Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders (2017)
Random House (2017)
368 pp

A cartoon appeared in a Washington rag called the “Gab & Joust,” showing Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln throwing back glasses of champagne as the boy (with tiny Xs for his eyes) climbed into an open grave, inquiring, “Father, a Glass Before I Go?”

In “The Rudderless Ship: When Presidents Flounder,” by Maureen H. Hedges.

George Saunders’ Abraham Lincoln is flailing, at a personal nadir, the worst still to come. A disastrous civil war has led to him being roundly demonized by press and public alike, and it’s at this point of leprous popularity that, while glad-handing at a party he has been correctly advised is highly inappropriate, his ailing son, left upstairs as revelers get their fill a floor below, is failing to fight off pneumonia. That son, Willy, will soon perish, as mounds of untouched meat and bowls of unwanted punch spoil, and as the last stragglers waken from drunken slumbers and stagger off into a queasy dawn. This death, of “Lincoln’s favorite,” will plunge the man widely considered at this point to be “Worst President in History!” yet further into despair. Not that his personal misfortune, allayed to a national calamity he is unconvinced he can salvage, quells the across-the-board vitriol any.

So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can  be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a  man who is incompetent.

In “Lincoln Reconsidered,” by David Herbert Donald, letter from George Bancroft to  Francis Lieber.

If Abe Lincoln should be re-elected for another term of four years of such wretched  administration, we hope that a bold hand will be found to plunge the dagger into the  tyrant’s heart for the public welfare.

In the “La Crosse Democrat.”

Old Abe Lincoln God damn your god damned old Hellfired god damned soul to hell  god damn you and goddam your god damned family’s god damned hellfired god   damned soul to hell and god damnation god damn them and god damn your god damn  friends to hell god damn their god damned souls to damnation god damn them.

Holzer, op. cit.

Saunders has spoken of his fascination re: the skimpily-substantiated tale of Lincoln visiting and revisiting the tomb in which Willy lay, and lingering therein for hours at a time, and has been nagged by the question of just why Lincoln spent so long alone with his dead son, what exactly the palpably lost Lincoln, later feted a hero, might have gleaned from such grim moments that, at the time, seemed to indicate a man on the verge of collapse.

Saunders’ verdict seems to be that, at Lincoln’s lowest point, by wrestling with matters of incalculable devastation, as though by engaging head-on with the harshest test he would ever face, he was transformed from vacillating sitting duck to resolute leader of iron will, unbending and, in the end, none-more Presidential. It’s a stretch; but wait until you see Saunders’ stretchers before you judge.

Saunders has also spoken of the technical quandaries he faced when considering the best way to take on such a story. His solution: affably garrulous ghosts relate the unfolding events in sequences captured in “play” format. We follow the often ribald considerations of three in particular — Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas — all in purgatorial limbo, as yet unable to escape the bizarre hinterland in which they are marooned, not only observing and commenting querulously upon Lincoln’s darkest hours but influencing matters in a manner that feels uniquely Saunderian: He has them bouncing expositional exchanges off one another in the following fashion.

A couple strolling here, on the brink of ending their engagement, reversed their decision, under our influence.

hans vollman

Almost certainly a coincidence.

roger bevins iii

Several of us—Hightower, the three of us, and—what was his name? The decapitated  fellow?

hans vollman

Ellers.

roger bevins iii

Ellers, of course! Bored, we swarmed and entered that couple and, through the  combined force of our concentrated wishfulness, were able to effect—

hans vollman

This much is true: They were overcome with sudden passion and retreated behind one  of the stone homes.

roger bevins iii

To act upon said passion.

hans vollman

While we watched.

roger bevins iii

I have misgivings about that. The watching.

hans vollman

Well, you had no misgivings on that day, my dear fellow. Your member was swollen  to an astonishing size. And even on a normal day, it is swollen to—

roger bevins iii

I seem to remember you watching as well. I do not recall the slightest aversion of any  of your many, many—

hans vollman

Truly, it was invigorating to see such passion. The fury of their embraces was  remarkable.

roger bevins iii

Yes. They sent birds winging from the trees with their terrific moans of pleasure.

hans vollman

After which they renewed their commitment and departed hand in hand, reconciled, betrothed again.

roger bevins iii

And we had done it.

hans vollman

Come now. They were young, lustful, alone in an isolated spot, on a beautiful spring  night. They hardly needed any help from—

roger bevins iii

(Those of you familiar with his short fiction will surely remember “Sea Oak,” in which a previously apathetic woman dies, to return as a scathing, life-affirming figure of rebuke and rehabilitative motivation to those floundering relatives left behind. Pure Saunders: moralistic absurdity of a Barthelme-bent, but with added empathy, and there’s plenty of that here.)

