In Tibetan Buddhism, bardo is a transitional state between one life and the next. In just such a liminal state we find the characters of this first novel by celebrated short story writer George Saunders.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” takes place in Oak Hill Cemetery, the Georgetown graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie was buried in 1862. Other than Lincoln himself, a night watchman and a neighbor, all of these characters are dead — but that doesn’t stop them from having a lot to say. The ghosts hover here apparently because they aren’t ready to accept their passing. They cannot even say “corpse” (which becomes “sick-form”) or “coffin” (“sick-box”). And it’s hard to blame them, since conceding their deaths seems to lead to a heaven or hell as envisioned by Saunders by way of Hieronymus Bosch (“a beast, bloody-handed and long-fanged, wearing a sulfur-colored robe … three women and a bent-backed old man, bearing long ropes of (their own) intestines”).
The story, narrated by these reluctant ghosts, is of Abraham Lincoln, unable to abandon his beloved child, visiting Willie’s grave and holding the boy’s body — much to the consternation of his otherworldly observers. (Per one: “These young ones are not meant to tarry.”) So they exhort Willie, inhabit his father and try to exert some influence, and in scenes worthy of Tim Burton, free the boy from entwining tendrils or a carapace “comprised of people. … Thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting minuscule faces up at us.”
The dead are antic and obscene, tender and petty and pitiful. Their speech is impressionistic (Willie: “Dear Father crying That was hard to see And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no”), rude, expository (“We must look out for ourselves, the Reverend said. And, by doing so, we protect the boy as well. … As we know, only utter hopelessness will lead him to do what he must”), or degraded to the point of nonsense. Their transmutation is rendered in cartoonish terms — those carapaces, floating “gelatinous orbs” that once held the image of loved ones, “a rain of hats,” the “bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.”
The ghostly chorus of these graveyard scenes — with shades of the testifying dead of “Spoon River Anthology” and “Our Town” and more than a touch of the bleak absurdity of “Waiting for Godot” — are interspersed with chapters composed entirely of brief excerpts from historical texts, most if not all of them genuine: letters, memoirs, biographies, histories. These composite chapters — “collages,” Saunders calls them — have the effect of putting Lincoln’s bereavement, coming shortly after the first mass casualties of the Civil War, into the context of the vast chasm of grief opening before the nation.
They also have the curious effect of putting our own vexed era of riotous vying voices into historical perspective. In this respect Saunders is a bit like the poet most associated with Lincoln, Walt Whitman. He contains multitudes. And as this chorus, now cacophonous, now polyphonous, testifies, he sadly but surely hears America singing.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She has also reviewed for the Washington Post, Newsday, and the Dallas Morning News.
Lincoln in the Bardo
By: George Saunders.
Publisher: Random House, 342 pages, $28.
Event: 7 p.m. March 1, Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Av., Mpls. Tickets $35, which includes a signed copy of the book. raintaxi.com