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Saturday, March 18, 2017

NOVEL: George Saunders: "Lincoln in the Bardo"

Author: George Saunders
Series: Lincoln in the Bardo
Plot Type:  Historical Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Humor—3   
Publisher and Titles:  Random House (2/14/2017)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                     
     In his long-awaited first novel, American literary master George Saunders delivers his most original, transcendent, and moving work yet. Unfolding in a graveyard over the course of a single night, narrated by a dazzling chorus of voice, Lincoln in the Bardo is an experience unlike an otherfor no one but Saunders could conceive it.

     February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

     From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state―called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo―a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

     Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation.. formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction's ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voicesliving and dead, historical and inventedto ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end? 

                    AN IMMERSIVE VIDEO EXPERIENCE                    
This illustration (by Renaud Vigourt) from
The Atlantic's review of the novel (March 2017)
will give you a sense of the surrealism of the story.
That's Willie in the lower right corner facing off
against the graveyard spirits who view him
an object of great fascination and as
a new listener to their sad, personal stories
    Click HERE to view a fascinating immersive narrative video by Graham Sack that will give you a feel for the cacophonous chorus of voices of both the living (President Lincoln and selected citizens) and the dead (the spirits who reside in the graveyard). This video will be particularly valuable if you have trouble at first with Saunders's montage or collage form of story-telling because Sack gets the voices exactly right. Be sure to drag your mouse completely around the screen. (The circular dial at lower right serves as a guide that indicates your current perspective.) As you move your mouse, you will be able to get a 360-degree view of the scene. It's very dark (because, of course, there was no electricity back then), but the spirits stand out clearly.

                    AN EXCERPT                    
     Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. The print excerpt begins with chapter 1 and is more substantial than the audio excerpt, which includes only chapter 2. 

                    MY REVIEW                      

     I'll begin with a quotation is from Jason Sheehan's NPR review of the novel"Lincoln in The Bardo is not an easy book, but it gets easier with the reading. At the start, it jags, loops, interrupts itself a thousand times. Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent. But there are moments that are almost transcendentally beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl, in the form of dialog attributed in a playwright's style or historical abstracts cited with academic formality, pulled from sources invented or real, to speak about the party, about Lincoln, about grief or the war." 

     The novel, which Saunders calls a play, is written as a series of monologues (some quite brief, others longer) with attributions afterword. Saunders employs several types of voices. For commentaries from real people on real events, he quotes from real and invented primary sources, turning the quotations into a running commentary. Interestingly, these eyewitness descriptions of people and events frequently contradict each other. For example, Lincoln's eyes are described as being "dark grey," "luminous gray," "gray-brown," "bluish-brown," "blueish-gray," "blue," and "greyish-blue." This is a perfect example of why law enforcement agencies are generally skeptical about the validity of eye-witness testimony.

     Most of the primary-sourced quotations are real, but some are invented. They describe Lincoln and his family as if the speakers were standing together in a group, each giving his or her opinion. Depending on the chapter, these sources describe the fancy dinner, the family's grief at Willie's death, public opinion about the war, and other general topics. Here  are some of their descriptions of Lincoln himself: 

"The first time I saw Mr. Lincoln I thought him the homeliest man I had ever seen." (In "My Day and Generation" by Clark E. Carr.)
"He was never handsome, indeed, but he grew more and more cadaverous and ungainly month by month." (In "Lincoln's Washington: Recollections of a Journalist Who Knew Everybody," by W. A. Croffut.)
"After you have been five minutes in his company you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward." (In the Utica "Herald.")
"The good humor, generosity and intellect beaming from it, makes the eye love to linger there until you almost fancy him good-looking." (In "Way-Side Glimpses, North and South," by Lillian Foster)
     And then there are the invented voiceswhose names are written all in lower case. These are the voices of the inhabitants of the Oak Hills Cemetery. These ghosts tell their stories and are so familiar with one another that they complete each other's sentences. They provide a worm's eye view of death and the beyond.
"Now, together, we became aware of something." (hans vollman)
"In his left trouser pocket." (roger bevins iii)
"A lock." (hans vollman)
"The lock. From the white stone home." (roger bevins iii)
"Heavy and cold. Key still in it." (hans vollman)
"He had forgotten to rehang it." (roger bevins iii)
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Time magazine in which Saunders explains his methodology:
Time's Question: You've been called a "slipstream" writer, incorporating sci-fi or fantastic elements into otherwise realist fiction. Has reality caught up with this kind of wacky realism?
Saunders's Answer: I use those elements as a way of honing in on the emotional truth of a situation. When I look at what my life has actually been, to just represent what literally happened is to shortchange the emotional range that I've experienced. In other words, just a straightforward "realist" representation of life seems to leave a lot of stuff on the table in terms of the real confusions and emotional complexities and beauties and terrors that are experienced even in a relatively bourgeois life like mine. I...[try] to get at what life feels like, but knowing that, to do that, we might have to swing a little wildly. Because life itself is so beautiful and insane.
     Here's my advice: Just keep reading. If you relax and let the voices speak to you, their words will begin to coalesce into a humorous, heartbreaking, fantastical experience that you will remember long after you have turned the final page. 


