Review Content Warning: brief mention of gore
Book Content Warning: mention of rape, sexual assault, gore/violence
The year is 1862, and a full moon dangles in the evening sky as Willie Lincoln—Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son—lies in his bedroom chamber, his round face “inflamed with fever.” By the time the sun rises again, he has passed away.
George Saunders’s 2017 debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, hinges upon moments leading up to and immediately after Willie’s death wherein he enters the bardo, the liminal state between death and rebirth as described by Tibetan-Buddhist philosophy. Interwoven are accounts of President Lincoln’s close relationship with Willie, an intimacy that drives Lincoln to visit his son’s crypt multiple times and cradle the child’s body.
Remarkably, though, the story begins with an exchange of bawdy humor, between two ghosts, the naked Hans Vollman and the multi-nosed, -eyed and -eared Roger Bevins III. They are long-time occupants of Georgetown’s Oak Cemetery who quickly turn out to be the novel’s primary narrators.
Just as Saunders’s 1996 short story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” is situated in a run-down historical theme park, the novel’s setting of Oak Cemetery serves as Saunders’s playground where ghosts abound. Ranging from slaughtered soldiers to an unpublished academic, voiceless former slave Litzie Wright to tendril-tied Elise Traynor, the cemetery is bursting with the stories of unsettled souls.
Stylistically, the novel takes on a collage-like form. The ghosts’ dialogue reads like a play and is poetic in form; depending on the character speaking, the line breaks and punctuation differ dramatically. As a result, the reader experiences the essence of each ghost not only by interpreting, but also by viewing, the words on the page. The combination creates a collage of textures and tones that successfully activate the spiritual landscape of the cemetery.
In contrast to the vibrancy of their spirits, the way Saunders describes the ghosts’ physical qualities—most notably their clothing and mannerisms—reminds us these souls are trapped within time and space. For instance, a minor character, Mr. Collier “[is] constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction…he [finds] himself most worried about at the moment.” The use of steady, tactile descriptions to illustrate the ghosts seems absurd when experienced in combination with the novel’s dynamic syntax, but the tension has a captivating effect because it feels as though the ghosts are about to burst through the seams of their souls.
In this way, the fragmented format of Lincoln in the Bardo can sometimes come across as incoherent and disjointed, but ultimately, Saunders’s experimental style creates the space for a deeper engagement on the reader’s part, demanding they embody the essence of each line of dialogue as they read.
Saunders also innovatively grapples with time by creating scenarios where readers are made acutely aware that ghosts exist outside of the living world’s conception of time. The Civil War may be the backdrop of the novel, but within the necropolis, time is at a subjective standstill, meaning time has halted uniquely for each ghost upon their entrance into the bardo. It is only when Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III possess the President that they are able to obtain knowledge of the existence of the novel telegraph and the hilarious revelation that they had just possessed… the sixteenth President of the United States.
“Removed from both Vollman and the gentleman, I felt arising within me a body of startling new knowledge. The gentleman? Was Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was President. How could it be? How could it not be? And yet I knew with all my heart that Mr. Taylor was President.”
An unintended side effect of this double possession is that Roger Bevins III and Hans Vollman actually end up feeling much closer to one another. Bevins remarks, “Traces of Mr. Vollman naturally began arising in my mind and traces of me naturally began arising in his. So many years I had known this fellow and yet never really known him at all.” Through small, unlikely moments of connection like these, Saunders’s ghost-land proves to be a place where tenderness shines through the clouds of loneliness.
While the ghosts become acquainted with Willie, an abnormally young and therefore all the more refreshing visitor, their main mission becomes to convince Willie to move through the bardo, and into the afterlife that lies beyond. Willie is hesitant, though, because moving on would mean leaving his beloved father behind. As Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, with the help of The Reverend Everly Thomas, conspire to secure Willie’s freedom they unintentionally, but miraculously create the chance for other ghosts along the way to experience the “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” or the split-second occurrence by which ghosts escape from the bardo.
By way of the supernatural, Saunders splices through the content of history textbooks and captures the emotional authenticity that factual accounts will never be able to capture — the gray area that gives space to grief and longing and love.
Lincoln is often portrayed in eerie settings (recall Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but with George Saunders’s exploration, we get a nuanced albeit bizarre examination of the mysterious melancholy that still surrounds society’s perception of President Lincoln.
George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time‘s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Lincoln in the Bardo can be purchased here.