Lincoln in the Bardo
(Random House, 2017)
Let’s admit at the outset that it has grown weirdly difficult to read or respond to George Saunders. Not because he’s not great, but because he’s now So Great. I imagine lots of us have felt the same thing on reading folks whose work is so universally heralded that we’re apt to lose our bearings as to whether or not the work is Good, Great, etc. It’s not even that there’s too much noise to catch a signal, but that, even if you try not to, you bring some sense of the author’s work with you to the newest endeavor, and so you’re guided, biased. In the case of Saunders, this bias is overwhelming: his stuff lights me absolutely up, and I’ll gobble anything he releases as quickly as possible; and even when I don’t love the latest work, I’ve never felt anything other than gratitude on finishing any writing by him.
This problem with Saunders, for me, is compounded by the fact that each time I read his work (and I read basically his entire catalogue yearly, for sustenance) I’m surprised by how simple it seems. It’s easy to read his stories and think hell, I can do that. He’s certainly got a type—not quite a format, but a certain code to his stories. Almost all his work is centered around schlubs, folks trying to get by, make it, not feel so weak and powerless and sad and ineffective. Almost all his work features trying conditions in which these characters struggle, or find themselves challenged but, almost always, find themselves blossoming in the strange hot-house atmosphere of his stories, find themselves, through being tested, becoming the people they’d long hoped to be (quite often, increasingly of late, that blossoming, that awareness, coincides with death or a recognition of impending death, but that’s a whole other thing).
I don’t mean any of this critically. I teach literature, and most semesters find me teaching at least one Saunders story (despite twice receiving calls from administrators advising me against teaching stories in which a dear old auntie returns from the dead, cussing like a sailor and hankering for cock), and I can’t think of any list of contemporary Great American Authors that shouldn’t include him near the top. He’s fucking amazing, and we’re all better for his existence and work.
But all this does make it tough to have a thorough appreciation for the absolute top-to-bottom genius of Lincoln in the Bardo, his latest book and first novel. It is, precisely, a George Saunders work, as invested in dick and fart jokes as it is in the harrowing nature of Authentic Goodness (or, maybe, presence, awareness). You’ve seen some of this before, if you’ve read him, and yet the gravity offered (or arrived at) through a longer format, through a novel, makes the book feel (amazingly) even more resonant, even more (literally) life-changing, than even his most harrowing, you-must-change-your-life stories.
All of which is sort of throat-clearing anyway: by now you’re likely to have already purchased Lincoln in the Bardo, which is as spectacular a book as you could hope for. Given the tumultuous and ugly times we live in, it’s fair to feel the book is almost too good for us. Maybe that feels a bit much, but here’s your primer:
Abe Lincoln’s son Willie died on February 20, 1862. The boy was eleven, and suffering from typhoid fever. All this is easy to find. The story would be sad enough—Lincoln had been president for just short of a year by then, and the country was unraveling into Civil War—were it simply a matter of a parent burying a child. But Saunders found, or discovered, or heard, a trick to the story that nudges the whole thing right into his territory. Here’s a quote from him, from the Q&A at the back of the Lincoln in the Bardo ARC that was handed out at BookExpo America (BEA) in Chicago, April 2016. In answer to the (unnamed narrator’s) question about where the book came from, Saunders offers the following:
It came out of something I heard back during the Bill Clinton administration. We were in D.C., driving past Oak Hill Cemetery, and a friend mentioned that Lincoln’s young son had been buried there during the Civil War, and that newspapers of the time reported that Lincoln had returned to the crypt several times to hold his son’s body.
If you’re a parent, you’re already nodding. Thomas Lynch, in The Undertaking, wrote of burying infants (though the idea holds, I’d argue, for pre-teens) that in burying such youth:
We bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our own rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits, no known ends, and the little infant graves that edge the corners and fencerows of every cemetery are never quite big enough to contain that grief. Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams.
It is entirely fair to say that the Lincoln of Lincoln in the Bardo is reckoning with this sudden, permanent sadness he’s just begun to experience. And the novel would—in Saunders’s capable hands—be likely magnificent simply for the father/son story at its core, the moral questions lit up by such a monumental event: how do we let go of those we love and can only help to our feeble, human limits? How do we honor the futures we imagine might have been?
Except here’s the thing: Lincoln in the Bardo is in fact more ghost story than anything. There are three living characters in this novel; the rest are shades, ghosts, spirits stuck between realms, days between stations, looking (or, as often, avoiding looking) for some release from this tied-to-rotting-flesh existence. I don’t know how much is give-away-able: that the ghosts are able to insert themselves into the living? (Prez 16 is inundated with ghosts at one point?) That the ghosts have secret stories that only after a long time come to light and make clear why they might be tied to this fruitless purgatory they find themselves in? That Saunders has the stones to write about the moment folks are cast toward heaven or hell—literally the moment, in which great diamond doors are opened and a Christ-figure is there, adjudicating? That—as almost always, with Saunders’s stuff—everybody’s better off (even ghosts) when they leap past the edge of self and truly begin to understand some other life’s existence—its pleasures, pains, anxieties, fears, etc.?
So it’s a ghost story. And Lincoln in the Bardo is, in its way, an awfully simple story: it’s the tale of a dad letting go of a dead son. Note that I said simple and not easy: it’s direct enough, the work one must undertake to let go of someone loved and lost, simple as following directions.
And yet what we get, through Abe Lincoln—perfectly, strangely, maybe Saunders’s best character yet—is the trembling work of a man reckoning with more costs than he could have guessed: letting his beloved son go, realizing the country will have to shed blood to move toward where it needs to be (“in order to form a more perfect…”). Cost is the theme of the book, in all ways: what does it cost to hold tight to the corporeal reality we understand it to be when we take flesh? What’s the cost of letting go, especially when you’re asked, or forced, to let go of that which you love as dearly as your own trembling, tremulous heart?
It’s a monumental novel. It’s a harrowing read. Lincoln in the Bardo feels queerly like a book you almost couldn’t believe:
So, Abe Lincoln goes to the crypt where his son’s kept, and he holds him. Pulls the body out, holds his dead son. The whole time, there are ghosts all around, spirits who don’t even—can’t bear even to—know the fullness of their own natures (one of whom has such a large dick he has to hold it when he runs, lest it trip him). Plus Lincoln’s reckoning with the costs of the Civil War, realizing how much like life the pursuit of the American Idea is—that, like a Dylan line, it’ll cost everything you’ve got and then be nothing like what you could’ve guessed. Somehow it’s got a happy ending, but that’s only after Willie’s soul has been pretty ferociously fought for.
See? See how silly that sounds? Now do that for any story. Do that for your life. Here’s why I read Saunders: because he gives me faith in narrative. Because story feels flimsy, and foolish, and Not Enough, and I’ve yet to crack his work without feeling all the way down like the narrative impulse, the sense-finding impulse, is somehow both egregiously foolish and the best we’ve got, we little skin-bound weirdos. Maybe it’s easier for you to remember such facts; I take reminding. Regardless, I can think of precisely no one who won’t be better for reading this expansive-but-brief, simple-but-profound, brilliant, brilliant book.