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.
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.