George Saunders’ first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is remarkable; let’s get that out of the way first. Unfolding over one night in a graveyard not far from the White House, it tells a story that is, by turns, simple and complicated, tracing both a father’s grief and its effect on the Republic he serves. The Lincoln of the title is, of course, our 16th president, and his sorrow is for his favorite son, Willie, who died of typhus at age 11 in February 1862.
“Lord, what is this?” Saunders imagines Lincoln keening. “All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, planning-of-trips, singing-of songs-in-the-bath? … When he is to be left out here?”
Lest this make it seem as if the novel is somehow Lincoln’s book, it isn’t really, although he sits at the center of everything. Instead, Saunders develops his narrative in pieces, building it through the accretion of dozens of voices, all talking in tandem or on top of one another, to create a kaleidoscopic point of view.
For the most part, these speakers are ghosts, denizens of the graveyard in which Willie has been laid to rest. They have carried with them into death their final state of being, physical and emotional. Thus, Percival Collier, a landowner who keeled over in his kitchen, moves through the afterlife (or this stage of it, anyway) with his “shirt clay-stained at the chest from his fall, nose crushed nearly flat.” Another character, Hans Vollman, is burdened with an undeflatable erection, having been thinking lustily about his young wife at the moment he died.
Such flourishes are vintage Saunders; his four collections of stories are marked by outrageous conceits and turns of language, from the decrepit amusement park in which “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” is set to the fox who narrates, in spectacularly broken English, the fantasia “Fox 8.” At the same time, Saunders has always been essentially an observer, which allows him to instill enormous empathy into his work. I think of a story such as “Victory Lap,” in which an adolescent watches as a sex offender tries to kidnap his teenage neighbor; the drama turns on the character’s inner conflict over whether or not to intervene.
In Saunders’ universe, there are no easy answers, no ready-made conclusions; we are all flawed and frightened human beings. He evoked such a territory with wit and terror this past summer in his reporting on Trump supporters for the New Yorker: “Sometimes,” he wrote there, “it seemed that they were, like me, just slightly spoiled Americans, imbued with unreasonable boomer expectations for autonomy, glory, and ascension, and that their grievances were more theoretical than actual, more media-induced than experience-related.”
It’s tempting to trace some sort of connection between “Lincoln and the Bardo” and the political climate in which it has been published, but to do so, I think, is to miss the point. Rather, its concerns are existential, metaphysical, even when politics enters the work.
To deepen the novel and give it context, Saunders regularly interjects bits of history and reportage (some of which he has created) — another layer of voices, as it were. The intention is to remind us of the world swirling outside the graveyard, although tellingly, it is a world of which the ghosts remain unaware.
“Mr. Lincoln was President,” ponders a ghost named Roger Bevins III. “How could it be? How could it not be? And yet I knew with all my heart that Mr. Tyler was President.” Memory, as it must, ceases at the instant of death.
Still, what else is “Lincoln in the Bardo” but a book of memory, the way memory lingers and shapes us, both as individuals and in a more collective sense? That is the source of Lincoln’s grieving, that he can’t escape, or reconcile, his memories, that he has come, alone, to this graveyard to sit with his dead son in a futile attempt to bring him back.
It’s in the nature of the bardo, which exists, in Tibetan Buddhism, as a kind of purgatory, a transitional space for souls that can’t give up their former lives. All the characters here are trapped, prisoners of the past, “bellowing their stories into the doorway, until it as impossible to discern any individual voice amid the desperate chorus.” Worse, the living cannot hear them; to Lincoln, all the tumult is “just a silent crypt in the dead of night” The only solution available to them, then, is to let go.
The same might well be said of Lincoln, who is lost not only personally but also in the prosecution of the Civil War. “Have exported this grief,” he reflects. “Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. … What am I doing. … What am I doing here.”
It’s a key moment in the novel, in which the political life of the nation blurs into the emotional life of the president, and Saunders uses it to astonishing effect, suggesting that, in looking into his own disrupted heart, Lincoln came to understand that the only way “to do maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt,” was to “[k]ill more efficiently. … Hold nothing back. … Make the blood flow … Bleed and bleed the enemy until his good sense be reborn.”
The “greatest mercy,” in other words, “might be the bloodiest” — a perspective that is ruthless and ethical at once. How to measure suffering and sorrow? Is it better to back away from all of it, or to pursue the conflict to its speediest end? That there is no definitive answer is, of course, the answer, for morality, Saunders means to tell us, is always relative, in the sense that it must respond to the complexities of the world.
“We must not be ruined,” he writes, “… [b]ut must go on. … We must see God not as a Him (some linear rewarding fellow) but an IT, a great beast beyond our understanding, who wants something from us, and we must give it, and all we may control is the spirit in which we give it and the ultimate end which the giving serves.”
That’s a harrowing perspective, and yet, how else do we engage the world? Life is chaos and history a story, and even the greatest of our leaders are merely humans, after all. The recognition sits at the center of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which is a book of singular grace and beauty, an inquiry into all the most important things: life and death, family and loss and loving, duty and perseverance in the face of excruciating circumstance.
“The gentleman had much on his mind,” Saunders writes about the president. “He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well, and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It was hard.”
Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles.” A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.
Random House: 349 pp., $28