To read George Saunders’s debut novel, Lincoln in The Bardo, is to immerse oneself fully in the act of feeling deeply and widely. Saunders fans have long experienced this depth and breadth of emotional immersion in reading his short stories: The Semplica Girl Diaries conjures belly laughs at the folly of a man obsessed with being a “somebody,” yet produces a case of heartsickness for the same character, a father, a regular guy with a paunch and a condescending father-in-law and beloved kids and a general sense of having failed at life. And Sea Oak, with its male-stripper narrator who lives in subsidized housing and is haunted and harangued by the foul-mouthed ghost of his aunt, is the very definition of tragicomic. To get a novel-sized portion of Saunders’s talents for tapping into and expanding his readers’ emotional capacities is a great gift.
Lincoln in the Bardo takes place at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, where Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, was buried in February of 1862 after dying of typhoid fever. The Lincoln child is stuck, along with a host of other dead characters, in the bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist state of existence that occurs after death and before rebirth. The inhabitants of this liminal plane are characterized by an amplification of neuroses, unresolved conflicts, and unrealized desires that plagued them in life. Thus, Roger Bevins III, a sensitive, closeted gay man who committed suicide, constantly waxes poetic and is beset with multiple sets of eyes, hands, and noses to coincide with his fatal case of the feels; and Hans Vollman, who was on the verge of finally making love to his wife before he died, walks around with a giant boner.
For Willie’s part, he’s just a kid who’s hanging around in the hopes of seeing his father again. The adults urge Willie to move on to the next place, because they have seen horrible things happen to youth who “tarry.” But Willie won’t budge. He soon becomes the great hope of the ghosts, as his father is the great hope of the nation.
Into this haunted milieu comes the 16th President of the United States, who, under the cover of night, visits the vault of his dead son and, to the astonishment of the cast of ghosts, lifts the boy from his “sick-box” (the ghosts’ denial-laden word for coffin) to hold him in an act of horrible, beautiful mourning. It is carefully and precisely wrought moments like this, of which there are many, that give the reader an emotional gut-punch; Saunders’s ability to get into Lincoln’s head and inhabit his grief is at once heartbreaking and gorgeous: “The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and, with surprising grace for one so ill-made, sat all at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap.”
The raw honesty of feeling that Saunders has mastered has a twofold effect on the reader that is positively Samuel Beckett-ian: the feeling that you can’t go on and the feeling that you must. We can only begin to imagine, then, how hard it must have been for Lincoln to go on with the Civil War, with the business of trying to mend a sharply divided America, with the bloody act of sending thousands of young boys to their death, when all he wanted to do was hold his son. It is an endlessly inspiring glimpse into a great leader’s public strength contrasted with his private sorrows.
In his debut novel, Saunders’ prose is solidly postmodernism. He coins word mash-ups in the vein of James Joyce, thus breathing new life and vigor into familiar concepts. The varied points of view is a wildly effective narrative tool that is reminiscent of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio play, Under Milk Wood, wherein the portrait of a small town blooms from the voices arising from the dreams of its slumbering inhabitants.
The ghostly voices are the engine of the book, but we don’t linger in the graveyard for the entirety. Saunders pulls the lens back further in alternating chapters, to contextualize the world of the ghosts and Lincoln’s personal loss within the world of the Civil War. Slices of primary and secondary source material deftly selected by Saunders give more layers to the story, including excerpts from Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley, a slave in Virginia and North Carolina, who later became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress; and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Saunders fictionalizes some sources, too, which makes curious readers go on a fact-finding mission to differentiate truth from reality, not a bad thing in our era of shaky sourcing. These curated sections serve to show that history is a subjective beast: Lincoln is both lauded for his bravery and reviled as a murderer and a rube, he is called ugly and handsome, and he is even blamed by some sources for his son’s death (he threw a party while Willie was sick, he let him ride his horse in the rain, let his sons run wild, etc.).
When Tenth of December hit shelves in 2013, Saunders was lauded as one of the most celebrated short story writers in the world, and the book achieved best-seller status, a rare feat for short story collections. Back then, Saunders was awarded the PEN/Malamud prize for short fiction, an award given previously to such masters of the form as John Updike and Eudora Welty. It is an extraordinary fact that just four years later, Saunders has released his first novel and has completely outdone himself in terms of literary prowess and the tackling of subject matter that is steeped in American history yet so poignantly of its time.
George Saunders reads at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church, 4900 Connecticut Ave. NW. $28–$40.