While I admire many, many books, very seldom do I wish I’d written the one I’m reading.
I wish I’d written George Saunders’s new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, It’s his first novel, but of course he’s written seven other award-winning books: short stories, novellas and a collection of non-fiction. I’ve read a couple of them and they’re wacky and profound, as you might gather from the title of one of his novellas, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
In interviews, Saunders has said he first heard the story that inspired Lincoln in the Bardo more than twenty years ago. After the death of his young son, Willie, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was said to have visited the boy’s crypt twice to hold his son’s body in his arms. Saunders has said that the story stayed with him, and he sat down to write it when he felt time beginning to run out. (He’s now 58.)
So the novel is about death and the possibility of an after-life written by someone very conscious of his mortality and guided by the tenets of his faith (or playing with them, or both). Saunders is a professed Buddhist, and in the Buddhist religion, the bardo is a state of limbo between death and infinity when a soul may progress out of time toward nirvana or be reincarnated back into this fleshly life.
In the novel, the graveyard Lincoln visits is teeming with spirits. They’re not quite ghosts, since he can’t see them, but are entities unable to acknowledge their deaths or leave their lives behind. They see themselves as ill, not dead. Coffins are sick boxes. All regret unfinished business, and that’s what keeps them bound to their graves.
One of the chief narrators in a book layered with voices is the printer Hans Vollman. We learn that in life Vollman was an unattractive middle-aged man who spent months chastely wooing his pretty young wife, an eighteen-year-old girl forced to marry him because of her poverty. Vollman’s gentle consideration caused his wife to slowly fall in love with him, and they were about to happily consummate their marriage when a beam fell on his head. (The book is darkly funny.) Now Vollman manifests as a round jolly entity with an enormous erection that vaults him through the graveyard and into the presence of the recently-deceased Willie Lincoln, an earnest and endearing little spirit.
It slowly transpires that the job of Vollman and two of his fellow spirits, Roger Blevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas, is to help Willie Lincoln leave the bardo for the true afterlife, whatever it may be. Willie must learn to accept the bim-bam-boom call of the angels that periodically echoes through the graveyard (if they are indeed angels), and concede that the time has come to ascend (if up is what’s on offer). Most of the spirits flee the call, including our triumvirate of chief narrators, terrified of what lies beyond the beyond.
In other words, Saunders’s spirits are like people everywhere. They’re very intent on getting others to do what they’re afraid of doing themselves. They’re terrified of death, unsure what awaits them beyond—the Reverend Thomas is particularly frightened of hell—and in love with life, even though their (after)lives are constrained and essentially unhappy. Like us, the spirits are unable to leave the narrow confines they’re been (re)born into, trapped inside the palings of the graveyard and waking at night devilled by regrets and infirmities. As an analogy of life and death, the book is penetrating as well as funny.
It’s also a portrait of Abraham Lincoln as president during the U.S. Civil War. While allowing Lincoln his foibles and missteps, Saunders portrays the president as increasingly aware of the deaths he is ordering and incrementally awake to the cause he is asking people to die for: the eradication of slavery.
Historically, the war against the secessionist slave-holding South had root economic and political causes, and historians believe Lincoln declared war primarily for economic reasons. He disliked slavery, but wasn’t principally fighting for its end. In Saunders’s version, however, the loss of his son opens the president’s eyes to the loss of freedom that defines slavery, and he ends by leaving the graveyard with the spirit of a former slave as his invisible companion, and perhaps his conscience.
So Saunders has written a complex political book that is also an analogy of life and death, tying the great movements in society tied to the mundane and hilariously human.
He’s also written a historical novel, although it isn’t usually called that in the reviews, as is often the case in books by male authors that are set in the past.
It’s a peeve of mine, that books by women about historical subjects are usually (sick)boxed into the genre of historical fiction, while historical books by men are simply reviewed as fiction. In her recent BBC Reith Lectures, Hilary Mantel seems forced into a defensive position. The Guardian headlines a reprint of her first lecture Why I became a historical novelist, as if Mantel has to apologize for her erudite novels about Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, two other books I wish I’d written.
That isn’t Saunders’s fault. Lincoln in the Bardo is a wonderful book. I hope you read it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Lesley Krueger is a novelist and screenwriter. Richard Dadd’s first cousin-in-law five times removed (if she has the genealogy right), Lesley drew on family information unknown to biographers in writing Mad Richard. The author of six books, she lives with her husband in Toronto where she’s an avid member of a women’s hockey league and a writer-mentor at the Canadian Film Centre. Find her online at LesleyKrueger.com.