George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, reads like confetti, like fireworks, like a snowstorm. This novel, like an image made of pixels, is a collage of intricate individual parts that, taken together, create the dazzling swirl and pulse of tenuous coherence.
Allow me to literalize: it is a story told in snatches by dozens of different narrators, most of whom are dead and dwelling in the “bardo” (a Buddhist term for the transitional state between life and death) of a crypt in Georgetown. As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the novel’s clearest intertext, souls are punished according to their sins—one sexually frustrated man sports a massively engorged member because he was never able to consummate his marriage. Death, heaven, and intermediate states have long been a fascination for Saunders, explored in stories like “Escape From Spiderhead,” “Sea Oak,” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders looses his ghosts on the graveyard to shuffle through their danse macabre.
What grounds the polyphonic near-chaos of Lincoln in the Bardo is a specific historical incident: Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie’s death from typhoid fever in February, 1862 and the President’s grief-sickened returns to the crypt. Circling this event, the voices of undead narrators are interrupted by entire chapters of cleverly—often hilariously—curated fragments of real and fictional historical texts. Saunders’ simultaneous turn to and satire of historical documents suggests that one of the novel’s goals is an impious exhumation of the Civil War archive. The form is carefully wrought and deftly delivered; Saunders manages to graft his vibrant, über-contemporary style onto the nineteenth-century setting with panache, rarely fracturing the illusion with slip-ups or indulging the penchant for old-timey kitsch he displays in earlier stories like “My Chivalric Fiasco.” The plot moves at the speed of the hyperreal, leaving the reader gaping backwards to take stock of the emotional tornado she’s just staggered through.
The two main posthumous narrators are Hans Vollman (possible riff on Simpsons character Hans Moleman?) and Roger Bevins III. Vollman is a printer who marries a much younger woman and is good to her but is struck dead by an apparent aneurism before they have sex. Bevins is a young gay man who opens his “wrists rather savagely over a porcelain tub.” Together, they welcome Willie Lincoln into his “sick-box” and into their distorted understandings of the realm in which they dwell. One of the novel’s most vivid characters is the graveyard attendant Jack Manders, whose pseudo-historical testimony allows Saunders’ working man’s vernacular to flourish:
At approximately one a.m. tonight per this report Pres Lincoln arrived at front gate requesting he be allowed to enter same accordingly and not knowing what else to do given his position which is President not an inconsiderable position for him to have or anyone I did allow him entry even though as you know Tom protocol states once gate locked is not to be unlocked until such time as unlocking is scheduled to wit morning.
If the passage slips somewhat into the modern officialese Saunders has perfected in stories such as “Pastoralia,” this reader forgives this lapse in verisimilitude for the sake of hilarity and character. After all, part of what Saunders does really well throughout this novel is to energize the historical-novel form, never diluting the action through pedantic period detail or a will-to-fidelity.
Despite its fluorescent cast of raconteurs, the heart of the book is simple: the tragedy of a man who must “leave his child behind in a place of such gloom and loneliness.” Due to formal constraint, the novel can only offer Lincoln’s perspective through the ventriloquism of the ghosts in the Bardo after they forcibly inhabit him. This might sound farfetched but it’s actually the kind of narrative acrobaticism at which Saunders excels. Lincoln’s perspective, refracted through Vollman, Bevins III, and the Reverend Thomas Everly, offers some of the book’s most stirring prose. Take, for example, the moment of Lincoln’s final departure:
I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.
He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.
This passage, classic Saunders material, uses plainspoken language to render a universal epiphany, a realization almost every reader will have made before: that our lives and bodies are transient in spite of the illusion of stability. Saunders’ unique gift is to keep such insights fresh and intoxicating, to make the banal sublime.
Towards the end the novel becomes more vigorous in its examination of racial politics and slavery, giving more prominence to black voices. I remain somewhat unsettled by the story of the “beautiful raped mulatto” Elise Traynor; the enthusiastically named litany of violent acts perpetrated on her feels gratuitous. Traynor is also the novel’s most prominent female character, which raises questions about the book’s gender politics. And I’m not sure that Saunders’ pro-emancipation conclusion—with the ghosts of slaves crying out “turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do”—is handled properly. While unimpeachable as a moral agenda, it does not bear a clear connection to the novel’s exploration of the father-son relationship or the narratives of the two main ghosts. As an ending, it feels somewhat peripheral.
With all his radiant prose, narrative derring-do, and formal risk-taking, Saunders also has a tendency to offer surprisingly familiar moral messages. Most reviewers have echoed Colson Whitehead’s claim that Lincoln in the Bardo is “a luminous feat of generosity and humanism” (presumably “humanism” is a good thing?). What most readers like best about Saunders is his characteristic turn to final moments of moral edification. But Saunders’ enormous optimism can also get a little predictable, clothed as it is in narrative pyrotechnics. Insofar as his trademark values—compassion, empathy, decency—have value, the payoff is in the exuberant fictional journeys that get us there.
Placing his novel at the outset of a Civil War is a resonant and terrifying move at a moment when Donald Trump’s election has revealed a startling bifurcation in America, a nation that would seem to relish nothing more than to tear itself scalp from hairpiece. Saunders, who wrote a brilliant long-form New Yorker piece on the Trump campaign (“Who Are All These Trump Supporters?”), may have a more accurate sense of the Trump ethos than any other modern writer. A decade before Trump won an election by speaking louder than other candidates and publicly bullying those he’d positioned as weaker than himself, Saunders was America’s theorist of “The Braindead Megaphone.” Now he is the diagnostician of “LeftLand” and RightLand.” In the present moment, the novel’s perhaps naively hopeful ending—Saunders is a self-described “sentimental middle-aged person who cherishes certain Coplandian notions about the essential goodness of the nation”—comes as anodyne rather than asinine.
However, readers expecting an immersive novelistic experience may be disappointed by Lincoln in the Bardo. Penguin Random House has done their best to market the “long-awaited first novel” by this National Book Award nominee and McArthur Genius Grant recipient as an “unforgettable story of familial love and loss.” But readers looking for a beach read or a curl-up-on-the-couch family saga may find their expectations chagrined. Lengthwise, the book is a little thin for its 343 pages, filled as they are with white space. (Several of those pages contain only tweet-length sentences—“The boy sat stock still, eyes very wide indeed”—and many more pages contain fewer than 50 words). Strangely, the suspiciously inflated design of the book has not been much discussed in the overwhelmingly positive reviews. I suspect that Penguin Random House may have bloated the book somewhat to help readers feel better about buying the thirty-seven dollar the expensive hardcover and then feel amazed that they blazed through this hefty, serious novel on a two-hour bus ride.
George Saunders has long been known as a writers’ writer, and this book has taken him further in the direction of erudition and eclecticism than any of his previous works. In an interview at Vulture, Saunders notes that the novel “came out of the same aesthetic as a short story. Which is, you know, don’t linger.” The result is a novel that reads like a very long short story—vibrant, virtuosic, high-voltage, but a little frenetic, a little scrawny for its 343-page coat. I wouldn’t be surprised if the book gets a few major award nods; nor would I be shocked to see it returned to some shelves partly read. If I were recommending a Saunders book for a friend, I’d stick with his thrillingly inventive and emotionally intoxicating 2013 collection, Tenth of December.
David Huebert is the author of a poetry collection and a book of short fiction, Peninsula Sinking, which will be published by Biblioasis in October 2017. David’s work has won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize, the 2016 Walrus Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize.