George Saunders is a name that looms large in American fiction as a whole and in our house in particular. Michel is a huge fan: Saunders was Michel’s grad school advisor’s grad school advisor, and Michel believes him to be the greatest short story writer living. So when Saunders’ long-awaited first novel came out, I thought it might be time for me to see what this guy was really about.
Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of Willie Lincoln, recently deceased and pausing for a bit in the “bardo”, a Buddhist version of purgatory. In this case, the bardo is the cemetary in Washington DC where his body has been lain in a borrowed crypt. Many of the spirits in this cemetary don’t realize that they are actually dead, instead thinking they are just sick–coffins are “sick boxes”, mausoleums are “sick houses”. Many spirits harbor hopes of “going back” once they get well. The spirits of Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and Reverand Thomas befriend Willie’s spirit and support him as he tries to stay in this in-between world so he can spend more time with his dad. Most of the story takes place over the course of one night, and our three spirit friends serve as narrators, telling us of the extraordinary night that the President came to visit his son.
Well. I shouldn’t have waited. Saunders won the Pulitzer for this, his first novel, and it’s incredibly easy to see why. It is one of the most naturally creative books I have read in a long time. Written like a play, it is a series of monologues and scenes set among the denizers of the bardo, as the spirits tell fight to tell their stories to this new arrival, desperate because their stories are all they have left. As mentioned above, Vollman, Bevins, and Thomas narrate the action around these stories, interjecting their own stories, opinions, and thoughts as Willie struggles to understand what is happening to him. Interspersed throughout are chapters with fake primary and secondary accounts of the history of the situation–descriptions of the Lincolns and their parties, Willie’s illness, his death, and his funeral. We had an opportunity to hear Saunders speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival this past fall about Lincoln in the Bardo (and if you ever have the chance to hear him speak, do so–he is so kind, funny, down-to-earth, and utterly brilliant and couldn’t have been lovlier when Michel introduced himself after). He talked about how this structure was partly inspired by how early internet chat rooms looked and the ability of that visual to create a chaotic call and response between speeches and stories. What this form does, then, is completely upend a traditional sense of novel form yet read as if it is a completely normal, familiar form that we engage with every day–which, for modern readers in an internet age, is true.
Additionally, the characters are all highy individual and fully realized people. The specificity of their stories, their unique voices, and the intensity of their emotions sweep over us. The sections where the spirts enter Lincoln, shattered by his son’s death and unable to stay away from the borrowed crypt where Willie’s body lays, are some of the most real, true, heartbreaking, and remarkable passages I’ve read in a long time. And yet, there is a clear theme of viral goodness. Before Willie arrives, many of the spirits act in their own interest, often quite rudely, selfishly, or even harmfully. It is this mindset and the resulting actions that keep them in the bardo. However, as Vollman, Bevins, and Thomas try to protect Willie who refuses to move on without his father, more spirits join them, trying to help. And that leads to more and more acts of other-focused kindness and goodness, the thing that frees many spirits and allows them to pass on over the course of the novel.
Interestingly, in his talk Saunders said he did not plan for the pattern of selfless acts being rewarded and only noticed it well into the writing of the novel. However, it is this theme–that humans are ultimately good–that anchors the novel. Being human, dealing with a human body and human emotions, is often distressing, vulgar, difficult, and gross, and so is the writing. Saunders is not afraid to display humanity as its most awful. Yet no matter how base and depraved many of the cemetary’s citizens are, Saunders displays a fundamental hope for humanity and our state of being. It is an incredibly sweet story at it’s core, and I came away feeling happy and hopeful.
Obviously, I recommend this. But I also recommend that you read it and then listen to the audio book. (I say this as someone who does not particularly enjoy audio books.) It has an incredible (and humongous) cast (Nick Offerman as Vollman, David Sedaris as Bevins, and Saunders himself as Rev. Thomas, along with a whole host of Oscar nominees and winners, comedians, and musicians–I found this character key from Penguin Random House helpful when listening), but listening revealed things I missed the first time around. It particularly highlights the humanity of some of the more difficult characters and really lets the beauty of the novel’s structure sing. I also love the push-and-pull between the modern and historical influences and the multi-modal consumption of the story. And honestly, this is a story meant to be spoken and heard rather than read as just a novel, much like Shakespeare. I expect that Lincoln in the Bardo may challenge many readers. It is, after all, a meditation on life, death, grief, what we give up in life, and what we gain when we do. But it will also remind you to look for what is so often missing in today’s world: hope.