Saunders uses this setup to prevail over a disquisition into “what matters” as he sees it, and you’d have to be a bit of a curmudgeon to take issue with any of it: letting the best in people speak for who they are; the necessity of unity and community; reciprocal care and empathy. It is very much a timely if accidental riposte to those currently wanting their avatar to burn their country down, and is welcome as such. But it’s also an often breathtaking exhibition of maybe the US’s best satirist’s ability to hew shame and filth and regret and an overwhelming sense of the downtrodden to something far grander and explicitly celebratory.

Saunders sees thwarted potential in long dead souls and revives them, allows them to flourish. He dismantles arbitrary barriers between those of different class, race, gender and disposition, and chooses to exhibit the best of even the worst wretches, lining them up to let them have their often inculpating say, that we might understand them a little better, if not actually like them.

Basically, he’s not afraid of being heartfelt, that most difficult of fictional currencies to spend wisely. There are moments that dally with mawkishness, inevitably so with such a positive spin. But he does two crucial things that allow him to get away with his deeply human highwire act. He unmistakably means it, and cares. And he writes brilliantly enough to carry off moments that might easily have become galling platitudes in lesser hands. You really never doubt that the author – who until Tenth of December pulled back from such unrelenting positivity to deliver something slightly more ambivalent – is genuinely invested in ideas that have become unfashionable, certainly in almost all the fiction I read. Saunders thinks that, in the end, it really will matter how we acted, who we were, what we did, how we measured ourselves, President or brutally raped ‘mulatto girl’, racist plantation owner or selfish and despicably neglectful drunken parents, and he really does want to consider what, if anything, it might all mean. The big questions: Saunders takes them on with barely a bum note, with guile and precision, and with great humor and generosity. It’s truly a book no-one else could’ve written.

He weaves his magic with two predominant threads. As well as those flatly presented dialogue exchanges, there are carefully selected and deployed snippets from accounts-of-the-day culled from various sources: newspaper reports, memoirs, gossip columns, spliced felicitously to make it pretty clear that there was rarely any concurrence amongst Lincoln-watchers. The President’s eyes are described alternately as grey, grey-brown, blue, green and so on. Extrapolate from that what you will about the otherwise reliability of any one consideration or portrait. But there’s nonetheless little doubt that the main coverage – of the party Lincoln holds as Willy nears his end overhead – is fairly consistent in its barely-concealed outrage and surprise at Lincoln’s apparent crass lack of judgement and perceived self-defeating nonchalance.

Our three ghost-narrators are stuck between life and death due to what seems to be a sense of denial as to both their fate and the nature of their final moments, which they have misinterpreted, thus consigning themselves to an absurdist’s interregnum. Basically speaking, they’re dead and won’t yet accept it, such denial pausing their passage from one realm to the next. But they’re no Beckettian existentialists poring over the maddening pointlessness of life – they’re more like Tom Stoppard outcasts, dead à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but similarly afflicted by uncertainty and deliberation, unconventional and unmoored to begin with and now metaphysically so, stuck with other similarly blighted souls incapable of reconciling fact with fate.

And yet: they sense enough to preclude others from the fate they share and can’t yet repeal. When they discover newly-dead Willy Lincoln’s spectral from perched atop his tomb (the tomb in which virtually all of the Lincoln family will eventually reside) they are aggrieved on his behalf that he should find himself among them; they reassure him as to the need for him to move on and dwell no longer in such a perilous state. But their cause is not helped by the appearance, and re-appearance, of a President as yet unwilling and incapable of accepting this none-more-harrowing truth.

We embraced the boy at the door of his white stone home.

hans vollman

He gave us a shy smile, not untouched by trepidation at what was to come.

the reverend everly thomas

Go on, Mr. Bevins said gently. It is for the best.

hans vollman

Off you go, Mr. Vollman said. Nothing left for you here.

roger bevins iii

Goodbye then, the lad said. Nothing scary about it, Mr. Bevins said. Perfectly natural.

hans vollman

Then it happened.

roger bevins iii

An extraordinary occurrence.

hans vollman

Unprecedented, really.

the reverend everly thomas

The boy’s gaze moved past us.

hans vollman

He seemed to catch sight of something beyond.

roger bevins iii

His face lit up with joy.

hans vollman

Father, he said.

the reverend everly thomas

And opened it.

