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Lincoln in the Bardo by George SaundersFour stars
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On February 20, 1862, less than a full year into the Civil War, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, the third and favorite son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, died in his bedroom at the White House after what had started as a bad cold developed into a raging case of typhoid fever. The boy’s death hit his parents like a torpedo. The President became withdrawn, throwing himself into his work managing the war effort, while Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was so overwhelming, friends and family legitimately feared for her sanity. It’s said she wore mourning black for over a year.

The Lincolns were doubly hurt by harsh criticisms of both the President’s handling of the war, and by the fact that, only a couple of days before Willie’s death, under his doctor’s assurance the boy was improving, they went ahead with plans to host a formal state dinner in the White House. Both of them repeatedly ducked out of the party to look in on the boy, and the President had ordered no dancing at the reception. But still there were calumnies about the First Family’s lack of parental attention, let alone the appropriateness of hosting a fancy party in the first place, while young soldiers were being torn apart by musket fire.

This bit of historical drama is the foundation on which George Saunders constructs his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a dreamlike, melancholy, often surreal and startling ghost story that’s as much about coming to terms with the sorrows and disappointments of life as it is about the fear and finality of death. Saunders himself is something of a lion in the literary world. With a highly respected career in short fiction and essays, Saunders has been awarded both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he currently teaches at Syracuse. Naturally, given his stature, there was a lot of anticipation for his first novel. And frankly I’m glad I went into the book unaware of much of Saunders’ reputation before now, because I feel like I can praise its innovations sincerely without being told I’ve been unduly influenced by critical bias.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place in the span of a single night in Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie was laid to rest in a borrowed space inside a crypt belonging to friends of the Lincolns. There does seem to be some historical verification of reports that the President, as he is shown doing in the novel, returned to the cemetery the night after the funeral to cradle his dead boy in his arms. Sounds a bit too extra, but who am I to judge? I have thankfully never known loss that intense.

Saunders populates Oak Hill with a colorful cast of specters, ghosts who are stuck in a kind of purgatory between life and death. In Buddhism, the bardo is the plane that lies between death and resurrection, and Kim Stanley Robinson fans will remember it from the prominent role it played in The Years of Rice and Salt. Saunders’ ghosts, with one important exception, are unaware that they are dead, and instead imagine themselves to be afflicted with some kind of temporary malady. They describe their caskets as “sick-boxes.” They dwell constantly on the unfulfilled hopes of their lives, in many cases their minds seemingly caught in a loop of “what if” and “if only.”

Among these ghosts we meet the book’s main viewpoint characters. Hans Vollman is — was — a middle-aged office worker killed by a falling beam before having a chance to consummate his marriage. There is Roger Bevins, a gay man who opened his wrists after being spurned by his lover, who wanted to “live correctly.” And there is the Reverend Everly Thomas, who alone among the cemetery’s lingering ghosts knows what lies beyond, and his has own reasons for keeping silent about it.

Willie’s arrival immediately impacts these three. It’s unusual for children to linger very long, but Willie refuses to move on, insisting his father is coming for him. And he does. And it’s the novel’s scenes with Lincoln and Willie together, the boy unable to make his father aware of him, that propel the narrative beyond pathos into a realm where the emotions are raw and genuine. Lincoln is forced into contemplation of his own son’s death, set against the deaths of thousands upon thousands of sons that will be the inevitable toll of the Civil War.

But it’s not all a vale of tears. There is humor and terror and rage in equal measure, but because of the subject matter, if it sounds to you like there’s content in this book that would upset you, you should probably trust your instincts.

Willie’s presence, and his visits with his father, awaken the ghosts of Oak Hill into a confessional flurry. It feels like a cross section of American life, drawn from moments stolen out of history. They all long for a sense of connection, to go back and right some personal wrongs, to course-correct back toward the lives they all dreamed of having rather than the ones they ended up with. Their forms take monstrous and distorted shapes depending on their circumstances. We meet the ghosts of soldiers and slaves. It’s like a production of Our Town rewritten by China Miéville. And when Willie’s appearance triggers a visitation by a swarm of angels intent on luring everyone onward, it’s a moment of blind horror. There is nothing about these beings that anyone would call benevolent.

I should mention the writing, which takes an approach that would work with probably no other novel. Most of the tale unfolds in dialogue, quoted directly without the help of omniscient narration, so that when each character speaks, however briefly, they become for that moment the story’s viewpoint character. Other passages, which serve the same purpose as omniscient narration, are told in the form of snippets of historical documents, some authentic and some invented, but woven together by Saunders so that we can’t tell which is which. The effect is a novel that is neither in first nor third person, in any traditional sense, but a bit of both, assembled like a kind of narrative collage that often feels more like historical nonfiction than fiction. What’s extraordinary is how quickly the reader adapts to it, meaning that Saunders has written a novel that has to teach us how to read it while we’re reading it, but does so almost without effort. You might think it would have a distancing effect, but in fact the result is the exact opposite, pulling us into the story’s action — and there is action, after a fashion, as well as ample suspense — and the characters’ emotional spaces in a manner I’ve never really encountered before.

How do we process suffering? Everyone suffers, and everyone is haunted, some far more than others, and it seems there is little to do but soldier on and minimize injustice however you can. There is so much in this story that is so deeply felt that it elevates the premise beyond what could have been a gimmicky curiosity and produces a true elegy that is both tender and quietly profound.