My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In one of the few negative reviews of George Saunders’s well-received and Man Booker-winning first novel, Caleb Crain complains that it is not a novel at all (“this is anti-novelistic”) and that it exhibits “sentimental sadism.” True and true, but, my own misgivings about the beloved Saunders aside, these objections fall away when you realize how faithful Lincoln in the Bardo‘s sentimentally sadistic and anti-novelistic fictional form is to the period in which it is set.
Everyone has known, at least since the modernists started making fun of the Victorians, that the sentimentalism of nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture cloaked, in its rhetoric of Christian or liberal concern, a cruel aesthetic delectation both in the other’s suffering and in the self’s own nobly teary response—hence the sadism in sentimentalism. Less well-known, precisely because of the modernists’ received and somewhat misleading image of the nineteenth century as the epoch of realism, is that era’s experimentation with narrative form, both in prose and poetry. I doubt that Irving or Poe or Melville, or the Tennyson of Maud or the Eliot of The Spanish Gypsy, would find anything amiss with what Saunders has done in Lincoln in the Bardo. Didn’t Hawthorne fight for the right of every American romancier not to write “novels,” in the sense of socially and psychologically realistic chronicles? And even the very presence in Saunders’s fiction of “the bardo”—the Buddhist conception of “an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth”—is in keeping with the incipient multiculturalism (or, if you insist, Orientalism) of Goethe, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and Thoreau.
Lincoln in the Bardo stages, in closet-drama polyphony and phantasmagoria, one night in a Washington graveyard. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has just been interred in a mausoleum after dying of typhoid, and his soul sojourns among the souls of those dead who do not realize they are dead, and who therefore refuse to move on to the next plane. For reasons never explained—fair enough, I think, as the dead themselves do not understand the cosmic order anymore than the living do—the souls of children who do not move on are subject to a grotesque imprisonment and decay. But Willie refuses to exit this life fully, since he believes his father will come for him and rescue him from his illness. The novel becomes, therefore, a race against time as the ghosts who are our heroes try every expedient to get Abraham Lincoln himself to somehow persuade Willie to go. Stated so baldly, the plot sounds stupid, but Saunders’s sheer exuberance of voice and invention give the novel a Joycean buoyancy that prevents it from being too literal or self-serious in its fantastical scenario.
Our central characters—Hans Vollmann, a middle-aged man who died in an accident before consummating his marriage to a young bride; Roger Bevins III, a gay youth who rashly committed suicide; and the Reverend Everly Thomas, a minister who has, unbeknownst to his dead fellows, actually fled to the bardo from the terrifying arbitrariness of the Christian afterlife—are both bathetically sad and stirringly heroic, a combination that grounds the novel in everyday, comic feeling while allowing it to attain a more epic dimension befitting its underworld-journey structure.
Add in Saunders’s farrago of real and invented nonfictional accounts of Lincoln’s life and Willie’s death, as well as his pastiche of several registers of nineteenth-century rhetoric from scatology to periphrasis, and you have a real stylistic achievement. On its strictly aesthetic merits, Lincoln in the Bardo deserves its laurels: few contemporary novels are in my experience so ineffably strange while being explicable in the language of the literary tradition. It is almost the definition of the classic.
Literary quality aside, I continue not to see eye-to-eye with Saunders on thematic questions. Why is this novel about Abraham Lincoln at all? It’s not as if the bardo-graveyard concept necessarily begs for the Civil War setting. The answer, it becomes clear, is that Saunders wants to mount some defense of the American experiment. When one of our dead characters enters Lincoln’s consciousness, they find him reflecting on the war:
Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.
Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.
He would lead the rabble in managing.
The thing would be won.
And Lincoln knows the moral worth of democracy from his own experience, despite his obscure beginnings, of boundless possibilities for the individual:
And then, going out to get it, he had found the way clear—his wit was quick, people liked him for his bumbling and his ferocity of purpose, and the peach orchards and haystacks and young girls and ancient wild meadows drove him nearly mad with their beauty, and strange animals moved in lazy mobs along muddy rivers, rivers crossable only with the aid of some old rowing hermit who spoke a language barely English, and all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free, that any man, any free white man, could come from as low a place as he had….and might rise, here, as high as he was inclined to go.
Lincoln’s Jacksonian individualism, his idea of a herrenvolk democracy, marked by the prose’s stutter over “free white man,” must be challenged if the war is to mean anything, if the American ideal is to be saved. For this reason, in the novel’s set piece, all the ghosts in the bardo enter into Lincoln at once to get him to return to Willie. During this spiritual commingling, the ghosts move toward overcoming their own individualism, the very thing that prevents them from leaving their sole little lives behind for the great beyond:
What a pleasure. What a pleasure it was, being in there. Together. United in common purpose. In there together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another’s minds, and glimpses, also, of Mr. Lincoln’s mind. How good it felt, doing this together!
