rampant. The entire cast—save Abraham Lincoln—has been shuffled loose the mortal coil, forming a posthumous community within a Civil War-era cemetery in Washington, D.C. The first spirits we meet are Hans Volmann, an aging printer who died before he could consummate his marriage to a young second wife, and Roger Bevins III, a handsome young gay man who cut his wrists. Volmann manifests as a spectre with a cumbersome erection and Bevins—who was able to perceive intense beauty only at the very end of his life—is afflicted with a myriad of extra eyes and arms that multiply when he waxes poetic.
Within the cemetery, there are many unfortunate souls who, at the moment of their deaths, were fixated on some unfulfilled facet of their lives. There’s a fussing mother who is perpetually pursued and crushed by a series of orbs representing her still-living daughters, a violent lieutenant who contorts into an “elongate, vertical body-coiffe” in his hateful tirades, a trio of unloved bachelors that fly around making fart noises while showering the other ghosts with a various hats, and so on.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is a sort of waiting area that souls inhabit before they are reincarnated. For his novel, Saunders has appropriated the term and given it a Judeo-Christian twist: inhabitants of his fictional cemetery may remain there until they realize they are dead. Upon reaching acceptance they implode in something called a “matterlightblooming phenomenon” and are ushered into heaven or hell.
The key conflict presents itself when the spirit of young Willie Lincoln, freshly deceased from typhoid fever, arrives at the cemetery and refuses to pass on. It’s not natural for the souls of the young to tarry, and they are subjected to a strange form of torture if they defer. President Lincoln—laid low from the death of his son, weary from the shocking casualties of the Civil War—hangs around the cemetery brooding, giving Willie hope and at one point even lifts the boy’s sick-form (body) out of his sick-box (coffin), much to the shock and delight of the other spirits. The wondrous and grotesque characters that populate the cemetery, starved for excitement by the monotony of their existence, take turns entering Lincoln to experience his thoughts and feelings (yes, that’s how it works), and rally around Willie for a wild night of adventure.
Saunders has chosen to render his already-strange story in an eccentric style. The book’s bardo chapters read like a script, with different deceased characters narrating different moments in the past tense. The sections occurring in the real world are composed of a selection of written documents—historical accounts, books, personal letters, etc.—so their events are not so much narrated as curated (with a formal citation style). For example: Saunders patches together impressions of a decadent reception that the Lincolns hosted as Willie lay upstairs, dying. The mismatched accounts spliced so closely together have a disorienting effect that adds to the shiftiness of the narrative terrain:
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.
Wickett, op. cit.
A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured at all human folly.
In “My Life,” by Dolores P. Leventrop.
The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.
Sloane, op. cit.
The unorthodox format and polyphonic narration of Lincoln in the Bardo is off-putting at first and I briefly grew worried that I wouldn’t like the novel. I longed for a story written in the present tense about a milquetoast theme park worker. Then I recalled that some of the best Saunders stories resist comprehension for the first few pages and that this is part of their magic. For example, in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (from the story collection Tenth of December), the narrator off-handedly refers to SGs for several pages before we learn that SGs are living girls from developing nations that are hung on display (kind of like a baby mobile) as lawn ornaments in affluent suburbia. By revealing the conceit gradually, Saunders makes a game of drawing out your focus, causing you to become personally involved with the characters.
Saunders demands a certain amount of engagement from you. His own imagination is so powerful and so restless that it requires work to bridge the gap between the things that he is describing and how you see those things in your mind’s eye. There are moments in Lincoln in the Bardo where you need to re-read a paragraph several times before you catch the full force of it. This may occur when your brain is trying to re-arrange itself around some astounding bit of imagery or else when Saunders is attempting to teleport some strange concept fully-formed into your head.
Once you’ve re-calibrated your brain to absorb Lincoln in the Bardo, you can get ready to laugh and cry with abandon. Saunders has said that the novel’s central question is “How do we love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?” And while this question applies directly to President Lincoln’s loss of his son, it applies to all of the spirits in the bardo and in an even broader sense to all of the mothers and fathers who had just lost sons to the war that winter in 1862.
