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George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo
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George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now we must lose them.

Abraham Lincoln repeatedly visited the graveyard where his son Willie, who died at the age of 11, was interred, to hold his body. This image, likened to “the melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta,” had been lying dormant in Saunders’ mind but he had not been able to find a suitable way to execute it. He didn’t want to “write a 300-page monologue in the voice of Lincoln or insert a really long-winded omniscient gravedigger.” He had an earlier abandoned novel about a New York graveyard populated with talking ghosts, and he remembered a conversation with a former student who had said that “if he ever wrote a novel, it would be in the form of monologues.”

Integrating all these disparate elements led to the birth of an extraordinary debut novel about human grief. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo is singularly constructed. It continuously draws attention towards its unusual form and inventive narration. The structure is similar to a play; the text entirely made up of block quotes. Saunders alternates the conversation in the graveyard with extensive excerpts from historical documents – some real, some invented. He employs a total of 166 distinct voices in the narration leading to a medley of different perspectives resulting in profound reflections on love, loss, parenting, death, and the idea of nationhood.

The plot germinates from a seed of historical truth and the main narrative in the Bardo, supplemented by the documents, is set on a single night in February 1862 as the Civil War rages on. Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, dies after contracting typhoid and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. The grief-stricken father returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body. There are primarily three narrators, the ghosts who take care of Willie once he appears in the Bardo. Hans Vollman, a painter who died in an office accident; Roger Bevins, III killed himself after being spurned by a lover; and The Reverend Everly Thomas, the only self-aware denizen of the Bardo who knows what lies beyond the transitory realm.

Saunders’ writing often deals with the flexibility of how we, as individuals, perceive the objective universe around us and create personal mini-universes. He does not provide the reader with a “single vision” or describe situations with a “monological” authorial voice. The use of block quotes necessitates the employment of a diverse range of first-person perspectives in which the “self” of the speaker is gradually developed and explored through interactions with an ostensibly objective world.

The ghosts trapped in the Bardo represent memory, which is inherently subjective, and the documents are a keeping of history, purported to be objective. Time is static for the ghosts, conscious only of the affairs happening during their lifetime, so the documents ground the narrative in their present. The discrepancies in the recorded details, ranging from Lincoln’s facial features to the ongoing Civil War, highlight the fact that history is not as accurate or all-encompassing as one might expect it to be. Instead, it gets moulded by those charged with recording it for posterity. Hence, what an individual perceives as accurate depends on their perceptions and sensibilities.

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For example, in Chapter Five, the sky on the night of the presidential reception is differently described in each of the historical documents chronicling the evening. Three of them assert that there was no moon and the sky was clear. Out of the eight remaining, four claim the moon was full and golden, one claims it was a silver wedge, another it was green, yet another it was yellow-red, and the last is certain that it was small and blue. Using such incidents, Saunders continuously brings into question the nature of truth and the factual depiction of various past events in the annals of history.

Saunders’ Catholic upbringing and recent conversion to Buddhism also seem possible influences. The term “Bardo,” in Tibetan Buddhism, refers to an intermediate state of being between a person’s death and subsequent rebirth. It can also be referred to a period of life where normal functioning is disrupted. Saunders adopts the term to denote an obscure domain, a temporary way-station, which the ghosts inhabit before they move to the next stage of an uncertain afterlife. It joins similar past literary conceits and becomes a place where souls wait, as it were, for some ultimate resolution.

The ghosts are, in Saunders’ own words, “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive.” Refusing to believe they are dead, they constantly fool themselves into thinking that they are merely held up in a kind of prolonged convalescence, carefully referring to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and their corpses as “sick-forms.” Willie continues to linger because Lincoln, who secretly visits the graveyard to caress his body, is unable to say goodbye. The others’ sheer refusal to give up on the Bardo is linked to the belief that it is temporary, and they will eventually return to their loved ones.

The coming of Lincoln, and his embrace of Willie’s dead body, becomes a catalytic event. The ghosts surround the crypt and clamour to have their voices heard, their stories recorded. “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community. Individuals we had not seen in years walked out, crawled out, stood shyly wringing their hands in delighted incredulity”. The ghosts come from all walks of lives. They all get the chance to narrate their histories but this process is not always cordial. The slavers stand against the slaves, the oppressors against the oppressed, and vice versa, bringing two opposite perspectives into play.

Lincoln is a soaring fantastical figure who embodies redemption. When the ghosts witness his boundless capacity for empathetic understanding, they finally find someone who is inclined to give them another chance. When he embraces Willie’s dead body, the gathered ghosts are not surprised by his visit. “It was the touching which was unusual” and “the holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear as if one was still healthy”. Their reaction can be encapsulated in Bevin’s simple words, “We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.”

When the ghosts en masse pile into Lincoln’s body to make him stay and turn back as he is leaving, they can access his thoughts. It’s a transformative moment when the personalities of the ghosts merge with Lincoln’s mind. “United in common purpose. In there, together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another’s minds, and glimpses, also, of Lincoln’s mind. How good it felt, doing this together!”. A “mass-mind, united in positive intention” is formed.

As Bevins and Vollman say towards the end of the novel, “To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else. One must constantly be looking for opportunities to tell one’s story”. Saunders tells the stories of a host of characters stranded out of time in a place of upheaval and faux healing. Lincoln’s devastating, heart-rending grief for a son forever lost is the backdrop for this tale-telling, the canvas on which a brilliant narrative of individual emancipation is writ, giving voice to myriad personal histories.

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