Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Random House, New York, Feb. 14, 2017)

This is one review I composed carefully, as it is a format I have never seen before, in language that I occasionally did not recognize. It is also beautiful, memorable, tremendously emotional and has “a triumph!” written all over it. George Saunders has written something which I cannot remember ever having encountered before: – Magic Realism in reverse. It is no wonder that Saunders was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for it on 17 Oct. 2017. Saunders describes a period – hundreds of years, or perhaps a few hours only – in a graveyard, Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC, where William (Willy) Wallace Lincoln, the son of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, was embalmed and interred in 1862, in the vault belonging to a W.T. Carroll. Willie’s body and casket are no longer there – he was taken away and buried with his father after the President was assassinated in 1865.

Historical fiction genre turned upside down

The odd thing is, that in the Magic Realism genre, you expect a normal situation into which the author inserts moments or incidents of magic or fantasy. Here, you have the opposite: The (I almost said “people”) “beings” in the cemetery are caught in a bardo, which, according to Tibetan tradition, is the state of existence after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, and one experiences a variety of phenomena. It’s a sort of purgatory. Pronounced “bár-do” in English, it is a concept from the Tibetan Book of the Dead; Tibetan བར་དོ་ Wylie: bar do. It is not a concept I was familiar with before I read the novel.

The story is told from their perspective – the dead, that is. Saunders depicts the bardo, located in the cemetery, as being as normal and natural a world as I suppose any existence can be, and the “previous place” as these beings, spirits, ghosts, spectres or ectoplasms call the world of the living, is the unnatural or strange part of this existence. In fact, any interaction between the spirits and the living are hurtful and fantastical to the dead. So much so that the words “dead” and “corpse” and “coffin” are never spoken by them. A coffin is a “sick-box”, a corpse is a “manifestation” or a “resident”. And the word “dead” is simply not said, ever. So this is the normal world, and the world of the living is the element of fantasy or strangeness.

166 different voices – and a discarded rulebook

Apart from being categorized as both Historical Fiction and Biographical Fiction, the novel has been categorized as “Experimental” and to my mind, it is more experimental than most Science Fiction novels I’ve ever read, even China Miéville’s Embassy Town, in which he invented a new form of written language. Saunders’s daring and leaps of the imagination can only be admired. He answers the question how would the dead speak? Saunders gives each dead person a specific way of expressing themselves, depending on who they were, when they lived, and what they died of. Because, depending on how they lived and died, they attain a shape and a voice which mirrors that, and stories which they repeat endlessly, without anyone ever hearing.

For every character, Saunders invented a new “parole” (according to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure) or “individual voice” which he uses like in a theatre script or a screenplay – but in reverse. First the person says something, then that line is followed by their name, the same way as you would quote and attribute it – which he does every so often, using quotes from books about Lincoln and the Civil War. This took some getting used to, I was trying to figure out what the names had to do with the paragraphs until I began to detect the pattern.

Willie Lincoln, the third son of President Abraham Lincoln, died Feb. 20, 1862, at age 11 of typhoid fever. This photograph was taken shortly before his death. (Source: Mathew Brady/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION) The author depicts him exactly like that – round-faced, in a little grey suit, like a small little man, rather than a child.

Historical references – part fact, part fiction

Some of the quotes are real, some not. I checked a number and some are so old that I assume they can only be found in genealogical and Civil War archives, while others are books that can still be found online (examples below).

Whether they are real or not does not matter, since the voices of the authors of the quotes, flow together emphasizing point after point, though sometimes contradicting each other on the details. An example is the spelling of the names of guests at a Lincoln dinner party, like Prince Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk of Salm-Salm – which some spell Salum-Salum, and others Salm-Salm. In these quotes, the historical figures, like Prince Nepomuk who served in the Civil War, may also be real, or not. Just like the spectres in the bardo are actually there – or not, depending on whether you believe in life after death, spirits, souls, reincarnation, heaven, hell, etc. The voices of the spectres flow together in a “call-and-response” fashion, the same way as the historical comments – in fact, considering they are dead, they are a bit like a “kommos” or lamentation by a chorus in Ancient Greek theatre.

