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166 ghosts tell the story of Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’s fantastic first novel

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders Random House

The Civil War had been raging for nearly a year when 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, died of typhoid fever. For his father, it was a staggering blow, and rumors circulated in the weeks afterward that Lincoln was making a habit of visiting his son’s crypt to exhume the body and cradle it in his arms.

That’s the image at the heart of Lincoln in the Bardo, the lovely and philosophical debut novel from the great short-story writer George Saunders. Told in a series of monologues, interspersed with quotes from historical documents — some real, some invented — it’s set in the graveyard where Willie was buried and which the grief-stricken Lincoln visits. And it is mostly narrated by ghosts.

This sweet-natured longform work is a new direction for Saunders, the satirical short-story writer — but it’s a fruitful one.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place after death, but before the afterlife

The ghosts are all residents of the Bardo, the in-between space of Tibetan Buddhism: post-life, pre-afterlife. There are 166 of them narrating the book by turns, and few of them are willing to admit they are dead.

Instead, they insist they are sick. For their health, they claim, they have been confined to sick-boxes (coffins) and must lie next to sick-forms (corpses), but they are certain they will eventually recover and go back to “that other place” to rejoin their loved ones.

After all, they have things to do. Hans Vollman, who manifests as a naked man with a dent in his skull and an enormous erection, must finally and at last consummate his marriage with his young wife, as he was planning to do before a beam hit him on the head in a freak accident. Roger Bevins III, a closeted gay man who manifests as a many-limbed body covered with extra eyes and noses and mouths and ears, with slashes on every wrist, must experience all the sensual pleasures of the world, which he only realized existed while he was committing suicide.

But young Willie, freshly interred, is not burdened with the regrets and second guesses of an adult life. Everyone knows he is supposed to pass on rapidly to the next phase of being, as children generally do. When they stay in the Bardo, the results are catastrophic: They deteriorate, mentally and physically, and become entrapped by a carapace of demonic souls that slowly drives them mad.

Willie is perfectly prepared to move on from the Bardo, until his father visits and holds him. After that, he feels compelled to stay, so that he can see his father again.

But for the rest of the ghosts, Lincoln’s visit — the act of cradling his son’s body like a Pietà — is profoundly moving. It proves to them that “we were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe,” says Roger Bevins III. And prompted by Lincoln’s empathy, and his ability to treat the dead with respect and affection, they resolve to save Willie’s soul and convince him to pass on to the afterlife.

This conceit might seem uncharacteristically earnest for a satirist like Saunders. That’s not a bad thing.

Saunders is known for his gleamingly sharp satire, and while his distinctive voice and sense of humor is very evident in this book, “save the innocent child’s soul” might feel like an uncharacteristically sentimental conceit. Some critics have suggested that it is too sentimental, especially for this historical moment. Saunders himself struggled with that attitude, he said in an interview, and he found it disturbing. He says that as he wrote, he kept forcing himself to ask, “Why is this material too earnest for you?”

But there is nothing wrong with earnestness in and of itself. The instinct to distance oneself from emotions with irony is not always useful or constructive, and to engage with emotions — to practice empathy — is not always to practice banal sentimentality.

And the project of Lincoln in the Bardo is to practice empathy. It is empathy the ghosts demand, as they endlessly repeat and repeat the events that led them to their “sick-place,” and it is only through possessing Lincoln — metaphysically entering his mind and experiencing total empathy with him — that they are able to save Willie. Solipsism and self-absorption traps them in the Bardo; empathy frees them.

Lincoln in the Bardo’s prose is stylized, lyrical, and ecstatic

Throughout the book, Saunders’s writing is rich and textured and specific. The monologues of the ghosts are in a written rather than a spoken voice (they spell and punctuate according to their era), which creates a kind of scrapbook continuity between their sections and the sections built around historical documents. It takes a few pages to ease into the rapidfire transition from voice to voice, but eventually the momentum of the piece takes over and you can sink into it. Always, the monologues are stylized and compelling, and periodically, they launch into ecstatic lyrical arias, like Roger Bevins III declaiming the joys of the physical world:

a sleeping dog dream-kicking in a tree-shade triangle; a sugar pyramid upon a blackwood tabletop being rearranged grain-by-grain by an indiscernible draft; a cloud passing ship-like above a rounded green hill, atop which a line of colored shirts energetically dance in the wind, while down below in town, a purple-blue day unfolds (the muse of spring incarnate), each moist-grassed, flower-pierced yard gone positively mad with —

(He cuts off here, overwhelmed by the new limbs he has sprouted.)

Lincoln in the Bardo is a thoughtful, readable, and beautifully constructed novel, a kind of A Fine and Private Place for the 21st century. It is, hopefully, the first of many works in a new medium from Saunders, one of our greatest short-story writers.

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