Life encompasses a series of losses that wear people down over time. Some find a way to make peace with this reality. Lincoln in the Bardo is about the ones who don’t. The loss of a child, especially to a death that is altogether avoidable, is surely one of the most harrowing trials a human can experience. The inhabitants of the bardo experience loss in the form of their unfulfilled lives, deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations in what they call “that previous place.” This has resulted in an unnatural situation: a disdainful gang of spectres united by delusion that they may still realize their earthly ambitions.
By zooming in on Lincoln at that particular scene with Willie’s body in the cemetery and surrounding him with the morbid energy of the bardo, Saunders suggests that this was a definitive moment for Lincoln because he was just tender enough to break. The first time that Vollman and Bevins enter the president he is in the depths of despair, and they are privy to his thoughts:
Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss?
A parade passes, [Willie] can’t rise and join. Am I to run after it, take my place, lift knees high, wave a flag, blow a horn?
Was he dear or not?
Then let me be happy no more.
This sentiment echoes Ivan Karamazov’s famous speech in The Brothers Karamazov, in which he insists that he would sooner “return his ticket” than live in a world where innocent children suffer and die. In the end, the cruel incongruity of the world is too much for Ivan to bear and he loses his mind. In Saunders’s Oak Hill cemetery, the spirits suffer from a form of collective insanity in which they cannot fathom what they have lost. Out of the strain of trying to reconcile what is with what should be, a murky turmoil arises. The bardo acts as a way station for troubled spirits to work through this painful haze.
Saunders has suggested in interviews that while Willie is the Lincoln who is literally “in the bardo,” separated from his father by a metaphysical barrier, Abe is in a transitional state as well—a sort of living bardo: “He was in the throes of this profound grief, at a time when the whole country was looking to him for leadership—and a level of leadership he hadn’t yet figured out how to deliver.” Throughout most of the novel, Lincoln is paralyzed with sadness, his mind bifurcated into two voices: one of reason, one of despair. The former encourages him to be useful, to resume his important work; the latter insists that participation is a charade, since life is a cruel farce.
The short bursts of Lincoln’s inner monologue are exhilarating because he’s the only character in the novel who possesses any agency. Whether or not he can regain his composure and lead is a question of great consequence. The ability to actually have some impact, even in the subtlest sense, on “that previous place,” is what the inhabitants of the bardo desire above all else. This rabid desire, though it contradicts all reason, is endearing because it hits on a universal part of the human experience: to constantly look back and wonder how things could have been different. This compulsive replaying of the past is so strong that it sometimes prevents us from moving forward.
That the inhabitants of the cemetery condone each other’s delusions is touching because they are trying to prevent each other from being hurt while clinging to their own pain. Taking a deterministic view can be dangerous: if you believe that everything has been decided in advance, then what’s the use of trying? Once you die, the way you lived your life is at once written in stone and written nowhere at all. It will always have happened the way it happened. This is terrifying, but it can also be galvanizing in a positive sense: you only have one chance to get your life right.
Late in the narrative, a group of condemned nano-spirits from hell form a placental carapace around Willie in an attempt to break him. The topic of fairness is raised and the nano-spirits get their hackles up: “Did I ask to be born with a desire to have sex with children?” asks a child molester. “I don’t remember doing so, there in my mother’s womb. Did I fight that urge? Mightily. Well, somewhat mightily. As mightily as I could.”
Saunders employs this trick often, drawing your attention to the fact that we were all born out of the same biological broth and carved out of the same wilderness, that we’re all born with predilections that will manifest and mutate over a lifetime of getting knocked around, perhaps finding refuge once in a while. By giving you snapshots spread across an individual’s life, Saunders stifles your instinct to condemn. You find yourself feeling sympathy for characters of the most reprehensible nature: rapists, war criminals, baby killers.