The spectres

The main spectres doing the talking in this sort of choir, completing each other’s sentences, are “roger bevins iii”, “hans vollman”, “the reverend everly thomas” and of course “willy lincoln” – the author’s lower case, not mine.

Amazing number of Fan Fiction illustrations

The book has already led to the creation of many Fan Fiction illustrations and even a short film. In Feb. 2016, coinciding with the release of the novel of Lincoln in the Bardo, film director Graham Sacks produced this standalone adaptation of the novel. Below are some screenshots from the Virtual Reality short adaptation by Sacks. The VR “experience,” Lincoln in the Bardo, was released through the New York Times’ NYTVR apps for iOS and Android to be experienced either through a Google Cardboard viewer or in 360 format on a smartphone or tablet. Cinematography and editing was done by Sensorium, a New York-based creative studio. This image is a screen shot from the short film. It is both an instance of Fan Fiction and not, as Sacks explains, “book packaging”. It is more of a “homage” or independent artistic production inspired by the book.

From novel to VR Film: A crowd scene of spirits surrounding Lincoln with his deceased son Willie from ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’—one of Graham Sack’s production’s most complex moments. Image: Matthew Niederhauser/Sensorium

[Referring to the disinterment and rough handling by the living, of another corpse, and Willie Lincoln’s corpse being handled by his father, President Lincoln. Note, line breaks, indents, grammar and punctuation are verbatim.]

That kind of touching —

roger bevins iii

No one wants that.

hans vollman

But this – this was different.

roger bevins iii

The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear? My God! My God!

the reverend everly thomas

To be touched so lovingly so fondly, as if one were still—

roger bevins iii

Healthy.

hans vollman

As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?
It was cheering. It gave us hope.

the reverend everly thomas

We were perhaps not so unloveable as we had come to believe.

roger bevins iii”

(Lincoln in the Bardo, pp. 69-70)

During the telling of what happens to both Lincolns, the father and the son, in the bardo, the author introduces about 166 characters, each with their own voice and backstory. Some are tragic, others funny.

“roger bevins” was a printer before he died, and tended to overwork himself. To make up for that, in death, he is a spectre with many hands, eyes, arms and mouths, who frequently goes off on a rant about the beauty in the “previous place” that he never noticed when he was alive. “hans vollman” was an ugly fellow with wooden teeth who married late in life and never consummated his marriage. Now he wanders the graveyard with a massive swollen member. The “reverend everly thomas” used to be what he thought was a good, God-fearing man, but has been living in this in-between state for longer than he can remember, neither going to heaven or hell. He did once “move on” and saw the dividing of people into heaven and hell, like in the Bible where the final judgment is described, depending on how they had lived. To his horror, the angels and “the Christ-king” decided he had lived a bad life, and was going to hell, so he ran away, back to the bardo. Where he has been stuck ever since.

A contained universe with its own rules

As you can see, Saunders invented a world here with its own set of rules and parameters. The corpses of the dead stay where they are, and during the day, like vampires, the spirits re-insert themselves into their remains, which, they themselves admit, are gruesome. At night, they roam the cemetery, repeating the same acts over and over, depending on what they “were in for”. For example, someone they call “the Traynor girl” had died in a train crash along with a cargo of pigs, and now her spirit, full of rage, remains trapped in the train wreck.

[Note, line breaks, grammar, spelling and punctuation are verbatim.]

From novel to VR Film: From Graham Sack and Jennifer 8. Lee’s ‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’ Image: Matthew Niederhauser/Sensorium

“The Traynor girl lay as usual, trapped against, and part of, the fence manifesting at that moment as a sort of horrid black furnace.

roger bevins iii

She rapidly transmuted into the fallen bridge, the vulture, the large dog, the terrible hag gorging on black cake, the stand of flood-ravaged corn, the umbrella ripped open by a wind we could not feel.

the reverend everly thomas

[…]

