In February 1862, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid in the White House. While Willie struggled with his last breaths, across the White House a lavish state dinner was underway.
Criticisms of Lincoln were merciless: an inept leader with the blood of the war on his hands and a White House that had no qualms with decadence in a time of austerity and loss. Now, with the death of Willie, Lincoln had to contend with profound personal grief. The newspapers reported that Lincoln returned to the crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery to hold his son’s corpse.
It’s with this image (which George Saunders described in an interview as “a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta”) that the author begins his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” Unfolding over a single night, the soul of Willie Lincoln enters the Bardo — a purgatory-like place from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, where a soul rests between earthly incarnations. In the Bardo, Willie encounters the dead who hang around their coffins (they prefer the term “sick boxes”), unable to move on to their next state, and tries to communicate with the grief-stricken father who returns for him.
But this is not a story told by an 11-year-old ghost, but by guides in the Bardo: Hans Vollman, hit on the head by a ceiling beam as he anticipated going home to consummate his May-December marriage; Roger Bevins III, a gay man who slit his wrists after his lover informed him he would henceforth “live correctly”; and the Rev. Everly Thomas, who found a surprise waiting at the pearly gates. Bevins, Vollman and Thomas are the principal voices in a ribald, racist, libertine choir of the dead.
Saunders alternates chapters from the Bardo with chapters that are made entirely of quotes from archival materials and biographies both real and invented (done so seamlessly it is difficult to decipher what is fiction). These collages describe the Lincolns’ elaborate soirees (“exotic flowers from the presidential greenhouse were in vases every few yards,” “multicolored chandeliers illuminated the East Room, above carpets of sea-foam green”) and root the book in a historical sequence of events.
With them come myriad opinions on Lincoln, his family and his presidency at a time of immense strain. Saunders devotes a chapter to a choice selection of curses and criticisms from Lincoln’s contemporaries: from a letter warning, “If you don’t resign we are going to put a spider in your dumpling,” to “the young men who have been maimed, crippled, murdered and made invalids for life, owe it to your weakness, irresolution, and want of moral courage.”
There is criticism of the Lincolns as parents, who let spoiled Willie live “in a state of perpetual bedlam, where indiscriminate permission was confused with filial love.” The timeworn image of Lincoln is there, too — the Great Emancipator guiding a country at war with itself, the quick-witted, compassionate philosopher, the loving father — but it’s countered with a lesser-seen Lincoln, grief-stricken, criticized and tormented.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” challenges the conventions of narrative. It’s a book without a central narrator and with a young ghost, who appears fleetingly and whose dialogue is limited. It’s a novel of fragmented voices that come together to form a kind of American collage. Magical realism meets historical novel. Portrait of an American icon at his most vulnerable and human meets bawdy comedy of ghost orgies and poop jokes.
Some of the novel’s most graceful and touching moments are those of greatest risk, when the ghosts — black and white, male and female — enter the president’s body and give the reader his tormented thoughts. Lincoln tries to reconcile his faith in God with the death of thousands of young men. He muses about what his son’s corpse represents: “The essential thing (that which was borne, that which we loved) is gone. Though this was part of what we loved. … This here is the lesser part of that beloved contraption.”
Saunders has crafted a rare thing: a novel that manages to be both a moving tribute and silly fun that is richly unique in form. “Lincoln in the Bardo” shows us grief and love experienced by the most famous and obscure of American history and speculates on how the death of a little boy shaped the direction of the war and of our nation.
Kelsey Ronan is writer-in-residence for the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, S.C.