Lincoln in the Bardo is the bewitching, Man Booker Shortlisted, debut novel by the American short story master, George Saunders.
In February of 1862, whilst the Civil War rages, Willie the eleven-year-old son of President Lincoln dies in a fit of typhoid-induced fever, he is later laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown. President Lincoln, anguished and grief-stricken, returns to the crypt alone several times to mourn and hold his boy’s body. This is the snippet of history that Saunders uses as a springboard to launch his jocose postmodernist tale. But – this morsel of melancholy reality is quickly gnawed and chomped beyond recognition by Saunders laudably greedy creativity. Upon reading the first few pages of Saunders work we are launched into a supernatural transitional realm – called the bardo – which is defined by Tibetan Buddhism as the transitional, intermediate or liminal state between life and death. But – Saunders with his daring and feasting imagination, moves beyond this traditional definition to create a bardo with a syncretic nature – borrowing scraps and snips from a multitude of religions – Saunders sews us a weird and wonderfully gothic patchwork bardo – to which he artistically stitches his dolorous tale – a story infused with bawdy wit and humour but that manages to tackle boldly issues of morality, death and familial love.
Young Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in this transitional realm – but he is not alone – dwelling amongst the moonlit gravestones and skulking beneath the shadowy tendrils of the oak canopy is a cacophonous cast of characters – whose voices amass in perpetual banter and whimsical flimflam. Despite the dark and gothic setting – these rabbling zany characters with their diverse back stories and facetious nature – make this death dimension – good rollicking fun.
Saunders creativity flourishes in the development of this strange cast, each of his characters possess stark deformities which are physical parallels to their individual moral shortcomings or their most principal concerns in relation to their past-lives. There is a Mr Collier a man ‘constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment’. Then there is Mr Vollman – death separated him heartlessly from his unconsummated marital bed, so in the bardo he possesses a colossally engorged member, which he must hold ‘in his hands, so as not to trip himself up on it’. These are just two of this profoundly weird and worldly troupe.
Yet – despite the dark jollity of the characters this novel exudes a palpable tension – letting us know that sinister forces are looming. In the bardo, children who don’t ‘tarry’ are tormented by demonic stony tendrils that threaten to weld their bodies painfully to their surroundings. As the stony tendrils creep towards Willie – the principal narrating trio – Bevins, Vollman and the Reverend Early – strive to save the boy by using ‘ghostly’ techniques to help President Lincoln let his beloved son go – a task that takes place over one strange night.
Aside from Saunders ability to seamlessly merge the ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ with creative flair, he also writes this novel in a daring form, one that may deter some readers. However, it would be daft not to give this ‘novel’ novel a try. Saunders artistically curates a sort of ‘oral history’ as Colson Whitehead (author of the award-winning novel: The Underground Railroad) puts it. The narrative reads alike a screenplay, it is formed of a constellation of small speeches made by his vast caboodle of characters – who he tumbles through with gymnastic flair – passing the literary ‘microphone’ to a worldly bunch – slave, wife, homosexual, civil war solider, among many others – and thus exploring a multitude of societal issues. These speeches are artistically mixed with excerpts from primary and secondary sources about President Lincoln’s life, whereby Saunders clearly demonstrates observers and reporters can be wholly unreliable in their re-telling of a story, he shows us that even the President’s eye colour and the presence or absence of the moon were vulnerable to distortion. All in all, it seems that Saunders talent for short story writing has shone through here, where he seems to take a multitude of exceptional short tales and weave them into one heart-rendering story.
This polyphonic narrative is set in a moonlit landscape throughout the novel. Thus, Saunders makes several references to the moon – ‘a fat green crescent hung above the scene like a stolid judge’, ‘the moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire’, it is the moon that ‘shines down brightly’ to reveal Lincolns grief-stricken face to the cemetery inhabitants, and it is the moon to which Mr Vollmans ‘massive member’ points on occasion. The moon, enslaved to its lunar cycle, is perpetually transitioning. In this manner, it is reflective of the main themes of Saunders novel – the idea of transition – from life to death – from a ‘full’ and virtuous man to one ‘waning’ under the crescent of grief. This transitional story of life that Saunders tells reverberates with the recognition that everything is conditional – familial love, life, sadness, happiness – all enslaved alike the moon to inevitable transitions. This conditional nature of life seems sorrowful and confusing – yet in this book there is an ecliptic moment when life collides with death – and the dead united in purpose – a great community – engender action. Saunders inspires us to see that empathy, little actions and mutual acts are powerful tools during such conditional and difficult times. One such difficult time that inspires Saunders to commit his own ‘little action’, is America’s current standing with Trump in presidency, Saunders wrote in an article for the New Yorker: ‘I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail’, if you feel the same way, Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautiful and inspiring read that reminds you of the power a single individual can wield when inspired to commit seemingly trivial ‘little actions’, and thus the incredible potential of a community of ‘little actors’ to incite positive change.
All in all – stealing from Saunders diction – I ‘ran-skimmed’ through this book – I thoroughly recommend this enchanting read and consider it a worthy candidate – and prominent contender – for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I might also add, for those who loved this novel, or haven’t had a chance to read it, the audiobook, which has an astonishing full cast of 166 people, is bound to be an incredible escapade.