Lincoln in the Bardo
Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery is the titular bardo in George Saunders’ first novel, LINCOLN IN THE BARDO. A transitional state existing between death and rebirth per Tibetan tradition, this bardo is haunted by apparitions plagued with worldly regrets, which render them unable (or unwilling) to pass on to the next life.
After dying while his father struggles with the early days of the Civil War, Willie Lincoln finds himself in this realm. Upon arriving he meets Hans Vollman, an overly endowed printer crushed by a ceiling beam before he could sleep with his beloved young wife, and Roger Bevins III, a formerly closeted gay man who slit his wrists after being rejected by his lover, and whose bardo form has an ever-changing multitude of limbs. Soon after they are joined by the Reverend Everly Thomas, a spirit anxious in appearance and stodgy in demeanor. This trio, along with many secondary characters, including Willie himself, narrates about half the novel. Their animated conversations and monologues call to mind Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, and not simply due to the book’s unique formatting.
"LINCOLN IN THE BARDO not only delivers an engrossing story but exceeds expectations, being all at once a hilarious, provocative and tragic meditation on a seminal moment in United States history."
The rest of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO is made up of a meticulous collage of sentences taken from historical accounts and articles, which establish the story in its factual context while also poking fun at the idiosyncratic contradictions of history. These chapters are interspersed between the ghosts’ tragicomic tales of their human lives, made ever more melancholy by their ignorance of the fact that they are not merely sick but dead. These conflicted, hesitating souls only leave the bardo by means of the terrifying “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” which occurs when they stumble upon and come to terms with the reasons for their loitering on earth. Until then, they wander this purgatory, pathologically in search of a willing ear to listen to their temporal stories.
Needless to say, the ambiance created by these shifts between speculative history and the supernatural is unlike anything I have ever read, save for Saunders’ masterful work in the short story. He has so purely refined his literary technique that the aesthetic he’s cultivated since 1996 translates almost effortlessly from short to long form.
Yet, unlike his short stories, Saunders’ first long-form publication reads less as neat satire than as a witty, empathetic portrayal of flawed characters both real and fictional. The parts of the book in which we are offered a glimpse into President Lincoln’s mind are nothing less than awe-inspiring, especially because they are some of the most palatable, human portraits of a real-life figure who continues to inspire fascination and reverence in the public mind. Lincoln is profoundly depressed, being both burdened by the pressures of war and bereaved over the loss of his son. Over the course of the novel, he returns to Willie’s tomb several times to hold his body, and Willie, separate from his corpse and innocent of its expiration, lingers in the bardo with the hope that a family member will discover his continued existence and bring him home.
However, children are not meant to remain in this limbo, and we soon see why: Willie quickly begins to waste away and is eventually ensnared by evil beings that attempt to trap him inside a viscous membrane, intent on keeping his spirit in purgatory forever. Vollman and Bevins, determined to rescue the boy from this fate, embark on a quest to influence the father to accept his son’s death and thereby release him into the next life.
The resulting climax is a glorious cacophony of spirits confronting their demons, a spectacular, action-packed ending for a conservatively paced book. LINCOLN IN THE BARDO not only delivers an engrossing story but exceeds expectations, being all at once a hilarious, provocative and tragic meditation on a seminal moment in United States history.
Reviewed by Alex Bowditch on February 16, 2017