Though on the surface it seemed every person was different; this was not true.
Roger Bevins iii
At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end,
the many losses we experience on the way to that end.
We must try to see one another in this way.
Roger Bevins iii
As suffering, limited beings—
Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.
Roger Bevins iii
Known for his winsomely clever, darkly humorous, and compassionate short stories, George Saunders finally graced the world with a novel in 2017. It was greeted with much fanfare and ensuing warm acclaim from critics and readers.
I had the privilege of meeting George Saunders in April of 2016 (shout out to the Festival of Faith and Writing!) and heard him discussing this project then. The story was a long time coming. While visiting D.C. decades ago, Saunders had seen a crypt in Oakhill Cemetery in Georgetown. He learned that when Lincoln’s beloved son Willie died in 1862, the body was temporarily placed in the crypt. There were several reports of the grief-stricken Lincoln visiting the lonely tomb to hold the body of his son. “An image spontaneously leapt into my mind—a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà,” wrote Saunders in an article for The Guardian.
In 2012, Saunders finally got around to coaxing a story out of the image. The result is Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel, a strange book about Lincoln, Willie’s ghost, and a host of departed but vocal souls all stuck together in Oakhill Cemetery. In some respects, Lincoln in the Bardo doesn’t really feel like a novel at all (despite the insistent subtitle), but is rather a carefully curated collection of voices that reside in some literary bardo between genres. The novel is all dialogue or monologue, and for this reason I would highly recommend the star-studded audiobook, in part read by the author himself.
There are a lot of voices to wrangle in this book, but the writing still bears Saunders’s style and tone. Influences from his Catholic upbringing and interest in Buddhism rise to the forefront in the work. The principal characters are Dante-esque. Like the shades in The Inferno or Purgatorio, the ghosts push the narrative forward through eagerness to share their personal grievances to newcomer Willie Lincoln, who is shepherded by three ghosts—a preacher, a printmaker, and a young gentleman (two of them quoted above). They all float in spiritual landscape taken from Tibetan Buddhism. The bardo, an intermediate space between death and rebirth, holds all those poor spirits who, for whatever reason, were not able to overcome the first obstacle on the path to enlightenment: the fear of death. All the shades cling to their past lives, unable to proceed to whatever comes next.
They comprise a motley crew, but Saunders deals with even the most unlovely with the signature sense of humor and consistent kindness that characterize all of his writing.
But make no mistake, this ghost story is also a heavily researched piece of historical fiction. However, Saunders doesn’t seamlessly weave his research into the narrative in a way we expect from the genre. Instead, he intersperses his bardo narrative with chapters that include quotations from a variety of sources—primary, secondary, and critical—complete with citations.
I was at first put off by the long string of quotes and citations, which can be a bit tiresome to listen through (C’mon George, ever heard of a darn footnote?) However, I’ve since come round.
The unorthodox treatment of the source material places the fictional voices, the historical accounts, and critical opinions of the historians onto the same narrative stage (all the quotes literally look the same on the page). In this way, Saunders brilliantly fulfills his responsibilities as a historical writer. He pays due deference to the history, and then gets on with his job: speculating and conjuring up the absent voices—what the newspapers did not record, what was murmured behind closed doors, or, in this case, what was whispered in the afterlife by the dearly departed.
This method allows the reader to appreciate the complexity of what it means to make a history. My favorite example is a collection of quotes about the night of Willie’s death, specifically the accounts about what the weather was like. Some people said the moon was full, others that it was dark. The sky was red, the clouds covered everything (you get the idea). Human memory, and thus history, is simply filled with complicated little fictions and inconsistencies.
But when they are sorted out, the voices, real and imagined, can tell a fine story.
The inclusion of ghosts—and better yet, historical ghosts—creates an initial distance between the reader and these seemingly untouchable characters. However, Lincoln and the ghosts are painted with such a lively brush that we realize maybe the past is not so distant. The same ghosts of prejudice, violence, racism, and frustration we meet in the bardo torment the divided American consciousness to this day.
The haunting spirits of selfishness, pride, and human weakness will always be with us. After all, the whole point of ghosts is that they are never actually put to rest. So this novel—bursting with these not-so-unfamiliar voices—also functions as a protracted morality tale or sermon.
Whatever this book is—theater of voices, history, or sermon—it’s not happy. I would place this book in the genre of literary lament (if such a thing exists). As each ghost chronicles its sorrows, the misery builds like a call to confession, culminating in the scene when Lincoln confronts his own grief and then the grief of the nation. This is where the opening quote comes from. Lincoln in the Bardo grieves for almost every sin imaginable—public, private, omission, and commission.
We do get a resolution of sorts (but I won’t give that away). Instead, I can tell you that through the dreariness, this story exhorts its readers, in a clear, strong voice, to pursue greater compassion. Saunders treats his characters with uncynical kindness, and the book exhorts the reader to leave the book like Lincoln leaves the bardo: “broken awed, humbled, diminished” and more “merciful, patient, dazzled” (305). Given the tragedies of 1862, 2017, and 2018, this might be the voice that Saunders would like his readers to hear most of all.