Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

by Robert A. Parker

This Man Booker prize novel from 2017 is certainly an original. And also unusual. Highly unusual. It is about the dead, about what happens after people die, a subject that highly interests me. But the direction that Saunders takes here is not a direction that I have followed in my own writing. I do admire his effort here, but it is too worldly for me, too concerned with the humanity of his characters, rather than any spiritual consequences. Saunders also introduces too many characters for me, as if to emphasize how death reaches across such a broad human experience. Indeed, one reviewer says there are 166 characters in this book. But my problem is less with the number of characters; it is more with there being no linkage among so many of these characters, which I will call the undead, as they roam about this cemetery setting—and as they cling to this residue of the life that they know, resisting their transition to an afterlife that they do not know.

As the title indicates, this is primarily a story about President Abraham Lincoln. He is distraught at the death of his young son Willie in the second year of his Presidency. And so he journeys to the cemetery the day after the funeral to mourn his son, and to alleviate a sense of guilt for not paying enough attention to the boy’s illness—a guilt re-enforced by the lives also being lost on the battlefield. However, it seems that, as he developed this novel, Saunders’ vision may have grown beyond Lincoln. As if he also saw the possibility of commenting on the human condition. And so he began exploring the lives and deaths, the relationships and fates, of these dead people who saw in Lincoln’s concern for his son a relevance to their own future.

These dead people are in a transitional state that Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo. And it is a state they are comfortable with, for they can leave their dead bodies, move around freely, and talk to one another. They can even invade the bodies and the minds of both the living and their fellow undead— and, in doing so, impact their thinking. In this case, they are trying to impact both Lincoln and his son.

In fact, Tomas Mallon suggests in The New Yorker that “when his father [Lincoln] lets go, accepts the boy’s death and helps to usher his spirit to a real afterlife, the consequences are world-shaping. Vollman and Roger Bevins [the novel’s main observers] perceive a Lincoln who now fully understands and embraces suffering, and feels a new bloody-minded determination to win the war.” This would seem, however, to be guided more by a literary decision than by historic facts. For Mallon grants that the history suggests that Lincoln did not reveal that determination until later. Instead, he suggests that Vollman and Bevins are indulging in wishful thinking, and that, as Bevins says, “we must do so, and believe in it, or else we were ruined.”

In short, this is an intriguing novel when it is focused on Lincoln and his son Willie, but less so when the relationships among the undead dominate.

And they often do. That is, Saunders will pay considerable attention to one group of undead characters who have a relationship with each other, and then move to another. But none of these groups will have a relationship with another group, much less with Lincoln or his son. And this disparity is often confusing. Why, even, are these separate groups present in this novel? I believe this apparent decision to expand the parameters and introduce a commentary on the human condition was a mistake. And even Michiko Kakutani seems to agree in her New York Times review, writing that the “supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times—the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning.”

How Saunders presents his characters is also highly original. As well as unusual. Each of his 166 characters contributes to what is happening, or comments on it, in just a few lines or a few paragraphs. The result is a kaleidoscope of opinion, often deliberately contradictory. A few of the quoted characters are figures of history, historians and biographers who lend authenticity to the reality of Lincoln’s character and his world. But most are undead fictional characters, who seem to concentrate more on their own lives and their own fates during their back-and-forth conversations. They are most effective, of course, when they discuss Lincoln and his son. But toward the center and the latter part of the novel, these characters address primarily their own lives, their own concerns. And while it expands the undead experience, there is still little or no connection among these various groups of the undead.

There is still more confusion when, toward the end, the reader grasps that not all these undead characters realize that they are dead. Now, I grant that if all did realize this, this would open the novel up to a concern about what was going to happen to them. Indeed, I have written myself of characters who are in a way station between earth and their fate in the afterlife. But Saunders is not interested in those ramifications, such as issues of penance and redemption. What concerns him and his undead is this troubled old man who is visiting this son, this innocent boy he has lost. And the undead wish to help both of them in their sorrow, thinking it may offer a key to their own future, although they are unsure of how to do so.

What many of them prefer is to remain in this undead status, where they are in control of their existence. And they also realize the danger of becoming emotional, that they could lose their undead status and explode in what Saunders terms a loud “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” What seems to have far more potential, however, is that this change is often preceded by what is called “future forms,” by an undead body being transformed into what it might have been like at key points, if he or she had lived out a normal life.

For me, however, my interest is not in the status of the undead, with their various emotional and psychological concerns. Or even in the absence of any spiritual element. What interests me is the psychological and emotional portrait of Lincoln. He is a troubled soul, troubled by the fate of both his son and the tens of thousands of soldiers who have already died in the Civil War. And Saunders, thereupon, has him come to an understanding that history suggests did not happen but which does work here in literary terms: that just as the president must accept the loss of his son, so must he accept the loss of what will become hundreds of thousands of soldiers—in order to save the Union. This realization leaves him in great sorrow, for which he is well known, but it becomes here the price Saunders says he must pay to preserve the freedom and the lives of millions more.

Colson Whitehead in his own Times review re-enforces this position when he praises this novel’s “luminous feat of generosity and humanism.” Of course, the humanistic aspect is what precisely troubles me—that the author chooses to explore only how our humanity continues after death. But if our humanity survives, should not the question be: what happens next? And Saunders has no interest in that. He is interested only in how these characters continue to be human in this way station. Which, granted, is a literary subject, and easier to accommodate in a novel than one’s spiritual fate.

And the generosity that Whitehead cites? That is expressed in the number and variety of human beings Saunders brings onto the scene.

Thus, Whitehead is also in sync with the author’s decision to explore so many characters in this world of the undead. As he states, the undead do crowd around this dead boy and his mourning father, seeming to hope that Willie, with his father’s encouragement, can move on peacefully to the next world. Of the love the father shows, one character, Reverend Thomas says, “It was cheering. It gave us hope.” Or, as Whitehead himself says, “If the spirits can persuade this boy to undertake his rightful departure to the Other Side, they might be saved as well.” And this farewell to one son, Lincoln’s son, Whitehead even says, foreshadows the farewell “to the hundreds of thousands who will fall in the battlefields.”

And he does make Lincoln seem reconciled to this. “Abraham Lincoln must stop being the father to a lost boy,” Whitehead writes, “and assume his role as a father to the nation, one on the brink of cataclysm.” And adds: “Survival depends not only on the captain, but on all aboard.” Which can explain, I grant, the presence of so many of the undead. But it is, again, an explanation in psychological terms or philosophical terms. But not in literary terms. Much less in spiritual terms. No, I still believe the few should have stood in for the many, not the many for the many. Unless they, too, were in mourning for their son—as they would be when the war went on.

This is Saunders’ first novel, after considerable success as a short story writer. But it does not, of itself, lead me to expect future novels from his pen. First, because it is so original in its concept, the expectation by critics of an even more original work might inhibit any attempt by the author to attempt another one. And, second, because its technique of advancing the story by means of brief quotations from a variety of sources suggests an imagination that is more comfortable with using shorter points of reference and outside sources. But if I am wrong, surely the length of my comments here suggests such a work will be worth exploring. (May, 2018)