Before reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, knowing a little about the Buddhist theory of the afterlife helps. Saunders, raised a Catholic and now a practicing Buddhist, uses teachings from both in his first novel. The Bardo, according to Buddhist belief, is the transitional zone after death to whatever’s next, a limbo – an interrupted time in one’s life – before going on to reincarnation, heaven, or hell. Saunders mixes humor and misery to create his forceful commentary on grief.
Using the real death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, Willie, as the focus, Saunders takes the reader into this middle world with a cast of ghosts who have not been able to transition to their next phase. The story takes place when Lincoln visits the cemetery’s chapel and his son’s tomb, and also, unknowingly, the home of spirits caught in the halfway world of the bardo. Depending on how they lived before death, these spirits may remain here for many years, but children usually linger less than an hour. It’s a surprise when young Willie Lincoln does not quickly disappear. He tells the assembled crowd, “I am to wait.”
Willie, the innocent child who should have gone on to the “light,” is delayed by his father’s visit to his tomb on the night of his death. Historical accounts in newspapers reported that Lincoln, distraught over his son’s sudden death from typhoid, left his grief-stricken wife Mary Todd home in the White House to ride to the Oak Hill Cemetery vault in Georgetown to open the casket and hold his dead son once more. Saunders sees Willie, now in his ephemeral state, thinking he must stay until his father returns again to take him back home.
At the heart of the story is Lincoln himself, the grieving father, distraught husband, overwhelmed President in the middle of the Civil War. He is so devastated by the death of his young son, he cannot let go, and Saunders uses this as a vehicle of suspense. If Willie ignores his invitation to move on, feeling his father would want him to stay within reach, Willie will lose his moment and be forever encased in a state of misery, literally. Tendrils are already handcuffing his spirit to the walls of his tomb, but the helpful fellow ghosts keep releasing the bonds. For Willie to move on, Lincoln must move on.
A host of ghosts hover and give advice, as they recall their own lives and deaths. Although the topics are morbid, Saunders manages moments of comedy through the two principal speakers, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. They believe themselves to be grievously injured but not dead yet, and they resist the transition to the next life, hoping to return to the lives they lost. Vollman has a permanently engorged “member” because he died when a beam fell on his head – just as he was about to consummate his marriage. It’s so large, he is forced to carry it when floating through the cemetery. Bevins, who had a change of heart minutes after slitting his wrists, has acquired a heightened appreciation of the world’s beauty, and in the bardo has sprouted numerous pairs of eyes, ears and limbs. They are often joined by an elderly reverend who knows more about the bardo than he’s admitting, having run away from the final “gates” when he saw his options. Unlike the Christian concept of purgatory where a soul remains for a designated time to atone for sins on the eventual path to heaven, the exit from the bardo could result in perdition.
Keeping all the characters straight is not easy – there are over a hundred different voices, ranging from respectable businessmen and gossiping ladies to slaves and drunkards. The novel sometimes reads like a play, with short dialogue taking up pages. In addition to all the ghosts, some voices are live commentators on politics and the weather as well as eyewitness accounts, often contradictory. On the night of Lincoln’s banquet while Willie lies dying upstairs, no one seems to agree, yet everyone has an opinion.
The story is sometimes full of fragments and takes attention to follow. NPR calls it a ghostly Our Town. Characters quickly change, as their stories waft in and out, briefly interrupting, sometimes arguing. I tried listening to the book on Audible and found the voices entertaining but the constant referential footnotes annoying. When I switched to reading the ebook, I could see that what I heard as footnotes were actually fictionalized references identifying the speakers. Reading was preferable for me, but I may go back to listen again, now that I understand the premise.
In an email interview, Saunders referred to his depiction of Lincoln in the novel after his son’s death as a man newly determined, with strengthened resolve to end the war:
“What moved me about Lincoln’s arc during his presidency was the way that the burdens of the office — the floundering war effort, intense public criticism, the mistakes he made that were costing so many lives, the death of his son — beat him down and made him sorrowful, but also, almost causally, seemed to expand the reach of his empathy, so that, by the end, it included soldiers on both sides and the millions of Americans being enslaved by other Americans. It seemed to me that the empathy was somehow a byproduct of the sorrow — a burning-away of his hopes and dreams that resulted in a kind of naked seeing of things as they really were. I came to understand Lincoln as someone so beat down by sadness and loss that he developed a sort of crazy wisdom — as if, in sadness, all of the comforting bromides that normally keep us from the harsher truths were denied him. Empathy might even thrive best in this state, where the easy comforts are denied us…”
Gregory Cowles wondered in his comments for the New York Times if Vice President Biden could have been the next Lincoln, comparing the fathers ‘ sorrow over the death of their sons. Biden opted not to run for president after his son died in 2015 – “a wrenching and understandable decision, of course, but… in Saunders’ novel… private grief made Lincoln a better public servant.”
Saunders makes a strong statement transcending love, loss, and grief, using many of the Buddhist principles to address them, but he also includes a political note by framing the story around Lincoln, one of America’s most famous presidents. In his interview Saunders noted: “We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that? How can we keep going and live positive lives under that shadow?” Saunders would find a solution in kindness, empathy, and some resistance.
A book like no other, Lincoln in the Bardo will leave you reexamining the world around you and the life you lead – difficult but worth the effort.