After learning Lincoln in the Bardo was part of a contemporary fiction class given by a favorite professor from my alma mater, and having read and loved everything by George Saunders I could previously get my hands on, I read Lincoln almost immediately after it was released. Regularly trashing my books as I do (reading by the pool, in the tub, upon the loo, etc), I waited to buy it until the less expensive paperback version came out and borrowed the hardcover from a friend. And then I read it all in one afternoon (although, being careful not to trash it, I grudgingly put it aside every time the bathroom called).
The highest compliment that I can pay to Lincoln is one that I have the pleasure of being able to pay every time I read any of Saunders’ work (Tenth of December, a hilarious collection of essays in the New Yorker, various interviews, etc.). Namely, that he always does a superb job at combining the bizarre, the tragic, the funny, and the humane in such a way that throughout the course of reading I intermittently laugh, cry, recognize myself, recognize my parents (yikes), fear that humanity has no hope, and then sometimes end convinced that it might. A visitor from outer space who could read Saunders’ work would know the human experience.
When Lincoln in the Bardo begins, the country is knee-deep in the Civil War and only just beginning to grasp the horrific human cost. Abraham Lincoln is already under pressure to make impossible decisions about whether to withdraw or press forward. And then his son, Willie, dies of typhoid fever. Saunders claims the plot was inspired by an urban legend that tells of Lincoln returning to the burial crypt to hold his dead son’s body. In Saunders’ version of events, Lincoln returns again and again to hold Willie’s body, and is crushed with his grief – plus the realization that this grief he currently suffers is, and will be, laid across the nation as mothers and fathers from both sides of the war weep over their own dead sons.
Lincoln is witnessed, and in fact entire story is mostly told, from the perspective of several dead ghosts who reside in the graveyard in which Willie’s body is placed. These ghosts are in complete denial about their own death – believing they still live in merely a “sick box” – and think that their old lives are bound to resume at any moment. Besides being convinced that they are still alive, the ghosts all have tragically funny disfigurements that reflect their mental state in during life: One, who died the day he believed he was finally to consummate his marriage, has a hideously enlarged penis. Another, a gay man in constant state of panic of being caught with his lover, has several sets of eyes that never stop darting about.
If you don’t know what to expect from the form of the book, initially the reading can feel off-putting at first, and understandably so. The first chapter jumps right into a dialogue between the ghost with a giant member, re-living the day he becomes “sick,” and his friends, who help him along in the telling, despite obviously having heard this story many hundreds of times. Together, they watch the apparition of Willie Lincoln appear in his new sick-box. But then the following chapter leaves the ghosts behind and is merely a collection of quotes from historical sources – some of which are real, some are not. Saunders brilliantly weaves these sources together in such a way that they provide critical information about real events before, during, and after the night in the graveyard; they read almost as if a narrative, and after a few short chapters of these “historical sources,” then we’re back to the ghosts. Not having read anything like this and having no idea what to expect, I was disoriented for a while and it took me a good part of the book to figure out who these ghosts were and what was going on. But once you settle into the pattern of the book, you experience that pleasant tension of reading one strand of a narrative while waiting to see what happens in the other.
The strange structure of Lincoln, besides being terrifically fun to read, ends up saving the enormously weighty questions that Saunders prompts us to ask from feeling sentimental or preachy. How can we possibly move on in the face of enormous suffering, when everyone we love will die? When do we stop waiting for something we desperately hope for (the recovery of a sick relative, the love of our lives to stop loving someone else) and just get on with it? How can a parent continue to function after the loss of a child? Exactly how much do the ends justify the means?
Without spoiling the plot (which I think is impossible, as the true delight of this book lies in carefully reading and enjoying the writing), the meat and potatoes of the book’s contents lie in the characters wrestling with these questions, helping each other understand, and more or less each resolving the answers for themselves in a variety of interesting ways. And the entire thing, as is the case with all of Saunders’ impeccable writing, is drenched with the weirdness and tragedy of the human condition.
An excellent example of this: At one point, a surge of characters in the graveyard come forward to lay their grievances at Willie’s feet, hoping he will take them back to the world of the living. They run thus:
It was me that started that fire. – andy thorne
I steal every chanse I git. – janice p. dwightson
Sixty acres with a good return & a penful of hog & thirty head cattle & six fine horses & a cobbled stone house snug as a cradle in winter & a fine wife who looks adoringly at me & three fine boys who hang on my every word & a fine orchard giving pears apples plums peaches & still Father don’t care for me? – lance durning
One thing I don’t like is I am dumb! Everyone treats me like I am dumb all my life. And I am! Dumb… Who would want to hold or love one so dull. Unless she is fair. Which I am not. Just plain. Soon I am too old for the young men to come and be bored and that is that. And my teeth go yellow and some fall out. But even when you are a solitary older lady it is no treat to be dumb. Always at a party or so on you are left to sit by the fire, smiling as if happy, knowing none desire to speak with you. – miss tamara doolittle
And another, in perhaps my favorite part of the book, as Lincoln sits in a church in the early morning hours, contemplating all that has passed:
His 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… He must do all [he] could, in light of the many soldiers lying dead and wounded, in open fields, all across the land, weeds violating their torsos, eyeballs pecked out or dissolving, lips hideously retracted, rain-soaked/blood-soaked/snow-crusted letters scattered about them, to ensure that [he] did not, as [he] trod that difficult path [he was] now upon, blunder, blunder further ([he]had blundered so badly already) and, in so blundering, ruin more, more of these boys, each of whom was once dear to someone.
I imagine Saunders must have enjoyed the struggle of settling into Lincoln’s headspace in this moment, because he writes about it so very well. Whether it is the literal truth of how Lincoln thought about these things is unimportant; the important thing is that, as we read, we are right there along with Lincoln, feeling what Saunders is telling us to feel, and, even more importantly, feeling as though it is an entirely plausible process. Not once is there a thought or action from Lincoln that feels fabricated or unjustified. Never does the narrative sink into question-begging or the language into lazy cliches. The entire process is new, fresh, weird, funny, and, ultimately, believable and therefore relatable.
It’s a sad book. If you’re looking for something silly and light for summer enjoyment, this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you like to feel moved while you read, to consider often-cliched historical events from a new and plainly human perspective, to feel the full range of human emotions in the course of 343 pages, and to thoroughly enjoy every carefully crafted sentence during the entire pleasurable experience – you must read this book.