Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.
— Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3

Narrators come in various forms. Their form most often defined by their speech. The resonance of which depends on the position they occupy in the context of the narrative, along with their mobility to follow all that ought to be seen and heard and felt. A narrator aspires to thrill and sadden, seduce and smite, move and mar the reader. But for all that to happen the narrator needs the reader’s empathy. So as to break barriers and make the reader see the writer’s vision in the clearest manner possible.

When dealing with matters of life and death, though a scientific brain agrees on both these states as absolutes — one is either dead or alive — a fictional mind can dare flex its mystical lobes to usher in an in-between state, to rock back and forth between life and death for the sake of narrating a story that encompasses the vital aspects of both these realms.

George Saunders uses ‘Bardo’ as that in-between state, a Buddhist concept of an intermediate state between life and rebirth, to narrate the events of the night when Lincoln visited — of which there are records — and held — of this there are unclear claims — his interred eleven-year-old son, Willie, in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Bardo is but the milieu; the ghosts populating it are the narrators.

This choice, of ghosts as narrators, is an audacious move, one that demands the writer to delve deep into his creative cellar to conjure the numerous voices which need to both cohere with the overall narrative while also remaining distinctly their own. In addition to this, Saunders embeds real and fictive anecdotes drawn from the history books — again, real and invented — to peek into the premises his ghosts cannot. The resultant of this dialogic prose spliced with quotes is an attempt to create a genre-defying novel, a brave attempt whose true test lies in balancing of the plot-moving voices with the back-tracking historical accounts.

What we see is a master class in literary form and structure.

The strength lies in the novelty of the form. Page-full of dialogues replace the bulky paragraphs found in conventional novels, as the ghosts take up the mantle of establishing the setting of the cemetery — and propelling its happenings. The citations initially help to create the scenes at the White House where a frivolous party with lip-smacking menu and tuxedo-ed guests reigns while the still-alive Willie burns with fever. Later, these fill gaps or add weight to the plot-points.

The ensemble of quirky ghosts sucks us into the book. Every ghost-voice is distinct and personality-defining. They are a garrulous lot, who believe they are not dead and hope to return to the “previous place” to complete their unfinished business. They are unique yet their voices toe remarkably in-line with the mood of the narrative. The pathos of the cemetery is reined in by their comical fracases. The ghosts are considerate and sadistic, ribald and virtuous, wax eloquent and speak street. (As a reader, since the name of the speaker appears below the lines, it’s hard initially to know who’s speaking until the end of the dialogue. But the consistency of each ghost’s lines, even of those that pop up infrequently, is so solid that with time the lines lead us into identifying the character.)

In typically sparse descriptions, Saunders bestows physical appearances to the flock of ghosts: if one sprouts multiple sets of eyes and limbs on him, the other carries an ever-erect penis — “my massive disability,” he explains — so long he fears tripping over it. They have an established world around them, with longstanding acquaintances and feuds, complete with a patriarchal elderly ghost named ‘reverend’ to the mischievous, hat-hurling hobos called ‘Bachelors’. Their various traits being the grotesquely modified version of those they inhabited at the time of death. Theirs is a world of mundane regularity, occasionally broken by the entry of a new corpse.

But when the bow-bent, long-legged president himself, grieved by the mass deaths caused by the American civil war and even more by the loss of his beloved son closer home, enters their sepulchral premises to hold his dead son, they find their convictions shaken, sending them in an alarmed, hysterical craze. If the ghosts give the novel its scaffolding, the bereaving Lincoln provides the all-important concrete might. Lincoln appears in a handful of scenes, but Saunders manages to paint an impressive picture of him, through deft use of setting and anecdotes, of that of a man caught in limbo between the omnipresent death and the equally dire state of life. However, Saunders doesn’t attempt to dig deep into Lincoln, doesn’t digress into the alluring task of un-peeling Abe’s many layers, instead letting the pathos of the plot do the touch-up. In fact, he quotes contradicting accounts as to Lincoln’s eyes — “gray-brown,” says one; “blue,” describes the other — in a absurd manner that induces much eye-rolling and, more importantly, espouses a broader argument: that if history doesn’t remember its most enigmatic president’s physical attributes, its other insights regarding his professional policies might well be of the same dubious nature. Saunders doesn’t linger long on Lincoln, which is commendable, as he shows acute understanding of where his responsibilities lie, and whisks us to meet the ghosts, of whom he has many.

Lincoln never speaks, he only mutely, furtively grapples over his guilt-ridden thoughts, these tapped and translated to us by the accommodating ghosts. The boy awaits his father’s return, baffled by the latter’s inability to listen to his pleas, and awed by his love for him.

The ghosts themselves think this as a fun lark — “we longed for an adventure”; “a quick trip,” That is, until they, too, are taken in by the filial love affair.

Saunders’ style is deft and direct. Not for him the long, loopy sentences that giddy the reader with their endless bends and dives. His sentences are brick-like, best read as whole when made into walls of paragraphs, but unquotable otherwise. They speak to the conscience without being preachy, are solidly heartfelt but never schmaltzy — all this done with great pace and rhythm. A style that’s inspiring — but inimitable.

The book is not without its (unfair) share of detouring, chapter-long salvos by ghosts who add no meat to the plot. Their popping forth at the most intense of moments in the novel not only clogs the flow but also jars with the narrative. One such clunker of a chapter occurs when before the brilliantly set-up, thrilling meeting between Lincoln and the boy. Slackening the pace and stalling the plot is a pair of ghosts, both mutilated by accidents that caused their deaths, bantering at each other before slaking their respective egos with effusive praise.

On rereading, this section has the Saunders’ power of prose to work as stand-alone piece, but makes for a taxing, irksome read in regard to the novel. But then, even the shaggiest of Saunders’ dog stories carries his trademark sagacity etched on it: The aforementioned drollery ends with one ghost musing thus: “Strange, isn’t it? To have dedicated one’s, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the product of one’s labor utterly forgotten?”

This part philosophy, part dark comedy, part historical fiction works because of Saunders’ meticulous gifts with dialogue. The ghosts jabber and articulate convincingly well to carry the plot on their nonexistent, translucent shoulders (On seeing the forlorn Lincoln, a ghost describes him as “a sculpture on the theme of Loss.”). Saunders eventually gears up the pace in the final hundred pages to push against the ribbon for a satisfying finish.

But, here’s the unsettling issue, Lincoln in the Bardo, for all its ingenious form and sublime writing, somehow, more so after my second reading, appears to be devoid of a novelist’s prestidigitation. Instead of swamping us with its story and prose — neither of which, mind you, it lacks in quality — it gives the reader a feeling of being “written”. The mechanisms that ought to have stayed in the backstage cast their shadows over its pages. The (dead but tarrying) boy, the (plot-moving) ghosts, (the grief-struck) Lincoln all appear symbolic concoctions. Using ghosts for narrators, too, ends up seeming convenient, for even if they offer the most dynamic perspective, they also solve a writer’s problems of navigating the tricky areas of space and time. Not to mention the limitless possibilities of (dark) magic they offer. 
If I write in length here about how Saunders employs his devices, it’s because he operates them with such overt obviousness. Seamless though he is in collating the ghost-voices with the quotes, he can’t help revealing the very fabrics that hold the book together. 
Saunders is a master puppeteer, who entrances us with his subjects’ uncanny closeness to our own deep predilections. 
Except here he uses ropes for strings.