Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
(Bloomsbury), Pp. 343
Although George Saunders is considered a champion of the American short story, this is his first novel. It is daring in form and subject and it won the 2017 Booker Prize. The bardo of the title is a transitional realm in Tibetan tradition where spirits mingle. From here they will either ascend to Nirvana and escape human suffering, or fall back through a series of increasingly wild and scary hallucinations until they are born again into a new body. The Lincoln of the title is either President Abraham or his son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever in 1862. The boy is interred in a Georgetown cemetery and his distraught father visits the crypt alone several times to hold his son’s body. From these slim facts Saunders embroiders a story of fantastic hyperrealism dealing with grief and loss and moments of bawdy humour.
The graveyard is populated with characters from many different eras and circumstances with a strong sense of Rabelaisian machismo; like Dantesque damned souls the spirits manifest with hideous deformities that relate to their erstwhile lives. The spirits refuse to use the word ‘dead’ and believe they are merely unwell or in a sick-box (coffin), fiercely resisting the urge to move on.
Narrated through multiple voices, the novel offers differing opinions on the same thing. Some of the quotes are from characters in the bardo; others come from books and newspapers and we cannot believe any of the accounts, no matter how scholarly they appear with their references and footnotes. On the night of a party in which Lincoln’s son became feverish, none of the eyewitnesses can agree on the presence, size, shape or colour of the moon. Similarly the colour of Lincoln’s eyes varies according to each description. These differing viewpoints extend to his involvement in the war: is he “an idiot”, “weak and vain”, a “tyrant” with speeches that “have fallen like a wet blanket”? Or is he one of the greatest presidents the US has ever known? We see what we want to see, and memory is unreliable. Saunders suggests that history is constantly reinterpreted, and portents and patterns only appear retrospectively.
The voices become a cacophony, bickering like characters in a Beckett play and retelling old tales. Saunders had originally conceived these grave-bound scenes as a play and they remain entirely rendered in speech as the narration is handed from voice to voice. We are guided through this bardo by a Greek chorus with three main narrators: Hans Vollman, a man who was about to finally consummate his marriage when he was hit on the head and so has a large erection; Roger Bevins III, a man who slit his wrists over his homosexual lover and then realised he had made a mistake as he lay bleeding on the floor, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, a man who managed to get to the Final Judgement but was sent to Hell and so ran away back here as a sort of waiting room to try and work out what he done that was so bad.
The young are not meant to tarry here, and if they do they get subsumed by Gothic-style creepers that bind them. Our heroes try and persuade Lincoln to let his boy go so that he will not have to succumb to this fate. If the deceased has truly gone to a better place, why do we grieve? We grieve for ourselves; not for the departed, and the way we remember someone after their death is not necessarily the way they really were in life. We are all in a constant state of flux from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death, and perhaps beyond. Lincoln realises that nothing is permanent.
Before people leave the bardo they flicker through all their incarnations; the people they have been but also the possibilities they have not been – their future-forms they had never alas succeeded in attaining. Every time a person leaves, the same sentence is repeated like a stanza an epic poem: “Then came the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Many resist this phenomenon and cling to the earth, but they cannot leave the cemetery into which they are penned by a “dreaded iron fence” which recalls something out of The Walking Dead.