hans vollman

Kneeling before the box, the man looked down upon that which—

the reverend everly thomas

He looked down upon the lad’s supine form in the sick-box.

hans vollman

Yes.

the reverend everly thomas

At which point, he sobbed.

hans vollman

He had been sobbing all along.

roger bevins iii

He emitted a single, heartrending sob.

hans vollman

Or gasp. I heard it as more of a gasp. A gasp of recognition.

the reverend everly thomas

Of recollection.

hans vollman

Of suddenly remembering what had been lost.

the reverend everly thomas

And touched the face and hair fondly.

hans vollman

As no doubt he had many times done when the boy was—

roger bevins iii

Less sick.

hans vollman

A gasp of recognition, as if to say: Here he is again, my child, just as he was. I have  found him again, he who was so dear to me.

the reverend everly thomas

Who was still so dear.

hans vollman

Saunders’ Lincoln must, so this tale has it, quickly learn to let go, as those parents of the thousands dead in a war he has backed must, a war the President has delivered and overseen (in this case caricatured as with a glass of port in one hand a turkey leg in the other), corpses that were once beloved children piling up in festering heaps, as Lincoln prevaricates and hears ever-louder calls for his impeachment, as his belief in himself evaporates. Willy dying — and the boy’s doctor, who Lincoln has meticulously and exhaustively questioned, provides nothing but reassurance and a prognosis of likely recovery, before giving the green light to a bash best postponed regardless — means Lincoln is tested in a manner shared by so many other mothers and fathers, and its a test that will, as Saunders has it, turn the course of the entire nation’s history.

As our three purgatorial misfits eventually hatch a plan to enter the body — with much help from many other similarly-afflicted teetering half-dead — of Lincoln to effect influence, to help both Abraham and Willy on their way, it becomes more and more evident that Saunders is himself accommodating the ghost of another great American satirist, that of Mark Twain, whose rambunctious spirit, more than any other, he here channels to febrile, iconoclastic effect. The voices brought to life are often startling in their raw, ripe, savage verisimilitude, such as with one viciously maligned creature, who leaves us in no doubt as to the wretched state in which she languished while alive and languishes still beyond the grave with chilling, shattering equivocation.

Younge Mr Bristol desired me, younge Mr Fellowes and Mr Delway desired me, of an  evening they would sit on the grass around me and in their eyes burned the fiercest    kindest Desire. In my grape smock I would sit in the wikker chair amid that circle of  admiring fierce kind eyes even unto the night when one or another boy would lay back  and say, Oh the stars, and I would say, O yes, how fine they look tonight, while (I  admit) imagining reclining there beside him, and the other boys, seeing me looking at   the reklining one, would also imagine going down to recline there beside me. It was  all very Then Mother would send Annie to come get me. I was too early departed.  From that party, from that Brite promise of nights and nights of that, culminating in a   choise, and the choise being made, it would be rite, and would become Love, and   Love would become baby, and that is all I ask I want ed so much to hold a dear Babe.  I know very wel I do not look as prety as I onseh. And over time, I admit, I have come  to know serten words I did not formerly Fuk cok shit reem ravage assfuk And to  know, in my mind, serten untoward kwarters where such things Dim rum swoggling  plases off bakalleys Was gone too soon To get Only forteen. Yrs of aje Plese do come  again sir it has been a pleasure to make your But fuk yr anshient frends (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

Whilst we see bodies rotting in fields and a President grappling with a nightmarish and seemingly hopeless war, it’s the human element — that is, the plight of everyone, not just Lincoln father and son, our three knockabout ghosts, any of the characters to which we are introduced and reintroduced as they gabble disbelievingly against their doom, but everyone, all included — that endures. Saunders here not only dispenses with fabrications of self to find a beating heart but does away with the beating heart and looks instead for whatever core essence might be said to articulate what any of us are. Or: our souls are what count, and what we do freights them, or frees them up.

Let’s allow the final words to a solemnly self-interrogating Lincoln, trying to find a way out of hell by confronting the unthinkable. Is it the case that we can only go on living, succeeding, flourishing fully by facing death?

Look down. At him. At it. What is it? Frankly investigate that question.

(Is it him?)

It is not.

(What is it?)

It is that which used to bear him around. The essential thing (that which was borne,  that which we loved) is gone. Though this was part of what we loved (we loved the  way he, the combination of spark and bearer, looked and walked and skipped and  laughed and played the clown), this, this here, is the lesser part of that beloved  contraption. Absent that spark, this, this lying here, is merely— (Think it. Go ahead.   Allow yourself to think that word.) I would rather not. (It is true. It will help.)

