On my first day of walking around Galway I stopped into a local bookstore, as was inevitable. There I found a book I had been meaning to pick up but had no time to read as I was finishing my Masters Thesis and then moving back to CT. Now, though, I would have plenty of time to read George Saunders’ first novel. The author, known for both is short stories and his non-fiction essays (most notably this fantastic piece about Donald Trump) delved into the longer-fiction end of the pool with Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel told through a combination of dialogue (kind of) and historical accounts (a mix of real and made-up sources) about the time directly preceding and following little Willie Lincoln’s death. The boy’s spirit (or something) pops into being at the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book concerns the other spirits’ quest to help him transition onto the next place while his father, the unpopular President only 1 year into the Civil War, lingers around the cemetery and, following real events, holding the body of his young boy in his arms. That is the majority of the story that happens in this book, but Saunders accomplishes much more in the course of the novel.
Saunders’ major development comes from the way that he conceptualizes the afterlife and how he conveys that information, through the dialogue and narration provided by 3 main characters and a cast of dozens of side characters, all of whom are convinced that they are not dead but rather temporarily sick. Eager to tell the story of how they came to the cemetary without fully acknowledging the implications of those stories, the characters are instantly understandable. They are us, variously configured, as we try to ignore the realities of our lives. Perhaps our wives do no love us as they seem to, or perhaps the color of our skin has set for us a boundary that is difficult if not impossible to cross. Saunders realizes these refusals to deal with the realities of his characters’ situations by also making a small mockery of them. The man who dies on the day he is finally about to have sex with his timid wife has a penis that grows to comic lengths and punctures the seriousness of some moments in the book. Here is some of Saunders’ trademark humor on display, though he never lets it take over the novel.
As the characters in the Bardo (the Tibetan liminal state between lives) tell each other their stories, Saunders not only builds in little comic bits but also constructs a more fully realized vision of his other trademark, an almost inhuman empathy, that both relies upon the specific world he has built and transcends it as he relates it to the innumerable books and tracts written about Lincoln both in his time and after it. The spirits in the Bardo can inhabit the same space as each other, and can even “go into” living beings so long as they are within the confines of the cemetery that their “sick-forms” are interred in. When they enter into each other or, for example, Lincoln himself, they can feel what he feels and remember what he remembers and think what he thinks. Saunders describes this not as a special power only attained after death but rather a regaining of the power they had as living beings to relate to other humans. This sharing destroys the accumulated selfishness that all the spirits had built upon their long time in the Bardo. It is the ultimate sticking point of the book, and something I won’t soon forget. Saunders implies that this kind of union of souls can achieve great things and even change a man’s way of thinking, though the process must also include some work on the receiver’s part as well. There is, I’m sure, an interesting paper to be written about the way that empathy works and doesn’t work in Lincoln in the Bardo, but I’m not going to be the one to write it (at least not yet!).
Finally, a word on the strangeness of reading this weird book in a foreign country. This was the second book I read here, and the first one I read entirely in Ireland. Saunders plays with time and space in some fun ways throughout the book, never really concretizing either. It always feels like your position as a reader is only temporary, only dependent about the characters you are reading about or the actions they are doing. Saunders deliberately unsettles the reader several times in the historical reportage sections as he compiles various descriptions of the moon in the sky, which was either full or a sliver, yellow, white, or blue, part of a clear sky or hidden behind clouds depending on the account. This kind of post-modern fluidity and unfixity makes for some wonderful synchronicity if read as you try to adjust to living in a new place with a new topography and a wildly different sense of time (have I mentioned that it stays light here until 11pm?). The characters are unstuck in time and very stuck in place, but both of those ideas get fooled around with by the genius that is George Saunders.