“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel of George Saunders, an author who has created an impressive body of short fiction. It is said to be based on the seed of a true story, inspired by the fact that during the first year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln endured the loss of his beloved young son, Willie. In his grief, the distraught President was said to have visited his crypt several times, at one point even lifting the little child’s body out of its coffin and holding it close to his own.
Saunders takes this bit of historical information and creates a sometimes comic, sometimes dramatic struggle for Willie’s soul in a place called the Bardo, a transitional state between death and rebirth in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
We are introduced to a host of dead souls, or to put it more carefully, souls who inhabit this strange territory in a state of denial that they are actually dead. In addition to being set in an unusual location, the novel has a very different structure The Bardo scenes are written as if they were a play, bringing to mind the cemetery scene in “Our Town”, in the form of lines of dialogue followed by the name of the character speaking it. And in the earth-bound scenes, such as the White House dinner the Lincolns held despite Willy’s illness, the story is told in the form of brief snippets taken from various historical accounts—diaries, letters, news reports, etc.
(One of these early “real life” chapters provides a series of conflicting statements about the sky on the night of that state dinner preceding Willie’s death, swinging from heartbreak to guilty laughter, as it becomes clear some of the descriptions were infused with after-the-fact melodrama/melancholy.)
As readers, we are still trying to adjust to this structure that mirrors the oddity of the novel’s setting, while seeking to understand how things work in the Bardo and why its inhabitants are there when Willie first appears there. Shocked at the sudden appearance of an eleven-year-old in their midst, this collection of characters is stunned to see the young boy’s father return to the crypt and witness the extent of his grief.
To be touched so lovingly, so fondly, as if one were still—
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As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?
It was cheering. It gave us hope.
the reverend everly Thomas
We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.
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And then, we are treated to this beautiful passage, one of my favorites (not involving Lincoln), in the book.
Please do not misunderstand. We had been mothers, fathers. Had been husbands of many years, men of import, who had come here, that first day, accompanied by crowds so vast and sorrowful that, surging forward to hear the oration, they had damaged fences beyond repair. Had been young wives, diverted here during childbirth, our gentle qualities stripped from us by the naked pain of that circumstance, who left behind husbands so enamored of us, so tormented by the horror of those last moments (the notion that we had gone down that awful black hole pain-sundered from ourselves) that they had never loved again. Had been bulky men, quietly content, who, in our first youth, had come to grasp our own unremarkableness and had, cheerfully (as if bemusedly accepting a heavy burden), shifted our life’s focus; if we would not be great, we would be useful; would be rich, and kind, and thereby able to effect good: smiling, hands in pockets, watching the world we had subtly improved walking past (this empty dowry filled; that education secretly funded). Had been affable, joking servants, of whom our masters had grown fond for the cheering words we managed as they launched forth on days full of import. Had been grandmothers, tolerant and frank, recipients of certain dark secrets, who, by the quality of their unjudging listening, granted tacit forgiveness, and thus let in the sun. What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.
the reverend everly thomas
The mystery of this place, as well as the rules that guide those who populate it, slowly become clearer to us. But the real story is how Lincoln will help to save Willie, to allow the young boy to do what the other denizens of the Bardo have not—move on.
And that is the heart of this novel. Within the universe he has created, in keeping with particular logic of the unusual setting he has chosen, Saunders does something special—he puts us in Lincoln’s head.
Saunders is seeking an imaginative truth, a means of charting the consciousness of man suffering from the loss of a beloved son and staggering under the weight of conducting a war that has already inflicted similar loss upon countless other American families. He dares to put us inside the mind of President Lincoln, to consider how he was able to come to grips with these twin tragedies and, ultimately, recreate the nation after finally confronting the long-delayed evil of slavery.
It is a courageous act, one that has created a powerful work of fiction that also offers insights into our history, while exploring what it means to be human.
I won’t share any quotes from those sections of the book, as they are special and deserve to be considered in the full context of their creation. But I will note that even in the middle of this profound meditation on grief and survival, Saunders maintains a light touch, giving us a chapter with the perspectives of some two dozen people, offering contradictory descriptions of the color of Lincoln’s eyes and descriptions of a countenance that inspired recollections ranging from “his smile was something most lovely” to “the homeliest man I ever saw.”
A fitting reminder that definitive answers to some questions can be as elusive in this world as they are in a place like the Bardo.