In Frederick Hill Meserve and Carl Sandburg's The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, a Colonel Theodore Lyman offers a curt appraisal of America's 16th and perhaps finest president, the Great Emancipator, the Illinois Rail-Splitter, the Liberator, ol' Honest, Uncle Abe, calling him "The ugliest man I have ever put my eyes on." Allen Thorndike Rice's Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time offers a contrasting, considerably more charitable estimation, calling Lincoln "really the handsomest man I ever saw in my life."
One cannot be sure which of these descriptions holds a more meaningful claim to truth. And capital-T Truth – that is, some traditional concept of a truth that, to paraphrase Aquinas, corresponds with external reality – is a slippery and meaningless thing in George Saunders's extraordinary first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, a work of highly imaginative historical fiction whose copyright page warns the reader that, in this book, "Some things that seem invented are true. Some things that seem true are invented."
A collage of primary sources about Lincoln's life, fragmented histories of the American Civil War, and bizarre cubist-gothic storytelling narrated by a motley chorus of ghosts haunting a Georgetown graveyard, Lincoln in the Bardo is a singular piece of American storytelling. The book finds Lincoln languishing in grief, mourning the death of his third son Willie, who died of typhoid in February, 1862, at the age of just 11. "When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict," writes Saunders, in the guise of another mock primary source. As one character describes the president, sitting cross-legged near his son's grave, "He might have been, in that moment, a sculpture on the theme of Loss."
Its style – and its mix of styles – evokes certain obvious referents. The bricolage of historical passages (real and imagined) recalls something of the fragmented, flash-card narratives of David Markson's novels: Vanishing Point, The Last Novel, etc. The longer sections presented as letters or entries from a watchman's logbook call to mind the epistolary po-mo playfulness of Saul Bellow's Herzog, John Barth's Letters or Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.
And the bulk of the book, arranged as assembled shards of dialogue and observation from the story's many, many spirits, spooks and spectres, most obviously resembles the text of a printed play. It's sort of like Thornton Wilder's Our Town by way of Edward Gorey or Tim Burton – presenting an afterlife Anytown, USA, populated by ghosts of loveless old men, raped women, racists, suicides and others ill-afforded the luxury of an easy life, or an easy death. Although, it's not just that dialogue is transcribed and attributed to certain characters. It's that these disjointed bits of text represent a given character's whole perspective: what they say, what they hear others say, what they think.
As described here, the whole project no doubt sounds dreadfully pretentious, like Postmodern Lit 101. In a way, yes, it is. But, as with the best experimental fiction, Lincoln in the Bardo uses its form not in a show-offy "look-what-I-can-do!" way, but to interrogate its central themes. This is a story not merely told through different perspectives, but one about difference and perspective; about the common ether that ties the characters together, that binds the living to the dead.
Among Bardo's many restless phantoms are two who most closely resemble the story's protagonists: hans vollman and roger bevins iii. (Saunders does not typeset the names of the ghost characters with capital letters, as if in the afterlife one is no longer afforded the basic dignity of being considered a proper noun.) When the ghost of the young willie lincoln appears in their domain – referred to most often as "the premises" (the "bardo" of the book's title refers to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of a transitional or "in-between" state) – vollman, bevins, and their sometimes colleague, the reverend everly thomas, attempt to liberate the boy's spirit from his condition of eternal in-betweenness. To do this, they must deliver the boy's ghost to Lincoln himself, uniting the boy's spectral death-form with his father's physical body, as a way of easing his grief.
A similar thing unfolds in Saunders's 1992 short story CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. In that story's last lines, the narrator – a functionary at a dumpy Civil War-themed educational theme park – is killed by Sam, an unhinged Vietnam vet tasked with defending (with extreme prejudice) CivilWarLand from gangs of roving teens. As the narrator's ghost hovers above his own corpse, he becomes unstuck in time, bearing witness to his past and future lives yet unlived. "I see the pain I've caused," he laments. "I see the man I could have been and the man I was, and everything is bright and new and keen with love and I sweep through Sam's body, trying to change him, trying so hard, and feeling only hate and hate, solid as stone."
