Lincoln In The Bardo
by George Saunders
Published 2017 by Random House
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0812995343
By Noah Sanders
My first time reading Saunders—the opening short story “Victory Lap” from his outstanding short story collection The Tenth of November—its storytelling left me dazed, the literary equivalent of horse kick to the temple. “Victory Lap” doesn’t explicitly buck the standard structure of storytelling, it nudges it slightly off the beaten path, forcing the reader to assess and reassess exactly what they’re looking at. The characters in “Victory Lap” interact with the voices in their heads—of family, friends, an omniscient crowd of supporters—allowing the reader a chance to not only hear their inner monologue, but to be swept up into it like a riveting conversation. Saunders enjoys structural tinkering, and as almost all of Saunders award-winning oeuvre does, it usually works. With this in mind, the release of Saunders’ first ever full-length novel—Lincoln In The Bardo—brings with it a foot-thick crust of anticipation, even expectation, of how the novel will be dusted off in the hands of a master. As it turns out, Saunders’s choice in terms of upending the structure of the novel is his most ambitious one, and sadly, his least successful.
The story, set in the early 1860s in a decrepit cemetery—“the Bardo” (a Buddhist term for a purgatory of sorts)—finds then-President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie as The Civil War rages across the country. His ghost, tied to the earthly plane by his continued want of human existence, wanders The Bardo, accompanied and protected by a motley crew of other specters, each admonishing the true afterlife in hopes they’ll be granted return to their former existence.
Structurally, Lincoln In The Bardo is told in the form of a chorus. Every description, every transgression that litters the page, is done so through the direct utterance of a character or, at times, of a primary source. It reads, to simplify, like a play. Lincoln In The Bardo is, regardless of its period setting, a timeless ghost story that explores the ideas of collective grief, anger, and mourning and in this, the chorus structure befits it. We feel the pain of each individual ghost, but Saunders is able to pull the camera as far back as he chooses—in distance, time, or otherwise—to illuminate how their specific anguish ties into the greater pain a country devastated by war is afflicted with. Slavery and economic disparity and religion are all addressed, but instead of lengthy diatribes shoved down our throats, the splintered selection of first person narrators makes the reader feel a part of the continued experience of collective emotion, because, well, we are.
There is no doubt this is a George Saunders book. There’s an almost psychedelic humor that flows through it. Each ghost is afflicted physically based on what they continue to yearn for: so Hans Vollman—an unsatisfied lover—walks through purgatory with a constantly erect penis; Roger Bevin III, a paranoid, 18th Century gay man, has hundreds of eyes and ears, always on the lookout; angels seduce potential recruits with hazy visions of a heavenly plane suited for each. Though veiled in oddness, Saunders manages to imbue the characters—unsightly, mainly selfish ghouls at best—the setting, and the story with an underlying warmth. You like these ghastly spirits, you wish for them to somehow depart the grim middle-ground they’ve chained themselves to. As the book speeds towards an ending—a riveting, almost slapstick chase scene from stone tentacles—it morphs, revealing the humanist guts pulsing within. This is a gorgeous, inspirational book about how we must lean on each other to move forward from the horrors of life.
Unfortunately, to enjoy the characters and discover the beautiful, existence-affirming themes, you have to wade into the treacherous swamp of the book’s structure. Frankly, the chorus structure is distracting. The visual format of the book—speech, character name, page break, repeat—subjects the reader to page break after page break, with each break pulling you off the page and out of the story. It becomes particularly bad when Saunders uses reams of primary sources and essays alike to describe the setting and atmosphere of America as a whole. Saunders feels compelled to share the author and the full title of each piece, and flipping through these sections becomes more akin to reading the expanded bibliography of a piece of non-fiction. And to be frank, there doesn’t seem much reason to break the story into the chorus structure. Saunders, in pieces like “Victory Lap” has played with the idea of multiple, almost first-person-like viewpoints to much greater affect. The multiple voices creating an enjoyable cacophony unweighted by the boulder-like strain of format or structure. The most enjoyable moments in Lincoln In The Bardo fall during long monologues by singular characters, when the page breaks disappear, and you can lose yourself in the joy of simply reading; lose yourself in the illusion that what you’re reading is simply a novel.
It isn’t that Saunders has mistaken form over content, as that would imply that the book isn’t immaculately written—which it is. Rather, Saunders has managed to unintentionally obscure his own brilliant writing behind a smokescreen of structure. At his level, with his boundless talent, and with this his first published stab at longer work, the literary world would be remiss if he wasn’t pushing the boundaries of what writing can do. Perhaps next time, a bit more of a balance between pushing the form and telling a story can be struck.