“Our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy.”
I have highly enjoyed George Saunders’ essays and nonfiction but hadn’t read any of his highly acclaimed fiction until the Booker long-listed Lincoln in the Bardo. Although he has written a lot of short fiction, this is his first novel. I thought it would be exemplary given the reviews. Instead I was initially hampered by confusion about the structure and pacing had to do some research to figure out the premise though I usually like to go into books without too much context. The novel takes place during the Civil War, in a Georgetown graveyard with a cohort of ghosts and a liberal sprinkling of actual newspaper accounts. One of those ghosts is Abraham Lincoln’s beloved young son who has just died. Once I understood this conceit, I was able to read on more easily, and eventually came to enjoy the novel’s structure and layout.
But soon I found myself wondering if this were a book about the failed ambitions and desires of white people, especially tone-deaf if set during the Civil War. I started becoming impatient with the long rambling histories of the townspeople of DC narrated by the ghosts in somewhat forceful and random fashion. Eventually, a bit more than halfway through, the black ghosts appear and get to speak (though not as much as the whites). Without this, I think I would have written this book off altogether, without regret, but luckily Saunders is more woke than that.
The most fascinating parts of the book for me were the excerpts of newspaper articles, op-eds, books, letters, unpublished manuscripts, and other documents detailing opinions of Lincoln’s personal and political life: “I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.” – Browne, op. cit.
These accounts were often contradictory as Lincoln appeared to be reviled and revered in equal measure. I had no idea of the extent of the conflict and uncertainty of the time. Public opinion of the war ranged from Northern whites unconcerned with the plight of enslaved Southern blacks, to people wanting the immense bloodshed and body count to be done and over, to a sense of futility about fighting for a union that only half the country even wanted. If nothing else, I want to write to our current president with this 1860s epistolary threat to Lincoln: “If you don’t Resign we are going to put a spider in your dumpling.” I don’t know if this is a literal or metaphoric phrase, but it’s amazing either way.
The other highlight of Lincoln in the Bardo was the gorgeous language and the tenderness with which grief and the purpose of life was handled. A baby is described as “a crawling squalling ball of frustrated light.” An older man is “shaped like one half of a set of parentheses topped with a sad sprig of white hair.” Lincoln’s mourning is palpable. He is “Made less rigidly himself through this loss.” And the war is never uncomplicated and Saunders renders it as such: “We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and- Kill…. The swiftest halt to the thing (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest… Must end suffering by causing more suffering.”
And of course, there is Saunders’ trademark humour, lacing every scene: “It is true I said to the Reverend. [Lincoln] is President. Much time has passed. There is a state called Minnesota.” And I loved the historic details and how much research must have gone into it all: “The Duke of York nightcap is no longer worn. There is something called the ‘slashed Pamela sleeve.’” However, I was turned off by how teenage boy some of the humour was, a seeming obsession with one ghost’s enlarged member (caused by a fatal falling beam), sexual deviances, scatological and pornographic banter, and so on.
I don’t know that I’d recommend Lincoln in the Bardo especially, unless you’re a Lincoln-phile or enjoy non-traditional structures of storytelling. But Saunders handles emotion and landscape and character with both wit and grace, and that’s reason enough for me to try another book of his.
Lincoln in the Bardo