Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Something was lying untoward below us, in a box inside that little house

Untoward    ly

May I tell you something?

It had the face of a worm

A worm, I say!    A worm the size of a boy    Wearing my suit


My first impression upon reading Lincoln in the Bardo was plain gratitude.  I felt gratitude to think that a book like this could be published, for all its weirdness, its unapproachability, its extravagance.  The subject matter is weird enough: Willie Lincoln, the president's son, awakes after his death in a kind of purgatory populated by the spirits of those in his cemetery who refuse to "pass on" to the other side.  But the book is also stylistically weird: it's written in snippets of those spirits' voices, who both speak to each other and narrate what they see, without any clear demarcation between those modes.  It's also interspersed with quoted passages, both eyewitness and historical, about Willie's death and the president's grief.  (Some, I am pretty sure, are made up, but not all--Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals makes an appearance.)  That it all hangs together is a miracle; that it could be published is a testament to the many years of excellent short stories Saunders has produced.  The compactness of stories lends itself to experimentation, but everything in Tenth of December seems now like prologue to me.

The spirits in Georgetown's Oak Hill cemetery all have their reasons for clinging to life instead of passing on to the next world.  Roger Bevins III committed suicide because he was unable to be with his male lover, but at the last minute he realized how much he will miss about the world, just on a sensory level ("swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arrive breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chilled autumn--").  Hans Vollmann gets hit with a wooden beam before he can consummate his marriage with his much younger wife.  The premise allows Saunders the opportunity to emphasize these stories with Beetlejuice-style comic exaggeration: as Roger waxes poetic, his eyes, noses, and hands multiply into the hundreds.  Hans has an eternally enormous erection.

These two are the protagonists, more or less; it's principally through their (hundreds of) eyes that we see and understand Willie and Lincoln.  But the book is so full of funny, believable portraits of dead folks.  Some I liked especially: the miser woman who collects rocks, sticks, and motes in the afterlife.  The hunter who sits in front of a pile of all the animals he's ever killed, staring at each one until he has given it its proper due before it gets up and walks away.  A cruel slaveowner who gets exponentially taller as he rails against the laziness and perfidy of his slaves.  (Okay, some are less funny than others.)  One of the most chilling is a reverend who has already been judged and sent to Hell by Christ, a fate from which he has run back into this purgatory.  All of these are compelled to repeat their story over and over, speaking themselves into existence.  Their coffins they call "sick-boxes"; their bodies are "sick-forms."

Into this ecosystem comes the spirit of Willie Lincoln.  The president, utterly distraught by Willie's death, comes to visit the body, even going so far as to pick it up and hold it.  This makes Willie a kind of celebrity in the graveyard, and they flock to him to tell their stories, hundreds at a time, as if being held by the living Lincoln makes Willie a little bit closer to resurrection than they.  But children are not meant to stay long in this realm, and the longer Willie stays--he lingers knowing his father might return and pick him again--the more he is at risk for a kind of permanent eternal entrapment.  Hans and Roger do their best to get Willie to let go and pass on, a plot which inspires more of what you might call hijinks than you'd expect.

Though it's a lot of fun, Lincoln in the Bardo is at its best when its in an elegiac mode.  More than anything else, the novel is a meditation on grief and loss.  Lincoln struggles mightily with the loss of his son.  He memorably summarizes the paradox of death this way: "Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another."  And of course, the political context looms large here.  The war is going badly and bloodily for the Union, and Lincoln is deeply aware that he has sent other men's sons to die. 

Saunders recognizes, I'm happy to say, that any novel about the moral implications of the Civil War needs to dwell extensively on black Americans.  Willie's presence helps to bring down a psychic barrier between Oak Hill and the mass grave beyond the nearby fence, letting in a number of the black dead, including former slaves.  These characters provide some of the most profound pathos in the novel.  One man can't figure out why, when his masters were so kind to him, he feels the powerful urge to murder them.  Another meditates that he had his moments of freedom like most men, but is haunted by "[t]he thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments."  A victim of rape is utterly mute.  These stories are so vital to the novel because as a nation we still reckon with the political valence of black loss and grief, with our attitude toward black bodies quite literally.  Saunders bends the rules of his world a little to let one of these men to literally walk out of the cemetery inside Lincoln's body.

I can say, hands down, this is the funniest novel about a cemetery featuring a man with a comically large penis that I have ever read.  If that praise is too faint, I'll add this: Lincoln in the Bardo is a tremendous exploration of what it means to die, to lose, to grieve.  May all our deaths be as full of joy as Willie Lincoln's, when he finally realizes he is dead:

All is    All is allowed now    All is allowed me now    All is allowed lightlightlight me now

Getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed

Candy bees, allowed

Chunks of cake, allowed!

Punch (even rum punch), allowed!

Let that band play louder!

Swinging from the chandelier, allowed; floating up to the ceiling, allowed going to the window to have a look out, allowed allowed allowed!

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