I was fearful when I heard about Lincoln in the Bardo almost a decade ago. I’m not a fan of historical novels and was aware of the difficulties that come with moving from short stories to novels. My fears were unfounded, George Saunders’ first novel is a triumph. To even call it a historical novel boxes it in too tight, even calling it a novel is restrictive, it is quite unlike anything I have ever read before.
The first thing you will notice upon picking up the book and flipping through the pages is how weird it looks inside. Please don’t be put off, all will become clear. The novel is entirely composed of dialogue and quotations from historical texts (some of these texts are fictitious, but Saunders could fool even the best historians).
Both dialogue and quotations appear in the same format creating a large chorus of often contradictory voices. This in the hands of others would seem clunky and possibly just literary bravado, but the genius of Saunders’ construction becomes wonderfully apparent at the climax and is the best realisation of the plot.
“Even calling it a novel is restrictive, it is quite unlike anything I have ever read before”
The Lincoln of the title is eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln, beloved son of the President of the United States Abraham Lincoln, who dies of typhoid fever 20 February 1862. We follow Willie over a single night, two days after his death, in the Bardo. The Bardo is the ‘intermediate’ or transitional state between one’s death and one’s next birth, according to Tibetan Buddhism. Here Willie joins the restless spirits who are responsible for much of the novel’s narration.
“One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story,” explains Hans Vollman, one of the ghosts, who like the others, believes himself not to be dead, but merely ill, recuperating after the misfortune that has brought him to the cemetery in his ‘sick-cart’ and makes him rest during the day in his ‘sick-box’. The ghosts are unsettled that Willie isn’t moving onto his next life, like the young do quickly, he’s stuck in the Bardo, and good doesn’t come to those spirits that tarry.
The novel centres around the legend that deep in the midst of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln, driven to madness by grief, visited the body of his dead child the night before burial. In the novel, the visit by his grieving father agitates Willie’s spirit, as well as his graveyard neighbours. His demonstration of love calls up all sorts of weird feelings in the lingering souls. “It was cheering. It gave us hope,” a ghost called Reverend Thomas says, “as if one were still worthy of affection and respect” even in this debased state. Another ghost, Roger Bevins III draws a similarly optimistic conclusion. “We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe,” he says. If the spirits can persuade this boy to undertake his rightful departure to the Other Side, they might be saved as well. It will be a long night.
“The genius of Saunders’ construction becomes wonderfully apparent at the climax and it the best realisation of the plot”
The souls of the Bardo crowd around this uncanny child. As the cast grows, so does our perspective; the novel’s concerns expand. In the midst of the Civil War, saying farewell to one son foreshadows all those impending farewells to sons, the hundreds of thousands of those who will fall in the battlefields. As the cast continues to expand, we see more and more of life and out of the voices of the graveyard we can see a whole country.
Lincoln in the Bardo was clearly conceived before the present circumstances, but it is nonetheless inflected with the tensions we can see today with the rise of populism.
Saunders has served up the perfect novel of the year. It is an all-encompassing, exhausting, emotionally involving attempt to get up again after a fall, to fight for empathy and to resist. The writer notes that there is also an audiobook with a cast of 166 people, including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, Megan Mullally and Don Cheadle giving voice to plethora of ghosts, which might be an even better experience than reading!
With the Man Booker Prize being announced on 17 October, Felix Books will be reviewing more from the shortlist over next couple of weeks.