I need not say it, to feel it, and act upon it.

(It is not right to make a fetish of the thing.)

I will go, I am going, I need no further convincing.

(Say it, though, for truth. Say the word rising up in you.)

Oh my little fellow.

(Absent that spark, this lying here, is merely— Say it.)

Meat.

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By |2017-05-24T21:19:04-04:00March 30th, 2017|Categories: Book Reviews, George Saunders|Tags: , |10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Dennis Lang March 30, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    I’m hesitant to even comment here, since although reading about the book and seeing interviews with George Saunders, I haven’t even read it.

    But I love Lee’s approach to analyzing what the author is intending to do. Digging into the process of it. I feel as though I’m seeing it from the viewpoint of George Saunders as he’s thinking and creating it.

    This to me is very meaningful.

  2. Dan March 30, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks, Lee, for this terrific review. Lincoln in the Bardo just wasn’t to my taste, despite my one-time obsession with Lincoln’s writings and Lincoln biographies. But your review has helped me to see Lincoln in the Bardo in a new light, and convinced me that I should reread it at some point.

  3. Lee Monks March 30, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Dennis, Dan: thank you.

    Dennis: please do read it and come back on with your thoughts. I think you’ll like it.

    Dan: maybe next time! Did you find the whole thing a bit of a stretch? Any problems with the Lincoln characterisation?

  4. Dan March 30, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    Lee, I thought that the Lincoln characterization was lovely, fully believable, and very affecting. I found the concept of the bardo generally and the ghost-narrators specifically interfered with my appreciation of other aspects of Lincoln in the Bardo, including the characterizations of Lincoln, the White House party, and the interweaving of quotes. After-life is just too far a stretch for me, even when it’s Marcus Messner in Philip Roth’s Indignation. My imagination is too limited to accept or appreciate fictional portrayals of after-lives.

  5. Lee Monks March 30, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    I can understand that. Still, a shame Saunders’ solution to his narrative problems may well have turned a few off.

  6. Trevor Berrett March 31, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    I want to thank Lee for reviewing this one for the site. I am still not quite sure where I stand on it. On the one hand, the central premise (and that central image of Lincoln with his son) is so strong and alluring, I found the book captivating while I read it. But when I set it down, I didn’t ever really have a strong desire to get back to it. To me, then, it said a lot of what it had to say in the concept which I liked thinking about with the characters, but didn’t do much more. I also have not been convinced Saunders’ way of putting it together — those lines of dialogue — did much for the story. Interesting, sure, but necessary? Altering? I’m still not there.

    Then again, though, I read the passages above and remember why I was so captivated while reading the book. It moves quickly, Saunders’ kindness and empathy always come through even when the characters are not being kind.

    Probably, then, I’m quite happy with the book but a bit confused by the elation others feel for it, which makes me feel like I dislike it by comparison.

  7. Lee Monks March 31, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    No problem Trevor!

    I also have no desire to go back to it, if I’m totally honest. But I do think it will endure, and I have total admiration and respect for Saunders.

  8. Dan April 1, 2017 at 11:21 am

    From The Millions’ Annals of Japery: Trump in the Bardo by Jacob Lambert (http://www.themillions.com/2017/03/trump-in-the-bardo.html).

  9. Lee Monks April 1, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    Ha!

    “What was that thing? Mr. Bevins asked. And whatever is Russia fake news?

    the reverend everly thomas

    Something to do with the Emperor Nicholas? I ventured, yet my answer did not satisfy. We watched the visitor, in hopes that he might resolve our queries, but he remained in a sitting position, inspecting a nostril with what I judged to be an unusually short index finger.

    hans vollman

    Given the overall size of him, you see. Proportionally.

    roger bevins iii”

  10. Bill from PA May 6, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    I finished reading the novel yesterday and find myself bothered by the vision of the afterlife beyond the bardo that Reverend Everly Thomas reveals at the beginning of Part Two, in which he realizes that he himself will be damned. Its central position in the book and length gave it a certain weight in the narrative, but I have no idea what to make of it. I can see three possibilities, none very satisfying:
    1. Thomas actually committed some heinous sin but has totally suppressed it and it is never recalled by him or anyone else in the novel.
    2. The punishments and rewards in the afterlife are purely arbitrary, regardless of the show made of “judgment”, and that a fate of reward or punishment randomly assigned awaits all of the characters that leave the bardo, including Willie Lincoln.
    3. Saunders just left it as a loose end, either not knowing how to resolve the situation he had created or forgetting to resolve it.

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