George Saunders’s face isn’t on any coins, but the post office issuing a Saunders stamp someday seems plausible. He’s not quite as beloved as the president who strides glumly through his new book, but for a writer, his approval ratings are high.
Lincoln in the Bardo is Saunders’s long-awaited first novel. Formally it has little in common with the dozens of heartbreaking and hilarious stories — many of them near-future dystopias or outright science fiction — that have made him one of the most adored and influential American writers of the past three decades. It has even less in common with conventional historical fiction. Nor does it slot with other pop-cultural manifestations of the cult of old-time American statesmen like, say, Hamilton. It’s narrated by a gaggle of ghosts speaking to us from the Tibetan Buddhist limbo. That’s what the bardo is, the earthly spiritual dimension where souls (not quite the right term) linger until their next incarnation — it’s okay, I didn’t know what the bardo was either until I picked up the book.
Saunders took his inspiration from an actual historical episode, and injected the Buddhism himself. The Lincolns had four sons, and only the eldest, Robert, survived into adulthood. He was at Harvard while his parents were in the White House. The second son, Eddie, had died in 1850, at age 3, perhaps of thyroid cancer. Willie and Tad lived in the White House with their parents, and both came down with typhoid fever in 1862. Tad survived (he died eight years later in Chicago, age 18), but Willie died — he was 11 — and was interred in a crypt in Oak Hills Cemetery in Georgetown. That his illness coincided with a grand banquet at the White House compounded his parents’ guilt. His father was devastated and more than once visited the crypt to hold his son’s corpse. Those visits are the seed of Lincoln in the Bardo.
It’s a premise loaded with pathos but thin on dramatic tension. Of course, there’s the noise of history just outside the frame, the war raging beyond the Potomac. But what provides the novel with its action, with most of its characters, with its moral weight, is the bardo itself. There are rules that govern this spiritual interzone, but in effect it’s a free range for Saunders’s imagination. Without any familiarity with Buddhist eschatology, I can’t tell if Saunders is playing by any rules — the way Dante operates within the dictates of Catholic dogma — or whether the bardo opens up the possibilities of fantasy. My instinct is the latter, perhaps with a useful dash of tradition. Once the novel picks up steam (about halfway through) and some of the principles that govern the bardo have become clear, the story turns into one of the sort Saunders has been telling his entire career: a rescue and an escape.
Put crudely, the scenario goes like this: The souls in the bardo have a dim knowledge of the state that they’re in. They can tell that there’s a difference between themselves and the living (referred to as “people from that previous place” or “those of that ilk”), but with one exception, they don’t quite realize that they’re dead. Their memories of the lives they lived are patchy, and they’re subject to elaborate hallucinations (or are they visits from angels?). They can’t leave the confines of the cemetery and its “dreaded iron fence.” The ghosts of three men — Hans Vollman, Thomas Bevins II, and the Reverend Everly Thomas — take an interest in the ghost of Willie Lincoln. They recognize him as a sort of prince, and they know that because he’s so young he shouldn’t be with them for long. (He should move along, we sense, to his next incarnation; with most ghosts of the young, they say, it happens within a matter of hours, or less.) But he’s lingering because he expects his parents to come and collect him, so he won’t leave, not that he knows how. Something about this isn’t right, and a cocoon starts to form around the boy’s ghost, a carapace itself made of demonic souls. As if things weren’t too far out, the ghost of Hans Vollman walks into the president’s body and is able to read the grieving father’s thoughts: Lincoln wants his son to go on to “some bright place, free of suffering.” The way to make this happen, Hans intuits, is to have the son enter the father’s body so he’ll get the message and leave the bardo. A real caper ensues.
Whether Willie Lincoln will leave the bardo is something of a MacGuffin, however. What, then, is this novel about? In whole, it’s Saunders’s Old American Book of the Dead. The novel belongs less to the Lincolns than to the ghosts who tell the story. Hans, Roger, and the Reverend do most of the talking but dozens of others have speaking parts, and we glimpse bits of their life stories, often delivered in snappy contentious dialogue. The novel has two narrative modes: monologues and dialogue by the ghosts with the speakers named at the end of each block of text; and fragments from primary and secondary accounts, letters, diaries, memoirs, and contemporary and modern histories (hello, Doris Kearns Goodwin), many of which have been modified or fabricated by Saunders. The effects of this polyphonic approach can be dizzying.