The moral is borrowed from a Buddhist perspective: we are all destined to suffer, but when we accept this truth and recognize the suffering of those around us, we become less isolated. Existence becomes more pleasant, or at least more bearable. Saunders depicts characters whose primary features are their specific forms of suffering, rendered not only in a narrative sense, but also with visual manifestations (e.g. Bevins’s myriad eyes) to give you a visceral idea of what their suffering feels like. He uses your imagination to tenderize your heart with a literary meat hammer.
In this sense Lincoln in the Bardo can actually help you become a better person. In taking you out of your comfort zone with an experimental format, demanding that you work the muscles of your imagination to put yourself in the place of characters that run the gamut of what is considered good or evil, Saunders challenges you to expand your capacity for empathy. There are a variety of Buddhist meditative exercises in which the subject imagines themselves in the place of others: enemies, friends, strangers who are suffering. Reading Lincoln in the Bardo sometimes feels like these meditations, but adorned with gallows humour and special effects.
The most overtly Buddhist passage appears as Lincoln begins to navigate his way out of the psychological torture chamber he has been trapped in. He reasons that all humans are linked by the common experience of suffering, but are inadequately equipped to deal with it. Since he is in a position to help lighten the burden of the masses, he must be strong and return to the fray despite his sorrow. One of the curated chapters undertakes the depiction of how Lincoln’s deeply empathetic nature is betrayed by his strange physiognomy. A quotation attributed to biographer Francis F. Brown sums it up nicely: “The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”
It is logical that in the depth of despair, the lifeline Lincoln clung to was feeling for his fellow humans and the knowledge that it was in his power to help them. But then, just as Lincoln is experiencing this moment of Buddhist enlightenment, his mind tells him something very un-Buddhist like: “The swiftest halt to the thing (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest. Must end suffering by causing more suffering.”
Saunders clearly admires Lincoln. The handful of times that the spirits enter Lincoln’s mind, his thoughts are portrayed as noble and poetic. If this pivot towards bloodthirsty militarism is jarring, it’s because Saunders has done such a good job of humanizing Lincoln and conveying his supreme sensitivity. This pivot is a special moment in the novel, one that makes the reader think, “oh shit, this guy is the fucking President.”
A combination of personal ambition and a desire to help his fellow humans led him to politics and the highest office one can achieve, and in that position he was forced to make decisions that probably tore him apart. But Lincoln wasn’t a writer, a monk or a haberdasher—he was the fucking President. He was not only involved in human affairs, he had the power to direct and change the course of history in a profound way. And so he went to war for something he believed in, which killed tens of thousands of people, even though he might have loved those people. That’s a lot for a sensitive guy to take on.
Lincoln’s inner conflict, which is resolved in his decision to end suffering by causing more suffering, is the Saundersian dilemma writ large: to be engaged with the world in any meaningful way is to be faced with compromise at some point. If you happen to be the President, the ramifications of those compromises are going to be much greater. The alternative is to shy away from life and adopt a cloistered existence, avoiding friction at all cost. And though this is a viable option, the rough and tumble rhythm of life outside the monastery is pretty exhilarating: the dizzying highs, the painful but character-defining lows.
You don’t have to be the President of the United States to empathize with the suffering of others (the current President is proving just the opposite) and you don’t have to be Buddhist. Life is hard for everyone and it is also very lonely. In the chaos of day-to-day affairs, however, crying often mixes with laughter in such a way that the two can become indistinguishable. When we use our imaginations to look beyond our own feelings and ideas about ourselves, it lightens the load. If you step back and look at the bigger picture, you’ll see: we are all beautiful and hideous in our way.
Dave Hurlow is the author of the short story collection Hate Letters from Buddhists. His non-fiction writing has appeared in NOW, Scope and previously in The Puritan. He lives and works in the east end of Toronto, plays a mean bass guitar, and has a penchant for reading Proust in the bathtub.