Please do come again sir it has been a pleasure to make your
But fuk yr anshient friends (do not bring them agin) who kome to ogle and mok me and ask me to swindle no that is not the werd slender slander that wich I am doing. Wich is no more than what they are doing. Is it not so? What I am doing, if I only cary on fathefully, will, I am sure, bring about that longed-for return to
Green grass kind looks.

elise traynor”

(Lincoln in the Bardo, pp. 27 & 39)

Unmet expectations

It is difficult to get into the novel because every facet of the genre was turned on its head and is not what was expected. Matthew Sangster writes in his chapter of a collection of critical essays on China Miéville’s work:

“When we read the first pages of a book, we do so possessed by a number of pre-existing expectations. Some of these expectations arise from paratexts apprehended  before the business of reading begins. For any given book, these might include the picture on the cover, the colour of the cover, the font and prominence of the title and author’s name, the publisher’s imprint, the date of publication, a synopsis on the back an blurbs from writers and publications. This list is by no means exhaustive. Factors external to the book also shape expectations, including the opinions of reviewers and friends; knowledge of the author’s biography and other works; and prior acquaintance with the genre or genres in which the book has been marketed or placed. The text of books may uphold or undercut these conjured expectations, but the subversion of generic expectations carries the greater risk. A reader who buys a book liveried in the distinctive garb of the romance novel but who finds a techno-thriller inside will usually feel cheated.

(Matthew Sanger, Iron Council, Bas-Lag and Generic Expectations, in China Miéville: Critical Essays, edited by Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia, in the series Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays No. 3, Gylphi Ltd., 2015, pp. 185 – 186)

I did not feel cheated at the end – rather the reverse. I was thrilled and frequently moved to tears, and I really enjoyed every page and almost every line, and found I couldn’t put it down. However, since this novel undercuts generic expectations and even my expectations based on the paratexts of the book (primarily the Man Booker Award), I felt alarmed and disappointed by the first few chapters. I thought, I’ve wasted my money. This is unreadable. What on earth is going on?

I mean, it starts off with one of the spectres, “hans vollman”, explaining to the recently deceased Willy Lincoln what happens when you die. It’s not nice at all!

(Sensitive readers, look away now.)

From novel to VR Film by Graham Sack’s Image: Matthew Niederhauser/Sensorium.

 

“In any event, I returned to my sick-box, weeping in that way we have — have you come to know this yet, young fellow? When we are newly arrived in this hospital-yard, young sir, and feel like weeping, what happens is, we tense up ever so slightly, and there is a mildly toxic feeling in the joints, and little things inside us burst. Sometimes we might poop a bit if we are fresh. Which is just what I did, on the cart that day: I pooped a bit while fresh, in my sick-box, out of rage, and what was the result? I have kept the poop with me all this time, and as a matter of fact — I hope you do not find this rude, young sir, of off-putting, I hope this does not impair our nascent friendship – that poop is still down there, at this moment, in my sick-box, albeit much dryer!
Goodness, are you a child?
He is, isn’t he?

hans vollman”

(Lincoln in the Bardo, p. 6)

I decided that, because there surely has to be merit to a Booker Prize winner, I would continue. And so I met the odd spectres and got to know the odd rules of this world, the bardo and the next worlds. All of which, even to an atheist, was depicted so as to be thoroughly plausible, completely possible, imaginable, visualizable, consistent and contrary to every expectation I had beforehand.

More than the bardo

This is not just a novel about ghosts and the Lincolns. It is also about what President Abraham Lincoln was thinking about the Civil War of the (now) United States—“its bloodiest war and perhaps its greatest moral, constitutional, and political crisis.” Here was one dead boy – his son – but the war had caused the deaths of an estimated 750,000 men. What sort of grief, pain and confusion had he and his Republican Party government unleashed on the country, for the sake of abolishing slavery? Was it worth it? How could he, would he, ought he to change his mind about the war, due to his son’s death?

Lincoln’s grief, even though he had another living son, Tad, was immense, by all accounts, and is on public record. He goes to the graveyard to hold his son in his arms one last time, and Willy “puts himself into” his father’s body and so can read his thoughts.

[Note, line breaks, grammar, spelling and punctuation are verbatim.]

