“In Some Bright Place”
Lincoln in the Bardo
By George Saunders
Random House, 2017
Lincoln in the Bardo is George Saunders’ first novel and his first work of historical fiction, based on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, a year into the Civil War. And yet the book feels like his most contemporary, set in an America that has dissolved under a tragic breakdown of empathy.
Most of the Saunders-stuff is still here. For starters, there are even more ghosts than usual. Only one main character, President Lincoln, is among the living. There are also the dead children who are unnervingly prolific in Saunders’ stories, which also means the ghosts of dead children. Foremost is the President’s son, Willie. Before the boy’s burial, Lincoln reportedly visited the temporary crypt several times to hold his body.
After death, Willie finds himself in the Bardo, the Tibetan-Buddhist version of limbo. It’s also a place that functions like the quirky theme-parks, businesses, and museums that give Saunders’ stories their pinch of scifi-fantasy glee. Part of the delight in “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” for a prominent example, is piecing together the rules that govern the titular open-air museum: it runs on secondhand props, shoddy holograms, and also more ghosts.
Saunders’ Bardo has its own physics. Its deceased 19th-century citizens are stuck there because they haven’t accepted something: they died young, messed up their kids, or stayed in loveless marriages. Most commonly, they can’t admit that their life is now emphatically over. One’s physical appearance in the Bardo reflects one’s particular flavor of denial. Roger Bevins III secretly loved another man, killed himself, then realized “how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure.” In the Bardo he’s covered with eyes, ears, and noses, manifestations of his love for “this vast sensual paradise” that was life. Hans Vollman never consummated his marriage before he was killed by a wayward ceiling-beam, so he is consigned to “bearing his tremendous member in his hands, so as not to trip himself on it.” Those snorty laughs that Saunders squeezes from bleakness are here too.
Once a Bardoan accepts her lot, she undergoes the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” and passes on into whatever follows the Bardo. Afterlife? Annihilation? The Bardoans don’t know, so they fear these bloomings and cling to their liminal existence. Most pass through the Bardo in a blink. The ghosts explain:
“These were a chirpy, tepid, desireless sort, generally, and had lingered, if at all, for only the briefest of moments, so completely satisfactory had they found their tenure in that previous place.”
“Smiling, grateful, gazing about themselves in wonder, favoring us with a last fond look as they—”
Those who choose to remain in the Bardo convince themselves of their own fortitude, for it comes at a cost. You have to spend the day sitting in your “sick-box” with your “sick-form” (coffin and corpse), and you have to face the occasional bursts of Spring which bring copies of loved ones who try to convince you to pass on, sometimes by torturing you with reminders of your unrealized life.
Willie is laid to rest in a crypt at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, where his devastated father lingers. This a normal sight for the ghosts of Oak Hill, but they are surprised and overwhelmed when the President embraces Willie’s sick-form. Most people don’t hug corpses. “We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe,” one reflects. Because of this touch Willie lingers in the Bardo, to the consternation of Roger Bevins III and Hans Vollman. “He is in grave danger,” Roger laments. “It is anathema for children to tarry here,” Hans remarks. Kids are usually the quickest to matterlightbloom, and those who stay in the Bardo descend into a nauseating spin of manifestations, too young to have settled into a stable sense of self. As Willie lingers, he loses weight and hardens under a carapace.
This shapes the novel’s modest plot. President Lincoln keeps returning to the graveyard, caught in his own sort of bardo, unable to say goodbye. Out of pity for the boy, Roger and Hans decide to sit inside of the President (which, according to Bardo-physics, allows them to feel his thoughts) so as to formulate a plan. Within Lincoln, they sense the crushing grief of a wartime leader who now imagines the mounting toll of dead soldiers as mountains of his own dead son. Lincoln reflects: “He is just one. And the weight of it 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.” The President concludes that he must “free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.” Roger and Hans have their mission: bring the President to his son one last time, so Willie can feel his father’s desire and leave the Bardo.
So, the novel has that basic Saunders mix of ghosts and fantasy, moral strain and dark humor, and, especially, a tender heart for minor losers in an unkind world. And yet, something feels different in this Civil War-era Bardo when compared to CivilWarLand and other previous stories.
Rather than the distinct individual voices of Saunders’ usual first-person narrators, events in the Bardo are related by dozens of Bardoans who overlap rather like a Greek chorus:
Similarly, events in the world of the living are narrated by snippets of fake and real historical writing. Strung together, they give readers a sense of cacophony, as when we encounter downright contradictory descriptions of the moon on the night of Willie’s death:
This fragmented narration stamps Lincoln in the Bardo as Saunders’ first Trump-era work. Though he began his novel long before the orangutan took office, Saunders wrote on the campaign and the bifurcated political landscape it worsened. In a lauded piece for the New Yorker that asked “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” in July 2016, Saunders listened with both sympathy and insight only to conclude that “LeftLand and RightLand are housemates who are no longer on speaking terms. And then the house is set on fire. By Donald Trump. Good people from both sub-nations gape at one another through the smoke.” Saunders’ fiction has always shown a concern for a split America, but the fissure is now far deeper, separating two lands informed by two different media worlds and speaking two different languages — this in addition to recent explosions from lasting racial tensions. No wonder Saunders turned to the Civil War as a resonant moment, speaking through dozens of narrators who sometimes can’t even agree on the color of the moon.
