8 May, 2017Issue 3434.3Fiction

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All Things Must Pass

Matthew Johnston

George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo
Random House
343 pp
£18.99 (hardback)





It seems notably strange to be talking about a debut by one of the Anglophone literary world’s most celebrated, original, and recognisable writers. If such a thing as a universally acknowledged, A-list master of the contemporary short story in English exists, George Saunders surely is it. But last year, to much surprise and still more excitement, Random House confirmed that Saunders—who had hinted as much in an interview with Jennifer Egan five months previously—was finishing up his first novel, which was to be set in the nineteenth century and titled Lincoln in the Bardo.

Over the last decade or so, Saunders’s stock has risen owing partially to his accessible, eloquent, and persuasive non-“literary” output. We’ve read his piece in GQ magazine about Dubai with its much-quoted ending that pleads for us to “Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die”; his pre-election essay in the New Yorker about attending a Trump rally and being shocked at how normal and nice its attendees seemed; and, most famous of all, the commencement speech he delivered at Syracuse which went viral and is now available as a souvenir book, in which he beautifully makes a case for the necessity of compassion and kindness. It’s easy to forget sometimes (at least in the years between his books) that Saunders is first and foremost a writer, not a kind of public intellectual-cum-mouthpiece for the principle of tolerance.

Story collections like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and Tenth of December (2013) earned Saunders a reputation as a slightly manic, second-generation postmodern absurdist in the (American) tradition of Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Guy Davenport, Robert Coover and Walter Abish. In these earlier books Saunders created exaggerated near-future worlds in which consumerism has been allowed to reach its fullest possible expression at the expense of meaningful connection. Subjects and scenes recur: historically themed amusement parks and their slave-labour employees; unimaginable debt; dilapidated communities participating in inane, artificial experiences; shopping malls; exploitative bosses; neologisms; illness, injury, and unemployment; gross or upsetting fantastical products; the obese and unloved; drug trials for prescription medications with names like KnightLife® and Darkenfloxx™; and impoverished multi-generational families forced to live under one roof. All this he depicted in an imaginatively clipped yet anarchic style—forming a new, piquant idiom to get at the present and future of the corporatized United States (and encouraging many less talented imitators besides). Setting out the kind of terrain he walks like I’m doing here, though, doesn’t begin to do the stories justice; the hysterical tongue-in-cheek element and zany conceits have always, I think, been slightly overplayed. The reason Saunders’s work went above and had an appeal beyond mere technical skill and dark satirical sharpness is the other side of this: the sympathetic (yes, occasionally sentimental), profoundly dignified and human treatment he afforded to his degraded and powerless characters. There’s always a strong moral foundation underpinning his fiction, but never a moralising one. Saunders deals in no less than the dreams, regrets, and melancholies of ordinary people who long for connection and escape but who are unfailingly left trapped, isolated and alone. The voice Saunders had found and tuned was comic, to a point, but it was also powerfully graceful: more heartrending than hilarious.

Despite its historical slant, Lincoln in the Bardo arguably has an even stranger premise than the speculative stories, and is certainly the most formally experimental thing Saunders has produced to date. Visually, the text resembles a series of epigraphs, or perhaps more accurately a play where the speaker is revealed only at the end of their monologue. (I’ll admit it took me a few minutes to work this out.) The narrator, as it were, is invisible; or is more of a curator, arranging rather than directly presenting the material. Taking place on Feb. 20, 1862, the first fifty pages or so are cobbled together from cut-ups of real and imagined, historical and epistolary accounts of a lavish state gala Abraham and Mary Lincoln held at the White House that evening. An unpopular Civil War and its ineluctable devastation loom in the background, but more pertinently and personally the Lincolns’ beloved eleven-year-old son Willie lies upstairs in bed, sick with typhoid fever. Willie succumbs to his illness during the party, and is interred at Oak Hill Cemetery in nearby Georgetown. The germ or kernel of historical fact out of which the novel’s narrative action blooms is that Lincoln, the devastated father, more than once visited the crypt to hold his son’s corpse in his arms. (So far, so comprehensible.) From this well-documented event Saunders extrapolates wildly, and it’s at this point that the novel really switches gears and arrives in territory that I can only call wonderfully batshit.

Death is not new thematic ground for Saunders; his stories could accurately be described as death-infested. But it’s never been so central or prioritised as it is in Lincoln in the Bardo. The novel turns into a katabasis (in the tradition of Dante, Virgil, and Homer) of sorts as its locale shifts to the titular bardo: the Tibetan Buddhist state of existence between death and rebirth. The time one spends in this state can vary in length according to their conduct during life or age at death. Saunders’s bardo is a bizarre purgatory populated by ghosts, who become our guides and co-narrators. Chief among these are hans vollman, thomas bevins ii, and the reverend everly thomas (Saunders renders his ghosts in lower case like this throughout, so I will follow suit), who take an interest in the sudden appearance of Willie. Their voices, set on the page as I described earlier, traverse and intersect—a dizzying chorus that is now complementary, now contradictory. They tell us that owing to Willie’s youth, he should be moving on from here in a matter of hours. Willie, however, refuses to do so, and rather is lingering because he expects his parents to come and collect him. Since the bardo overlaps spatially with Oak Hill itself, and is a kind of interface between the worlds of the quick and the dead, Lincoln’s presence in the crypt has confused his son. In an attempt to resolve this glitch in the bardo’s functional logic, vollman inhabits the elder Lincoln’s body to read his thoughts. Amongst his uncomprehending grief, Lincoln hopes also for Willie to enter ‘some bright place free from suffering.’ Vollman determines that the ghosts must get the son to enter the father’s body so he’ll understand this wish and choose willingly to move on to his next incarnation. At the same time Lincoln, for his part, must be convinced to become “father” to a nation wavering on the brink of self-annihilation.