America, in other words, must be a people, not just a collection of selfish and self-serving individuals. But this fusion of citizenry and state in the person of the ruler, which seems to be Saunders’s utopian horizon, is not a democratic ideal but a fascistic one. American liberalism’s terminus in this unreflective mystical statism is a great disappointment to me; not so long ago, speculations of a more anarchic or libertarian tint were at least tolerated, if not common.
Back to the novel’s political development. “White” was the stumbling block to Lincoln’s imagination of freedom. To remove it imaginatively—to remove, that is, race as division and as engine of exploitation—Saunders has the ghost of a black man, Thomas Havens, inhabit the president’s consciousness unto the final page, where they ride symbolically into the dawn.
Havens, who while enslaved regarded his condition “simply an exaggerated version of any man’s life” in its relative circumscription, had nevertheless cherished his “free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments” and realizes in death that “the memory of those moments…bothers [him] most,” because “other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.” Inside Lincoln’s consciousness, he experiences the president’s sorrow and pleads in turn with the president:
All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness. And how, though it sounds strange to say, he was making me sadder with his sadness, and I thought, Well, sir, if we are going to make a sadness party of it, I have some sadness about which someone as powerful as you might like to know.
Havens is like Lincoln, and like us: he cherishes his privacy, his inner life, his aspirations, his bildung, the little novel that he is. But what if Havens were a very different kind of person? (Saunders, to his credit, leaves another black character, one less conciliatory to the white man, in a fight with a swaggering racist, a fight that might last “on into eternity,” “[u]nless some fundamental and unimaginable alteration of reality should occur,” as observers comment.) What if some people don’t have novelistic inner lives? What if other people aren’t in fact very much like us?
The reason not to enslave, rob, beat, or rape people is not because they’re just like us, but because it’s wrong. The latter is a more reliable ethic because there will always be some people (or even non-people—animals, landscapes) who are not just like us, and yet robbing and torturing them would still be wrong. In another of the less rapturous reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo, Robert Baird contrasts Saunders’s portrayal of the sixteenth president with Lincoln’s own severer ethic of divine justice:
His Lincoln can defend the war as a means to ‘end suffering by causing more suffering’, as a defence of the American democratic ideal, and even as a satisfaction of a mysterious divine bloodlust, but he appears philosophically incapable of the view, expressed by the real Lincoln in his Second Inaugural, that divine justice might demand war as recompense for ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash’ and ‘the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil’.
Lincoln does appeal to the divine, so I must grant that there are no up-to-date grounds for my categorical it’s wrong to hurt people, hence the contemporary attraction of empathy, which does not contradict materialism, as the be-all and end-all of ethics. The best grounds for it’s wrong to hurt people might very well be because they have been made in the image of the Lord, and I don’t believe in the Lord, and I don’t think Saunders does either. So I will leave us at this impasse; as Dedalus says to Bloom, “We can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.”
More persuasive than its commendation of empathy (and empathy with the state) is the novel’s counsel of resignation to change. Caleb Crain criticizes the novel’s central conflict:
It’s awkward, too, that the outcome of the novel hinges on whether Willie can acknowledge in time that he’s dead. A character’s struggle to accept the death of a loved one would be affecting, as would a character’s struggle to face up to his own imminent death. But mercifully, no human being on Earth will ever need to accept that he is dead. And if, on some future cosmic plane, any of us ever do need to make such an acknowledgment, then by virtue of our being able to think about it, death will have lost much of its sting. The book’s crux, in other words, is either impossible or trivial.
Yet this supernatural dilemma is so plainly a metaphor for a common human problem that I am unconvinced by Crain’s objection. The ghosts’ inability to move on is akin to anyone’s inability to accept inevitable changes with grace; such changes include not only biological inevitabilities—birth, growth, death—but also political cycles and revolutions in state and society, precisely the alterations that Lincoln was open to, even when they presented themselves catastrophically. Our last glimpse of Willie Lincoln suggests that transfiguration is a sublime of its own, irrespective of any other (religious, ethical, political) concerns:
Squinting up from the floor, we caught a brief last glimpse of the pale baby face, a pair of anticipation-fisted hands, an arched little back.
Here Saunders enters the spirit of the best of the nineteenth century, not its sentimentality but its energy, even the paradoxical energy of inertia that comes from believing you are moving with the oversoul. I think of Emerson’s “Circles”:
Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and decease.
But in the end, this novel’s tone of irreparable sorrow and despair, its consciousness of death’s omnipresence and inevitability, which is so un-Emersonian, renders its empathy-mongering meliorism at least a bit “superseded and decease.”
Speaking, as we were, of “decease”: the tradition of the American novel had a double birth: there was the sentimentalism of Susanna Rowson and Hannah Webster Foster, yes, but there was also the Gothic of Charles Brockden Brown haunting the New World. Saunders blends the two traditions, but his graveyard Gothic may triumph over his capital sentimentalism as death triumphs over every life: America, doomed by its inner contradictions, might have been dead from the beginning, might be dead right now and not even know it.