In the bardo of Saunders's new novel, such attempts at imparting postmortem enlightenment prove more successful. In a late chapter, a gaggle of ghosts simultaneously "mass-inhabit" Lincoln as he strides through the cemetery, wedging themselves into his gaping sorrow. And the experience proves fruitful – not in curing Lincoln's melancholy, but deepening it. As one of the ghosts describes it: "He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness." It's an almost unspeakably beautiful idea: that sadness teaches us compassion, our misery making us more mindful of others.
There is, perhaps, a certain uncanny relevance in Bardo's casting of Lincoln as a gangly creature wrought by melancholy, especially in light of the head of the country's current administration, whom it is pretty much impossible to imagine ever being genuinely sad. Yet, this is as much a novel for the times as it as one for all time.
In his 2007 essay The Braindead Megaphone, Saunders complicated what might have been a basic diagnosis of the degradation of the news media and political discourse by suggesting that American democracy doesn't just permit but might even inherently privilege coarseness and stupidity. For Saunders, the corrective to such a bad decline is not an assault of "Total Righteousness," but "small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic." Saunders's stories, and his impressive, ambitious new novel, constitute a sustained project comprising such minor gestures and drips.
Lincoln in the Bardo, after all, is ultimately a story of empathy, about literally wriggling inside the soul of another person and sharing your pain with them. This is why the Civil War has proved such a fruitful backdrop of Saunders's writing: As a conflict famously turning "brother against brother," it asked big existential questions about the nature of nationhood, about what it means to be a country when you can't even unite behind a single, all-encompassing, if admittedly somewhat bogus concept of confederation. As with so many of Saunders's stories, the U.S. Civil War was a contest over the character of the American soul.
Saunders's brilliance emerges in his understanding that it is not just our status as walking, talking, thinking, bleeding human beings that unites us, but our sorrow. As roger bevins iii puts it, we are all "[p]erennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces." What Lincoln in the Bardo offers is an opportunity for a reader not just to view his fellow human persons as so flawed, but to view every human person, who ever existed, ever, living and dead, in such a way. And so, Saunders offers the faint, phantasmal hope that a nation long-dead may somehow redeem itself; that America may yet howl back triumphantly, from somewhere beyond the grave.
John Semley is the author of This is a Book About the Kids in the Hall and a frequent contributor to Globe Books.
Listening to an audiobook has always seemed like a lesser experience compared with reading a novel, almost like cheating. In the case of George Saunders's first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, the audiobook is the ideal vehicle for appreciating the novel's abundance. It's more like listening to a stage play.
Start with the incredible cast: Nick Offerman, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bradley Whitford, Bill Hader, Jeff Tweedy, Jeffrey Tambor, Keegan-Michael Key, Don Cheadle – the list goes on. In all, there's a different person for every one of the novel's 166 different characters.
Listening to the book performed this way manages to convey the spirit of the work and Saunders's towering gifts better than the printed page ever could. Saunders, a one-of-a-kind satirist with the power to break your heart, has always had a genius when it comes to voices. In the audiobook, that power is (literally) on full display. These ghosts, stuck between this life and whatever comes next, quarrel with one another, interrupt one another, talk in whispers, recite letters, scream and plead. They fight to make their voices heard and to tell their stories, all while watching President Abraham Lincoln mourn the loss of his recently departed son, Willie.
There's every type of speaker one could imagine: honeyed Southern accents, nasally East Coast aristocrats, stolid Midwestern timber, Irish maids, cussing lowlife vagabonds, doleful slaves, enraged slaves, a despicable racist soldier – people from every walk of life and every part of the country. The full effect achieves what Saunders has said he hoped would be an "American chorale."
Lincoln in the Bardo shows the author at his most brilliant. To hear his words performed this way by so many talented people is a remarkably stirring experience for reasons that go well beyond novelty. Behind every one of those voices and in their every word is Saunders's ability to show us how, after suffering the most profound loss, it is possible to go forward with faith unbroken and love still in our hearts.