Possessed

Lincoln in the Bardo was a gift to myself, unearned and unplanned, purchased while waiting for a reading to begin. My husband, the historian, didn’t like the look of this novel. The book had ghosts in it. Why muddy up a perfectly good story about the death of Willie Lincoln, beloved son of President Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the Civil War? My husband had low expectations of the author George Saunders and his little ghost story.

The Bardo

The titular bardo is an in-between place. For Tibetan Buddhists like George Saunders, the bardo is a natural place of transition, say, between birth and death. The one in Saunders’s novel is more like a Catholic purgatory. Its inhabitants cannot or will not leave the world of the living. Their motives range from revenge to obsession to love.

For example, Hans Vollman fully expects to recover from the beam that’s crushed his head. He understands the need for his sick-box where he must rest during the day. He accepts his confinement inside this hospital garden and the black iron fence that separates him from the rest of the world. But he chafes at his long confinement and longs to rejoin his young wife and finally consummate their marriage.

In the bardo, earthly ties take on a grossly physical form. Vollman presents as a swollen penis. The avid hunter, Trevor Williams, is surrounded by all the beasts he’s slain. Percival Collier obsesses about his 4 homes, 7 gardens and 15 full-time gardeners.

Mr. Collier (shirt clay-stained at the chest from his fall, nose crushed nearly flat) was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.

hans vollman

Silent Abe

There’s not a whole lot going down in the bardo.

We had sat every branch on every tree. Had read and re-read every stone. Had walked down (run down, crawled down, laid upon) every walk, path, and weedy trail, had waded every brook; possessed a comprehensive knowledge of the textures and tastes of the four distinct soil types here; had made a thorough inventory of every hair-style, costume, hair-pin, watch-fob, sock-brace, and belt worn by our compatriots; I had heard Mr. Vollman’s story many thousands of times, and had, I fear, told him my own at least as many times.

roger bevins iii

It’s exciting, then, when someone new arrives, especially a young one like Willie Lincoln. He is, at the very least, a new set of ears into which the other inhabitants can pour their woes. But the bardo turns positively electric when Willie’s father comes to visit. The inhabitants of the bardo chatter and gossip and speculate.

They’re not the only ones offering opinions about the Lincolns. Saunders quotes historians, eyewitness accounts, and Civil War letters. These sources talk about Lincoln, his wife, his sons, his failure as President to stop the unconscionable slaughter. They contradict each other on the most minor of facts. Was Lincoln handsome or not? Were his eyes green or blue or gray?

To step inside

In the bardo, it’s possible for one being to inhabit another simply by stepping inside. Willie enters his own body, something he calls the worm, in the hopes of making himself heard by Lincoln.

Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:
We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond will never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.
Then let out a sob.
Dear Father crying That was hard to see And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no

willie lincoln

Willie is not the only one to enter Lincoln. Other bardo residents attempt this form of communion, too, for reasons of their own.

Outside an owl shrieked.
I became aware of the smell rising up off our suit: linen, sweat, barley.

hans vollman

This act of melding with another proves to be transformative for the bardo inhabitants. It is an act of mutual possession. The grievous loss that ties and tortures the bardo inhabitants recedes into the background. Some semblance of their former selves emerges.

Suddenly, I remembered: the showing up at church, the sending of flowers, the baking of cakes to be brought over by Teddie, the arm around the shoulder […] The happy mob of us children gathered about a tremendous vat of boiling chocolate, and dear Miss Bent, stirring it, making fond noises at us, as if we were kittens.

roger bevins iii

Who’s Talking?

Lincoln in the Bardo is a wonderful novel at so many levels.

For one, the novel consists entirely of dialogue. Hemingway may have come close but Saunders actually succeeds. There’s no narration (he said, she said). No exposition or backstory. Action as speech while the inhabitants of the bardo walk-skim, run-skim, and trot-skim their way through this novel.

For another, Saunders makes cunning use of historical sources to create the setting of his narrative. Elizabeth Keckley was a slave in the White House during the Civil War. Margaret Leech was an American historian. Saunders read everything.

I chose the books by a process of vo­racious serendipity: any time I saw or heard about a Lincoln book or a Civil War book, I’d go to the index and see if Willie was mentioned or that party, and I’d write down whatever I found. I imagined my brain as a silo and the job was just: put as much as possible in there so that, at the moment of invention, I would have a solid basis.

Interview with George Saunders in Lincoln Lore

From Fact to Fiction

But it’s one thing to go from an historical fact to writing a novel of ghosts in a bardo. Saunders knew exactly where he wanted his story to take place.

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body.

George Saunders, “What writers really do when they write” in The Guardian, 4 Mar 2017

So, Saunders knew he wanted to place Lincoln in that cemetery at night. Now, how to do that? Not as a 300 page Lincoln monologue. Not with an omniscient talkative gravedigger.

In this case, the solution was pretty simple – contained, joke-like, in the very statement of the problem (“Who else might be in a graveyard late at night?”).

Idem

Above all, there is compassion in Lincoln in the Bardo. Not just a father mourning the death of a beloved child but all the myriad losses contained in the sick-boxes at Oak Hill Cemetery. To capture that longing for life in death. Reach into the mind of a slave, a clergyman, a horse craving a certain blue blanket. Take the leap of faith needed in order to respond with love, remembering that

what seems Other is not actually Other at all, but just us on a different day

Interview with George Saunders by Lorien Kite, “‘That Great Leap of Faith'” in The Financial Times, 21/22 Oct 2017

p.s. George Saunders won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo.

p.p.s. My husband loved the novel.

2 July 2019 | Karen Kao