by Elizabeth Helen Spencer
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ highly anticipated first novel, tries to answer two big questions. How does a parent go on living after the unimaginable loss of a child? And where do we go, what happens to us, after we die?
Although his answer to the second question is informed by his early Catholic upbringing and current practice of Tibetan Buddhism, readers need not be religious to be moved by this book. I experienced it as a profound and uniquely Saunders-esque portrait of humanity and the laments, disappointments, and emotional baggage we all carry. “All had been wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood.” The unconventional narrative is sad, funny, and impossible to put down.
Let me first offer a bit of technical assistance. The novel is formatted like a play, but with the name of the speaker below his or her dialogue, not before. This confused and distracted me for a few pages until I caught on, but it’s not a big deal overall. Multiple narrators share storytelling duties and the action spans one long night in a Georgetown cemetery. The book is structured in chronological order with chapters that switch between present action and series of quotes attributed to historical sources that may or may not be real. Some readers may be interested in googling them, but I was too wrapped up in the story to care.
Three main characters—Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and The Reverend Everly Thomas—cover most of the narration. Each is from a different time period but they are among the longest cemetery dwellers. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to refer to the characters as “souls” who remain in the cemetery because they’re in denial about their own deaths. They refer to their coffins as “sick boxes” and believe they can have another chance at life if they resist moving on to what I will call “the afterlife,” a process described as “the bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.”
Hans died in a freak accident the day he was to consummate his marriage after years of waiting for his younger wife to fall in love with him. Roger, unfortunately born long before his sexuality might have been accepted, slit his wrists after the boy he loved rejected him. The regret he feels is described in some of the book’s most poetic language: “…did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing: swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arriving breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chill autumn.” Roger’s longing for the physical world is also symbolized by his appearance: he has multiple noses and sets of eyes and hands, all the better to experience sensory pleasures with. The Reverend’s reasons for lingering in the cemetery are different from everyone else’s and the section of the book in which they are revealed is among the most suspenseful parts.
Most of the suspense, however, builds around the question of Willie Lincoln’s fate. After the 12-year-old boy dies of fever, he arrives in the cemetery with Hans, Roger and The Reverend. They urge him to move on, as “young ones are not meant to tarry,” but Willie, also in disbelief about his death, insists on waiting for his parents to come get him. When his father, President Abe Lincoln, visits his tomb and promises to return, Willie is all the more determined to stay. The three main adult characters work tirelessly and against the clock to save Willie from the horrors that befell the only other adolescent soul who stayed.
In February of 1862 the Civil War was a little less than a year old. It unfolds in the background of the book and Saunders connects Lincoln’s personal grief for his son to his feeling of responsibility for the mass grief spreading across the country. “He is just one. And the weight of it about to kill me. Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the results. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I–” But the most compelling portrait of Lincoln is as a bereaved father: “Tried to ‘see’ his boy’s face. Couldn’t. Tried to ‘hear’ the boy’s laugh. Couldn’t. Attempted to recall some particular incident involving the boy, in hope this might–” These simple efforts to maintain the memory of a loved one will be familiar to anyone who has experienced loss.
As the book reaches its climax and finale, all of the characters are forced to grapple with their lives and regrets as well as their mortality. Saunders’ (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the Buddhist) worldview is articulated beautifully through Abe Lincoln’s insight into his loss: “All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things. Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. We must try to see one another in this way. As suffering, limited beings–perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.” Perhaps some readers will think this a negative way to view the world, but to me it is hopeful and comforting, an elegant reminder of our shared humanity.
Lincoln in the Bardo is both historical and modern, timeless and full of insight and questions. Read it to expand the boundaries of your own empathy, or to find comfort in your grief, or simply to revel in the original and beautiful language. George Saunders is one of those writers with something important to tell us, if only we will listen.
Thanks for the technical assistance! This is on my reading list and after reading the first couple of pages, I thought I needed to come back to it when I had more intellectual energy. Now I feel less intimidated.