The ghosts’ attempt to perform these unprecedented tasks of rescue and persuasion is the primary motor for narrative propulsion; but it isn’t, I don’t think, the most important or interesting element of the novel. Far more potent and compelling are the moments where Saunders harnesses his considerable talent for capturing the difficulty and the pathos of everyday life—as in his earlier short work—in the service of justifying this grander project and longer form. The sections of the novel that focus on Lincoln’s interior life at this moment of acute personal trauma signal a new phase of Saunders’s writing career, a broadening of his artistic capabilities still anchored in his major preoccupations:

[Lincoln’s] mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow, toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.

On the surface this is a condensed version of Saundersian philosophy in which we are by now pretty conversant; but the important added difference in this case is that the character possesses such a great deal of real power, and stands at a veritable historical precipice. The stakes here are higher than they ever have been in his work, and the pitch is modified accordingly.

When Lincoln eventually returns to the crypt, the ghosts (who now realise he’s the President) take part in a “mass co-habitation” so that he can internalise their suffering. More instantly familiar Saunders character-types emerge through their accounts of their lives: vollman delayed the consummation of his marriage to his much younger wife, and on the day they planned to go ahead with it was killed by a falling wooden beam; bevins committed suicide after seeing his male lover, who had pretended to renounce homosexuality in favour of “living correctly,” in town with a “beautiful man.” Other ghosts who appear and speak include murderers, soldiers, a mother of three girls who died during a minor operation, a pair of drunks run over by a carriage, a mute rape survivor, a bitter and aggrieved scholar, a bear poacher, and a large group of slaves (who occupy a different area of the cemetery). They “manifest” in variously specific grotesque ways: all extra sets of eyes and hands, permanent hard-ons and twisted limbs. That details of this world are by their very nature surreal, supernatural, hallucinogenic, never warrants their delivery in anything other than a tone suggesting it’s all part of a routine. The novel’s ghosts are at once cognisant of the rules governing the place in which they find themselves, and unaware of its significance. In short, they don’t really know that they’re dead; or at least would prefer not to. Refractory and obstinate, they repeatedly assert denials of their status as wandering interlopers—adrift, trapped, groundless—and have in fact developed a whole vocabulary that lets us know as much. Coffins they call “sick-boxes”; the crypt and mausoleum are “white stone buildings”; life, “that other place.” “Dead” is not a word that they use.

The polyphony of voices (and their source) recalls Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915). Set in the cemetery of a fictional, small Illinois town, the free verse poems that comprise Masters’s book are also spoken by the dead, and offer up something like a truly representative slice of contemporary, rural American community. Formally, Lincoln in the Bardo, like Spoon River, is a kind of play for voices in which all speaking parts comingle into an impressive tapestry, into something far greater than they should. (There’s an intriguing-sounding audiobook—an exciting case in which that formal transition might contribute an additional dimension to a text—on the way, featuring the voices of, among some 160 others: Susan Sarandon, Jeffrey Tambor, Julianne Moore, David Sedaris, Bill Hader, and Don Cheadle.) Not unrelatedly the novel also functions as a prescient comment on the enterprise of writing itself, and particularly on writing novels. I’ve never been sure quite how metaphorically certain novelists mean it when they mention “hearing voices” that occasion writing and eventually transform into characters. At any rate, a sense of being “inhabited” or overcome by the differing rhythms, intonations, ways of seeing the world contained in a (fictional) speech-pattern is a common answer given to questions to the effect of: “How did you begin writing?” And this also has a relation to ghosts. Etymologically, to “haunt” comes from a Middle English word meaning “to frequent [a place]”; a novel, at its core, is a site systematically haunted by voices of various kinds.

Saunders’s is a novel of great pathos, nearly to a fault. There’s an especially mawkish scene towards the end in which the ghost of a black man enters Lincoln and imparts to him the moral imperative of ending slavery, which does read as glibly neat. It can also be hard simultaneously to hold in your head all the antic activity of the bardo, particularly since it’s communicated exclusively through dialogue. But I’m prepared to accept such minor irritations almost just for the moment Lincoln painfully frames his love for Willie in relation to the cosmos in order to minimise, to make loss somewhat bearable: “Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another.” Lincoln in the Bardo is a generous and triumphant debut novel whose flaws seem trivial when set against its many achievements. It’s a verbal folk-art monument with moral conviction and a truly redemptive climax, a beautifully realised portrait both of grief and an historical moment. Aside from anything else, it’s visionary and moving and bewildering and fundamentally weird; it’s a novel by George Saunders.


Matthew Johnston completed an M.St in twentieth- and twenty-first century literature at Oxford in 2015. He currently lives and works in London.