From novel to VR Film: As Graham Sack’s adaptation has it, Lincoln arrives in the elegiac bardo of the work’s title as ‘a beam of light that cuts into the darkness.’ Image: Matthew Niederhauser/Sensorium

“We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.
Then let out a sob.
Dear Father crying      that was hard to see   And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no
[…]
Then father touched his head to mine.
Dear boy, he said, I will come again, that is a promise.

willie lincoln”

(Lincoln in the Bardo, pp. 61-62)

One of the more disgusting characters in the book, a slave-owner and rapist, calls Black people “SHARDS” – since they look to him like shards of some black substance. Not human, just things he can force to do work. But the Black people in the graveyard and in the adjacent pit for the poor who have no graves, join in when they see Willie amongst them. At that moment, they are equal. But the bardo, for some of its inhabitants, are forever, and ephemeral, like smoke. They can do nothing to alter the course of war, or the belief in slavery, or the heart-break of even one living person. Or can they?

It is a journey of discovery and constant surprise to read this book. Read it yourself to find out what happens. It may be hard, but you will not be sorry for the time you spent on it.


About Willie Lincoln’s death

Apparently the whole well-documented episode of Willie Lincoln’s death was filled with portents and awfulness, and the nation mourned together with his parents. The details, below, are exactly like in the book. It is from an Oct. 2011 article by 

  • The weather was violent and stormy.
  • The Civil War was escalating and no-one knew what would happen next.
  • Willie was a nice-looking, charming boy (but very naughty and indulged by his parents) who insisted on riding his new pony in the rain.
  • He caught a cold and fever from this, but it was probably typhoid from contaminated water which killed him.
  • Tad, Willie’s younger brother, also got ill, but recovered.
  • Willie died at the White House, a few days after the presidential couple had hosted a formal reception there.
  • In one of the quotes in the book by a real person, Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who later worked at the Lincolns’ home as a seamstress, wrote that “the rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sickroom in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far-off spirits.”
  • Willie died after the Lincolns had lost another son, Edward, doubling their grief.
  • In his coffin, after he had been embalmed with the latest techniques, in Willie’s right hand was placed a small bouquet of flowers that later would be given to his mother.
  • His plain metallic coffin bore a simple inscription on a square silver plate: “William Wallace Lincoln. Born December 21st, 1850. Died February 20th, 1862.”
  • William Carroll, in whose vault in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington Willie’s coffin was placed, offered it as a temporary resting place until the Lincolns could get back to their home state of Illinois. It lay there for three years.

About George Saunders

I had never heard of George Saunders before I read this. (Sorry, but the world of literature is simply huge.) But I will now go back and read his other works. It seems like he is the most acclaimed author I’ve never heard of. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel. It’s a triumph, though he has had a lifetime of practice. Unbelievably, it turns out he is a man after my own heart (meaning, he studied Mining and Geology): “I was born in Amarillo, Texas, grew up in Chicago, and (barely) graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in exploration geophysics.” (From his website.) I like his own description of his very interesting life much more than the Wikipedia blurb.

George Saunders, photo by Chloe Aftel on his website.

Wikipedia, though sometimes iffy, provided a succinct introduction to Saunders:

George Saunders (born December 2, 1958) is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, children’s books, and a novel. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and GQ. He also contributed a weekly column, American Psyche, to the weekend magazine of The Guardian between 2006 and 2008. A professor at Syracuse University, Saunders won the National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004, and second prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1997. His first story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award. In 2006 Saunders received a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2006 he won the World Fantasy Award for his short story “CommComm”. His story collection In Persuasion Nation was a finalist for the Story Prize in 2007. In 2013, he won the PEN/Malamud Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Saunders’s Tenth of December: Stories won the 2013 Story Prize for short-story collections and the inaugural (2014) Folio Prize. 

If you want to spoil the mystery and find out how Saunders’s head worked while he wrote this, here is a radio interview he did with an Australian interviewer. I suggest you skip that and just read the book. Confession: I have not listened to it. I prefer to come to my own conclusions, as always.

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