Monday, March 13, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Although I love George Saunders's short story collection Tenth of December and his pre-election essay on Trump's followers, I wasn't sure I was going to read his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book is about the death of Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid in the early days of the Civil War, and reading historical fiction about actual people always feels weird to me. But when I saw the rave reviews (Caitlin PenzeyMoog of the A.V. Club called it "a postmodern masterpiece"), I knew I had to get it.

Lincoln in the Bardo is no ordinary piece of historical fiction, and its unusual format can take some getting used to. The story, which spans the night after Willie Lincoln's funeral, is mainly told through statements from the ghosts/spirits that are Willie's new neighbors. ("Bardo" is a Tibetan word referring to the concept of a transitional state after death.) The spirits are numerous, but there are three main characters who immediately take stranded soul Willie under their wing: Hans Vollman, a middle-aged printer who died in a freak accident; Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who committed suicide; and Reverend Everly Thomas, who died of old age. They finish each other's sentences, cut each other off, and elaborate on each other's points, as if all three were sitting in front of you, telling you what happened. This example should give you a feel for the style:

"Then it happened.
roger bevins iii

An extraordinary occurrence.
hans vollman

Unprecedented, really.
the reverend everly thomas"

As with the rest of the ghosts in the Oak Hill Cemetery, these three are staying behind on Earth voluntarily for their own reasons. Vollman's death happened just before he finally consummated his marriage to his beloved young wife, and he can't accept that he isn't simply sick and won't recover. As a manifestation of his sexual frustration, his ghost appears as naked and cartoonishly erect. Moments before dying, Bevins regretted leaving the world, with all its beauty, behind, and his ghost has many eyes and arms, trying to see and touch all nature has to offer. (The bond between kind Vollman and aesthete Bevins is now one of my favorite literary friendships.) Reverend Thomas's reasons are more elusive, but eventually revealed.

Despite their own desire to not move on, they are united in their determination to get Willie to leave Earth. In the book's universe, children's souls who don't move on are sentenced to eternal torment near their graves. The ghosts have already witnessed this happening to one young teenager, Elise Traynor, who is welded to the cemetery fence and writhes, full of rage, from one horrible form to the next. But Willie is delayed by his father, the President himself, who returns to the dead boy's side multiple times throughout the night (which Lincoln, an involved and loving father who had already lost his three-year-old son Eddie over a decade earlier, apparently did in real life).

Saunders frequently cites Keckley's Behind the Scenes
or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

There are also narratives told through quotations from various cited sources. "Are the nonfiction excerpts - from presidential historians, Lincoln biographers, Civil War chroniclers - real or fake? Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later," wisely advises author Colson Whitehead in his New York Times review. I mostly read on the bus anyway, which makes pausing to look up references cumbersome, so I indeed Googled later. As Saunders has confirmed, the citations are for a mix of actual and invented sources. Those quoted include Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave who was later Mary Todd Lincoln's stylist), bereaved parents who lost their own sons to the ongoing Civil War, contemporary op-ed writers, and later historians. As with the ghosts, these various narrators' voices come together as in an oral history. Here the sources "talk" about Lincoln's face:

"In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying.
In 'Six Months in the White House: The Story of a Picture,' by F.B. Carpenter.

But when he smiled or laughed...
In 'Lincoln's Photographs: A Complete Album,' by Lloyd Ostendorf, account of James Miner.

It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated.
In 'Lincoln the Man,' by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist."

Willie Lincoln, age 5

I would be remiss in not pointing out what I felt was the book's weakness, which is its portrayal of black characters. While many of the white ghosts are quirky, different characters we haven't seen before, the black ghosts of the segregated cemetery are mostly archetypes, and we learn comparatively little about them besides their plights. I was also ambivalent about the ending, which I'm sure will be controversial among readers. In his review in the Guardian, author Hari Kunzru describes this ending as, "a move that seems glib and reductive, a blemish on a book that otherwise largely manages to avoid sentiment and cliche." Like Kunzru I found it cloying, but I can see how others might see it as transcendent.

Lincoln and his son Tad, who would die at 18

Ultimately, through many voices both created and curated by Saunders we get a story about the griefs and joys of life and a man and a country in turmoil. We get a story about familial love, deep friendship, and second chances. This is a novel I'll treasure for years and one that has already been a comfort.

Elizabeth Keckley: Documenting the American South
Willie Lincoln: Wikimedia
Lincoln and Tad: Wikimedia

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