It’s also disappointing. Saunders is one of the most thrilling prose writers alive. Across several collections he’s reinvented his style many times, but many of his classic stories we hear the voice of a good-hearted and fucked-up American loser, trapped in an ultracrappy job at prehistoric theme park (“Pastoralia”), a male strip club (“Sea Oak”), or a product-testing and trend-spotting work compound (“Jon”), given to his own personalized slang tricked out with neologisms for his own warped corner of corporate USA. I can’t be alone in having hoped to hear some version of that voice blown out and sustained over the course of a novel. Tough shit. I came to think of the ghosts of Lincoln in the Bardo as the ancestors of Saunders’s modern and near-future hard-luck cases, and until things get antic in the bardo, the voices of most of the ghosts, especially Hans Vollman’s, have a formal air that cuts nicely against the supernatural goings-on.
Hans is a printer who at the age of 46 married an 18-year-old bride. Out of respect for her delicate youth he put off the consummation of the marriage, and on the day she was ready to go all the way, he was struck dead by a beam falling from the ceiling of his office. This occurred during the Polk administration, and he hasn’t been aware of the passage of history since his “sick-box” (the way the ghosts think of their coffins) was put in the “white stone building” (the crypt at Oak Hills). Hans’s best friend Thomas Bevins II is a suicide, a gay young man who slit his wrists after his lover told him he wanted to “live correctly.” It should be mentioned that the ghost of Thomas appears to other ghosts to have many sets of eyes as well as lots of extra hands and noses: “Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands,” as Willie Lincoln puts it. Hans’s ghost walks around, or “walk-skims” as these ghosts move, with a permanent hard-on and a dent in his head. This is how they “manifest.” The ghost of one girl manifests as a “horrid blackened furnace.”
This is all highly imaginative, as you’d expect from Saunders, but it can be hard to follow and tricky to keep in your head until you’ve internalized the ways of the bardo. It doesn’t help that each block of speech is attributed with a footer rather than at its start. There’s an audiobook in the offing — with a cast including Saunders, Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Susan Sarandon, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Don Cheadle, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, and Jeff Tweedy — and that format may be perfect for the novel’s choral narration. Many of the ghosts tell their own stories: there’s Jane Ellis, who died in the course of a minor surgery and left behind three daughters with an unloving husband; Betsy and Eddie Baron, a pair of foul-mouthed drunks run over by a carriage on the street; Captain William Prince, a fallen Union officer who wants to confess an infidelity to his wife, still believing he can write home; and many more.
These sorrows accumulate in lyric and often comic detail. When Lincoln returns to the crypt, the ghosts gather in a crowd around him. These include the ghosts of former slaves buried in a nearby mass grave. A racial “standoff” follows, but soon the ghosts “enter” Lincoln in a “mass co-habitation.” Lincoln, who seems to think in Buddhist terms (“Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another, he thinks of his dead son), takes on the quality of a savior for the ghosts who enter him. As the ghost of the slave Thomas Havens thinks of it:
“He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow. And—by us. By all of us, black and white, who had so recently mass-inhabited him. He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness. And now though it sounds strange to say, he was making me sadder with his sadness, and I thought, Well, sir, if we are going to make a sadness party of it, I have some sadness about which I think someone as powerful as you might like to know.”
The “sadness party” in the cemetery is the redemptive climax of this visionary and suspenseful but also sentimental and cartoonish novel. Lincoln emerges as a paradox: both a savior absorbing the suffering of the souls in the crypt, ushering many of them off to the next place, and the maestro of the national fratricide, sending thousands to their graves. In historical cut-up passages, Saunders airs the complaints of Lincoln’s critics (“The Presdt is an idiot”; “Evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis”; “By all odds, the weakest man who has ever been elected”), but these have an ironic effect now that his face is on the penny. Saunders’s Lincoln, notably, thinks of himself as serving God: “We must see God not as a Him (some linear rewarding fellow) but as an IT, a great beast beyond our understanding … What IT wants, it seems, for now is blood, more blood, and to alter things from what they are, to what it wills they should be.” Saunders has spoken publicly about his own Buddhism and it animates the commencement speech he delivered at Syracuse and published as a souvenir book, but until now we haven’t thought of him as a religious writer. Perhaps behind all of his stories of rescue and escape, God was there all along.
*This article appears in the February 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.