“Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.”
— Major Sullivan Ballou before the battle of Bull Run
Bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism, refers to the state of existence between two lives on earth, an apprehended period when the consciousness is not connected with a physical body. In Sanskrit, this is referred to as antarabhāva. In Tibetan Buddhist faith it is believed that in this liminal space the soul will at first experience incredible spiritual clarity before descending into a hallucinatory state based in the soul’s own insecurities, fears and bad habits. For the trained mind, these are obstacles to overcome, leading to a more liberated existence in the next life. Those less disciplined in thought and spiritual practice will degenerate into their old bad habits, which in turn leads to a less than ideal rebirth (The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Awakening Upon Dying.)
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo revels in this state of ambiguity. It takes us to this precarious and unventured place on several planes.
To set the scene: It’s February, 1862. The United States is tearing itself apart, in the middle of the Civil War. William Wallace Lincoln, the third son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, has passed away. Lincoln in the Bardo crosses over with young Lincoln, taking place in the days following his death in the quagmire of the bardo. Young William is greeted by centuries’ worth of ghosts: abused and mistreated African Americans, a tortured young girl not much older than he, and a devout priest, to name a few. They encourage him to finish his transition over to the other side, but a visit from his father, the president, prompts William to tarry longer, in case his father visits again to take William home. You see, neither William nor any of his new companions are aware of the fact that they have passed.
William Lincoln is not alone.
Bardo can also be interpreted as any transitional state. Reflecting on the book from that definition, President Abraham Lincoln finds himself in the bogs of the bardo as well. He is torn between his own grief and sense of paternal obligation to his son and the endless demands of the presidency in a country being ravaged by war.
For that matter, the country itself is in the bardo. One could argue that the Civil War marked a moment of death and rebirth for the country, from ethical, economic and social constructs. It was a time where the country — very literally — battled out its own inner demons.
In a recent interview with NPR, Saunders confessed, “I heard this anecdote many years ago . . . about Lincoln having been so grief-stricken that he actually returned to the crypt one night to commune with his son’s body. So I carried that idea around for 20 years . . . I kind of kept it on a short leash, but it just kept growing, so I finally said, ‘OK, you are what you are.’”
What it is, is not only the heralded short story writer’s first novel, but an incredibly timely subject matter.
Of course, there’s no way Saunders could have known that the country might be in need of a reflection such as this four years ago when he finally got to working on the book, or 20 years ago when the thought first occurred to him. President Lincoln, who has long been heralded as one of the best Commander in Chiefs in U.S. history (if not the best), though iconic, has lost his depth to us over the course of time. Through his playful melding of nonfiction and fiction, Saunders succeeds in restoring President Lincoln’s humanity. Lincoln, like all presidents, was scrutinized and criticized while in office, and he took that criticism to heart with extreme humility. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders captures the essence of Lincoln’s ethos: even amidst his own grief, the president kept his country’s best interest at heart.
“He is just one.
And the weight of it is about to kill me.
Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I–
May not have the heart for it.” (p. 154)
Over the years George Saunders has time and time again proved his place among some of the best short story writers Western literature has known. He’s been ranked among the likes of Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami and Margaret Atwood. But a short story is a very different thing from a novel, and the change of format may assuredly bring some of Saunders’ most devoted fans some pause.
The thing is, even with its kinks, Lincoln in the Bardo is easily regarded as a masterpiece. (Disclosure: I’ve never, ever called anything a masterpiece.) The hiccups? The formatting takes a second to get acclimated to. Weekend Additions’ allusion to Our Town is an apt one — there are numerous narrators to keep track of, and their quotes are attributed to them after they speak, which can make for an initially clunky reading experience. But a few chapters in, once the reader has become acquainted with the voice and personalities of the book’s driving characters, it’s much less of an issue. (Pro-tip: If it remains an issue, Saunders recruited an all-star cast for the audiobook, which includes read performances from Nick Offerman, Carrie Brownstein, Lena Dunham, David Sedaris, among others.)
Beyond that, Saunders plays to his strengths — his sense of timing is on point. His command of distinctive voice and his dexterity between so many is mesmerizing. Oh, and since it’s Saunders, it feels worth noting that the book is not without its comedic moments, despite the gloom of its subject matter. (Ghosts aren’t without their love of pranks, after all.)
But where Saunders’ craft really shines is in the book’s most heartening moments. In one fleeting scene, a Civil War soldier debuts within the graveyard, consumed with the thought of his [still living] wife and plagued by his own adultery, committed while away at war. He paces and mutters a confession to himself while the rest gather around him. Eventually, a blinding light carries him away to what’s after, and then in an instant, he is an afterthought for the rest of the characters — but this disturbing scene of a shell-shocked soldier grappling with his own shortcomings is a scene that sticks to the ribs.
Another home run takes place later in the book when the soul of Thomas Haden, a former slave, interacts with the sorrowful president.
“We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do.”
By the book’s end, we are led to recognize the power of an author’s choice for resolve over resolution. Yes, loose ends are tied, but the overall message of the book is more resilient than a perfectly tied bow. Suffering is a choice. We can be plagued by our grief, our weaknesses, our addictions, or we can fight to rectify them. We depart with a vision of a country, of ourselves, that’s still worth fighting for.
Saunders will be appearing at the Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge on Saturday, February 25 at 7 p.m. to read from, discuss and answer questions about Lincoln in the Bardo.