The form of this novel is what readers will notice first. It begins as a series of quotes from reporters’ notebooks, eyewitness accounts, historians using original sources, and we must assume, Civil War-era gossip rags, describing an 1862 White House party which a thousand or more people attended. To say the affair was elaborate understates the case. Apparently when a thousand hungry guests descended on the tables of food, the quantity was such that it looked untouched after the assault.
Some of the reports mention that this lavish dinner party was going on during the war between the states (1862), and while Lincoln’s favorite son, Willie, lay dying upstairs, probably of typhoid. Some accounts criticize rather than report. Some are clearly inaccurate: “There was a large moon”; or “there was no moon.” Surely there can be no argument about these truths; one of the accounts must be untrue.
As the novel progresses, it changes form. The reportage becomes a chorus, as voices of the bardo—that state of existence between death and rebirth—declaim and consider the suffering of Lincoln as he contemplates his son’s death. Father and son (who’d been but a child!) had been intimates, together at every opportunity, heads often canted towards one another in deep conversation. The voices of the bardo are bawdy, rowdy, yet weirdly profound in their discussion of how fleeting life and how final death and what we learn in the course of a life and what we learn only when we’ve lost it all.
A bardo implies rebirth, but these characters appear to be looking only to escape everlasting nothingness, and enjoy discussing and dissecting the lives of others. Occasionally one of the dead will enjoy a peek at their future (best) selves, which they hadn’t the time or the opportunity to attain. It can be quite moving as each considers his or her life. And here, amidst the humor and tragedy and regret and outright joy—the stuff of life—resides the talent of George Saunders, as he tries to reach his best self, whether in love, work, or understanding.
It’s difficult to believe this is Saunders’ first published novel, and yet that is its designation. It doesn’t even seem like a novel, but immediately brings to mind a play, or a radio show, something meant to be spoken aloud, in its many and varied voices. The thread of the novel is not difficult to follow like some avant-garde works, though one may wonder if Lincoln’s sorrow at the death of Willie is all Saunders meant to convey. I think not.
I think there is another step that Saunders wants us to take: that the spirits of the bardo (how it begins to sound like bordello, the more we know of it!) influenced Lincoln when his son died, giving him insight, empathy, and the strength to carry on with his responsibilities, and to bear his personal sorrow, but also those of a nation at war. We have yet to meet the man who could have stood it alone.
"His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact…We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings…Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces…And yet…Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective…We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and…Kill more efficiently…Must end suffering by causing more suffering…His heart dropped at the thought of the killing…"So, we must fight, if fighting is required, to defeat wherever oppression exists. We must work together, and we’ll need all the help we can get from those who have glimpsed truth, and the value of kindness.
In a radio podcast with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Saunders tells us that in his research he discovers that Lincoln could have negotiated an end to the war in 1862 when the casualty levels were terrifically high, sometimes one thousand dead in a day. He must have wanted to end the slaughter so desperately, but one requirement of the agreement would have been to return the slaves to the South, and Lincoln simply refused. The black people who make an appearance in this novel lived cruelly unfair and insecure lives.
One could make the case that a novel of this kind is not unprecedented. Think of the ancient Greeks with their choruses of wise and not-so-wise spirits; Italy’s Dante with his examination of the good or bad we do in life affecting our placement in the afterlife; England’s Shakespeare with his oft-found articulate spirits remarking on the action; Ireland’s Beckett (and his influence Joyce) for language and the insight wrapped in foolishness; America’s Barth and Mamet for exactitude and a deep, abiding humor when rationality might suggest despair.
The rich variety of voices in this novel are captured in the audio production of this book. In an interview published in time.com, Saunders explains how the Penguin Random House team worked with him (kudos, everyone) to get the requisite 166 voices, including famous stage and screen actors like David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, among others, to speak the parts so that it sounds like the “American chorale” Saunders was trying to convey.
At the same time, I found it helpful to have a written text to clarify Saunders’ experimental form which uses footnotes interspersed with conversation among ghosts. I adored what Saunders was able to tell us from his advanced age of 58 years—the stuff about not doing anything you can’t adequately explain to heaven’s gatekeepers, and how “it wasn’t my fault” actually isn’t much of a defense when one has been lingering in the afterworld for more than fifty years, unable to convince even a bleeding-heart saint that one wasn’t a douche that time.
Below is a three-minute NewYorker Video introducing us to the work and life of George Saunders:
Clip of the many-voiced audio production of Lincoln in the Bardo:
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