The novel thus feels at once more urgent and compassionate than prior works. Saunders has often been faulted for a sadistic delight in torturing hapless characters, but his cruelty is more often a means to empathetic ends. In a rather haphazard review, Caleb Crain has denounced the book’s “sentimental sadism,” by which he seems to mean an old “willingness to be cruel” mixed with a new taste for schmaltz. This misses the point entirely. Saunders’ “cruelty” more often aims to arouse empathy for the victim. If he plays the role of a capricious Jehovah, it’s in good part to make readers feel for pudgy neighbors whom we don’t care to imagine as Job. In the Bardo, Saunders can’t seem to get enough of plunking down on tombstones and listening to lost souls tell their stories. The novel’s meager plot functions less as a narrative in its own right and more as a space into which Saunders tries to squeeze as many Bardoans as possible, to hear as many voices as possible, to do what America currently can’t — listen to each other.
Within this compassion there is an ethical and political message that boils down to something like this: genuine social union only arises from individual acts of empathy, which in turn only arise from sensitive engagement with one’s own life. In Saunders’ rendition, Lincoln becomes a more sensitive leader when he imagines fallen soldiers as his dead son. “One must try to remember that all were suffering,” Lincoln reflects, “that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his…we must try to see one another in this way. As suffering, limited beings — perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.” This is but a bigger, more politicized version of what Saunders has previously lamented, most explicitly in “The 400-Pound CEO” (1993). “I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy,” the protagonist reflects, “having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.” In the Bardo, Saunders grows this sentiment into a politics of empathy.
The reverse process is true as well: common purpose can spark genuine empathy, which in turn enlivens one’s own best memories. In one of the novel’s climactic moments, Bardoans unite to collectively enter President Lincoln, hoping to will him towards his son one last time. They fail on this front, but have a realization. “What a pleasure it was, being in there. Together. United in common purpose. In there together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another’s minds,” Roger reflects. The pleasure of escaping loneliness in turn revives forgotten memories of love and altruism. Their physical appearances change back to their old, best selves. Lincoln’s love, intense enough to hug a corpse, drives Bardoans to remember similar moments from their own lives, which in turn serve as stepping-stones towards others’ loves and common purpose. Individual love and empathy form a virtuous circle.
Such sensitivity and empathy might build a union with society’s most marginalized. When a black ghost named Thomas inhabits the President, he senses sadness and, caught in an empathetic loop, he expands and politicizes it:
Now, though it sounds strange to say, he was making me sadder with his sadness, and I thought, Well, sir, if we are going to make a sadness party of it, I have some sadness about which I think someone as powerful as you might like to know. And I thought, then, as hard as I could, of Mrs. Hodge, and Elson, and Litzie, and of all I had heard during our long occupancy in that pit regarding their many troubles and degradations, and called to mind, as well, several others of our race I had known and loved…and all the things that they had enduring, thinking, Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel that you are, and as inclined towards us as you seem to be, endeavor to do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves.
Empathy, in Saunders’ universe, is like nuclear fusion, ever expanding and delivering exponential returns.
Such an ethic risks sentimentality, naiveté, and pedantry (“can’t we all just empathize?”), but Saunders mostly counteracts these tendencies by coupling it with tragedy: more specifically, our inability to sustain a world in which such an ethic might function. Empathy might make Lincoln a more sensitive leader, but taken too far — empathizing too deeply with Confederates — it hinders the will needed to act for good in a violent world. Though personal grief helps him feel humanity’s common grief, he pulls back, lest the hue of resolution be sicklied o’er with empathy: “And yet. He was in a fight. Although those he fought were also suffering, limited beings, he must — Obliterate them.”
So the President pivots from empathy to utilitarianism in order to regain his will: “we must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and — Kill. Kill more efficiently. Hold nothing back. Make the blood flow. Bleed and bleed the enemy until his good sense be reborn. The swiftest halt to the thing (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest. Must end suffering by causing more suffering.” And what compares with war, after all, for common purpose? The novel’s characters (as well as their narration) only gain a momentary semblance of harmony after death, and by the story’s end, we’re still stuck in a graveyard and a civil war. That is, in Lincoln in the Bardo, a desire for empathy couples with a conviction that we usually botch it unto disastrous ends.
The book is stronger for refusing to resolve this tension. By coupling what some call “sentimentalism” and “sadism” — more properly called empathy and tragedy — Saunders gives us a novel instead of a sermon, literature instead of political theory. Lincoln in the Bardo helps us feel the preciousness of unity in part by fostering grief over its death. And it urges a more vivid imagination of beauty and bounty as a necessary step towards the kind of empathy that will help us spread such bounty more equitably. When Lincoln asks if the war is worth it, he finds justification by imagining his own blessings as the right of all. “The peachfields and haystacks and young girls and ancient wild meadows drove him nearly mad with their beauty,” he reflects, concluding that “all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free.”
But this is 1862. Emancipation won’t come for three more years and hundreds of thousands more ghosts. And many would say that American bounty still isn’t for everyone. Saunders offers no pat answer for how to achieve a more perfect Union, but he will help us feel for it through the cracks.
Kenyon Gradert is a doctoral candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis.