American Bardo

A 19th-century stone carved angel in a cemetery

As I read George Saunders’ daring first novel Lincoln in the Bardo recently, I was struck by its strangely close parallels with another memorable and equally risk-taking debut novel, Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief (2000). Both novels use the Civil War as an entry point into crazed and original meditations on the reality of death.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders reimagines the Buddhist concept of the Bardo, a threshold state of the soul that is thought to last a few days after death. His American Bardo is a cemetery in Washington, D.C., filled with a motley group of dead folks too short-sighted to realize they’re dead. At the heart of the book is a new arrival, eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln, who’s succumbed to typhoid fever, and his grieving father, the President, who is a year into the bloodiest war of the country’s history. History has left the tantalizing suggestion that Lincoln visited Willie’s crypt several times after the boy’s funeral.

Gob’s Grief takes place during and after the Civil War. The story repurposes such real figures as Walt Whitman, who volunteered as a nurse to injured soldiers during the war, and the remarkable Victoria Woodhull, a feminist, a medium, and the first female candidate for president, in 1872. The emotional crux of this story is the relationship between Woodhull’s fictional twin sons, Gob and Tomo. Tomo runs off to be a bugler with the Union Army at the age of eleven, and is soon killed in battle.

Gob is sickened by his mother’s insistence that his brother is alive and well in the Summerland, the Spiritualist equivalent of Heaven. Years later, a grown-up Gob builds a massive, Steampunk-like engine meant to bring back to life not only Tomo, but all the soldiers who died in the war. The engine combines “glass tubes and iron gears… bundles of copper wire,” human bones, and an array of glass negatives of fallen soldiers, floating above a set of cemetery gates.

Both books are wildly non-formulaic and genre-busting. Lincoln in the Bardo is told in a multi-voiced chorus, shifting from the dead cemetery-dwellers to the living — the cemetery guard and the President — along with excerpted historical descriptions of Willie’s illness and death. Gob’s Grief leaps around in time and inside many points of view. But it also alternates between naturalistic depictions of events like the battle of Chickamauga, and otherworldly happenings and characters including the memorably creepy child Pickie Beecher, born out of Gob’s infernal machine. Angels appear in both books, hectoring the living and the dead.

Both novels are heated into overdrive by the tension between denial and acceptance of death, two landmarks on the continuum of grief. The ghosts surrounding Willie Lincoln suffer from major cognitive dissonance as they struggle to explain their situation, clinging to sad euphemisms: “sick-box” for coffin, and “stone home” for their tombs. Their liberation, and Willie’s, hinges on recognizing the reality of their deaths in this false stage-set they’ve created. An unlikely communion with the dead helps Willie’s grieving father come through a similar emotional passage.

Gob’s Grief is infused with the craziness of grief. Several main characters, including Walt Whitman, are each haunted by a brother or loved one lost in the war. Gob’s death-defying engine somehow feels like the believable response of someone who’s ready to change the rules of reality to bring back their loved one. Adrian’s later novels, The Children’s Hospital and The Great Night, show a similar willingness to dive headlong into the deepest waters where death and life, fantasy and reality mix.

The idea of the Bardo came to the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the 14th-century Tibetan Buddhist text written as a guide for the newly dead, to help them move through the illusions of the Bardo toward clarity and rebirth. In fact, Bardo can refer to any transitional state, even our waking experience. Is there something distinctly American in the intransigence of Saunders’ ghosts, and Gob’s obsessive quest to undo his brother’s death? Their stubbornness may reflect our cultural prejudice toward happiness, toward holding on to a more pleasant version of things, whether it’s one that existed in the past, or some promised future. In whatever Bardo we find ourselves, only doing the hard work of acknowledging what we’ve lost can liberate us to move ahead.

Originally published at Miriam Seidel.