George Saunders’ New Novel Follows Abraham Lincoln’s Son to a Buddhist Afterlife

In his first full-length novel, the short story virtuoso weaves U.S. history with the otherworldly.

Chris Lehmann February 10, 2017

In George Saunders’ hands, Abraham Lincoln is just another soul battered by fate. (Alexander Garder/Library of Congress)

Over the past two decades, writer George Saun­ders emerged as a wit­ty, dis­arm­ing mas­ter of the short sto­ry form. His pro­tag­o­nists are typ­i­cal­ly bewil­dered to find them­selves in one way or anoth­er on the far side of his­to­ry as their life sto­ries peter out into humil­i­a­tion or obliv­ion. Saun­ders pro­tag­o­nists are employ­ees of derelict theme parks, log­or­rhe­ic funer­al ora­tors, ordi­nary Amer­i­can strivers mired in acute fam­i­ly dys­func­tion or vio­lent crim­i­nal hijinks of one sort or anoth­er — those who are not only eas­i­ly for­got­ten by time, but tend to for­get themselves.

Saunders makes the saintly figure of Lincoln himself a recognizably grief-haunted, destabilized and damaged soul adrift in a cold and indifferent universe.

So it’s a depar­ture of sorts that Saun­ders’ long-await­ed first nov­el, Lin­coln in the Bar­do, tack­les a bona fide his­tor­i­cal set piece with a cap­i­tal H”: the wrench­ing moment when Abra­ham Lin­coln, while pre­sid­ing over the dis­as­trous ear­ly course of the Civ­il War, lost his 11-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever. The dis­con­so­late pres­i­dent repaired repeat­ed­ly to the mau­soleum in the dead of night to com­mune with his dead son. Deranged by grief, Lin­coln even report­ed­ly took the boy’s corpse out of its cof­fin and held it in his arms.

But out of this qua­si-Goth­ic tableau, Saun­ders spins a scabrous, shock­ing and unset­tling meta­phys­i­cal fan­ta­sia. He takes us into the after­world that awaits young Willie: the Bar­do, which in Tibetan Bud­dhist teach­ing is a sort of spir­i­tu­al lay­over sta­tion for depart­ed souls about to under­go the rig­ors of rein­car­na­tion. The ensem­ble of New World spir­its who greet Willie’s arrival are a rep­re­sen­ta­tive Saun­ders gallery of mis­fits, out­casts and rogues, from Hans Voll­man, a mid­dle-aged print­er struck dead by a falling beam and con­demned in the after­life to wan­der­ing around naked with an enor­mous erec­tion, to Roger Bevins III, a young gay man dri­ven to sui­cide by his cer­tain predilec­tion” and now bedecked in a wild array of sur­plus sen­so­ry organs and hands. Eyes like grapes on a vine,” Willie observes, and slash­es on every wrist.”

How­ev­er, these depart­ed souls are igno­rant of their true con­di­tion — the Gor­gon-like Bevins, for exam­ple, is under the impres­sion that his spir­it is mere­ly parked in the Bar­do while he lies uncon­scious in his family’s kitchen, wait­ing for his moth­er to dis­cov­er and revive him so he can clean up the awful mess I made” by slash­ing his wrists and go out­side, into that beau­ti­ful world a new and more coura­geous man, and begin to live!”

The antic, incor­ri­gi­bly clue­less tes­ti­mo­ni­als of the Bardo’s expand­ing ret­inue serve as a sort of Greek cho­rus to the tra­vails of Willie’s father, which Saun­ders presents here in a series of quo­ta­tions from a cor­nu­copia of sources, both cel­e­brat­ed and obscure, rem­i­nisc­ing about the Lin­coln White House. In Saun­ders’ assured hands, the well-chron­i­cled offi­cial life of the Lin­coln fam­i­ly accen­tu­ates the van­ish­ing­ly thin line between the sanc­tioned nar­ra­tives of nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion and the far home­li­er and shab­bier sto­ries that make up the inte­ri­or lives of the des­ig­nat­ed bit play­ers in the redemp­tive saga of the Amer­i­can republic.

Rather than recount­ing, in good patri­ot­ic lit­er­ary fash­ion, the six­teenth president’s moral evo­lu­tion under the twin pres­sures of nation­al cri­sis and fam­i­ly tragedy, Saun­ders makes the saint­ly fig­ure of Lin­coln him­self a rec­og­niz­ably grief-haunt­ed, desta­bi­lized and dam­aged soul adrift in a cold and indif­fer­ent uni­verse, just like the rest of us. And fit­ting­ly for a Saun­ders char­ac­ter, he comes into this real­iza­tion in the most sur­re­al and improb­a­ble way imag­in­able, when the souls in the Bar­do dis­cov­er Lincoln’s phys­i­cal con­tact with his dead son allows them to inter­pen­e­trate his being. When a slave woman’s soul ven­tures into Hon­est Abe’s frame, she eaves­drops on Lincoln’s med­i­ta­tions on the war, now bit­ter­ly tem­pered by his pater­nal grief:

We must not see God as a Him (some lin­ear­ly reward­ing fel­low) but an IT, a great beast beyond our under­stand­ing, who wants some­thing from us, and we must give it, and all we may con­trol is the spir­it in which we give it and the ulti­mate end which the giv­ing serves. What end does IT wish served? I do not know.

This same imper­son­al vision of divin­i­ty and ulti­mate pur­pose resounds, of course, through Lincoln’s Sec­ond Inau­gur­al ora­tion, as grim and self-ques­tion­ing an account of our sense of nation­al cho­sen­ness as any pres­i­dent before or since has dared haz­ard, begin­ning with his unset­tling, frank avow­al that the Almighty has His own purposes.”

And as we con­tin­ue slouch­ing through the Trump years — a Saun­ders-like ordeal in the more famil­iar, grotesque reg­is­ter of his­tor­i­cal absur­di­ty and sense­less­ness, we can per­haps be odd­ly for­ti­fied by this out­landish­ly imag­ined yet great­ly human­iz­ing evo­ca­tion of anoth­er soul-drain­ing nation­al ordeal. And humans of all descrip­tion can ben­e­fit great­ly from the part­ing reflec­tions of Roger Bevins III:

None of it was real; noth­ing was real.

Every­thing was real; incon­ceiv­ably real, infi­nite­ly dear.

These and all things start­ed as noth­ing, latent with­in 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.

Words to live by. As it were. 

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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