     In February 1862, the country is beginning to realize what this war will cost them, and they are flooding the President with letters of hate, disgust, and heartbreak as they lose their family members―husbands, fathers, sons, brothers―on the battlefield. Lincoln despairs as he contemplates his next move. Then, his beloved son Willie contracts typhoid fever, a killer disease that causes tremendous suffering in its victims. Lincoln accepts the doctor's promise Willie is doing better and will recover, so he and his wife go ahead with the extravagant state dinner already planned for the evening. But as dawn nears, Willie breathes his last breath, and his parents are overcome with grief. 


     As his family mourns, Willie finds himself in a "stone home" (a crypt) in Oak Hills Cemetery in Georgetown surrounded by the ghosts/spirits/shades of those buried in that cemetery over the past decades. This ghostly gathering is based loosely on the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the bardo: a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death. Here, Saunders uses bardo to mean a transitional period during which the spirit of a dead person continues to hold onto life in the "previous place," while resisting the regular prodding of mysterious spirits to move on to the acceptance of death.

     Each ghost has his or her own "sick-box" (coffin) and "stone home" (interment site), but at night, most of them roam the graveyard telling each other their life–death stories from rote memory. All are unable to move on, mostly because they are tied to their previous lives for various reasons and do not accept the fact that they are deceased. Many of their stories contain details about what they will do when they recover and return to the "previous place." None of them ever use the word "death." 

     Some of the humor comes when one ghost tries to hurry another along by reciting that person's story at a faster pace or by making eye-rolling comments to other bystanders about the content or the story teller. At one point, a spirit starts her story with the words, "I will be brief" only to hear another spirit scoff, "I doubt it." The sad stories of guilt, infidelity, disappointment, and loss are recited in a manner reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. (Click HERE for a list of links to free on-line copies of Spoon River in a variety of formats.) While Masters' Spoon River is poetry and Saunders's Bardo is a novel, both are truly plays (and Saunders calls this work just that). 

     Periodically, an event called a "matterlightblooming" occurs, an explosive phenomenon in which some spirits succumb to the temptation to leave the graveyard and enter the afterlife, disappearing with an indescribably loud flash and crack. 

     The cemetery has graves on both sides of an iron fence. Inside are the upright, white citizens, while outside are the bodies of slaves and unacceptable white people. In several raw scenes, several of the graveyard inhabitants from both sides of the fence savagely vent their feelings about racism, slavery, and various and sundry ways of sinning.


     When Willie awakens in the vault, he immediately finds three friendly spirits who appoint themselves as his mentors and guides: 
The Reverend Everly Thomas, a kindly but verbose man who knows much more about what happens in the afterlife than anyone realizes.
Hans Vollman, a printer, whose spirit manifests as naked in reference to the fact that on the very night he died, he was planning to fulfill his long-awaited consummation of his marriage to a much-younger woman.
Roger Bevins III, a young man whose spirit manifests with many eyes, noses, and hands, probably in reference to the multitude of sensory experiences he missed because he mostly denied his predilection for men, and, thus, denied himself all sexual relationships (except for one, which ultimately led to his suicide).
Illustration of Lincoln in the
Oak Hills Cemetery by Adi Embers
from Slate's review of the novel.
    They all encourage Willie to move along to the afterlife because life in the bardo is very dangerous for children. (This demonic aspect of Saunders's story is, for me, its single weak point.) 

"Strange here, he said.
Not strange, said Mr. Bevins. Not really.
One gets used to it, said the Reverend.
If one belongs here, said Mr. Bevins.
Which you don't, said the Reverend."

     But then, they witness something marvelous when Willie's father comes to the graveyard, unlocks the door of Willie's tomb, pulls out his "sick-box," and gathers Willie into his arms. Every spirit in the graveyard is mesmerized, crowding around the open door in amazement. They are used to people occasionally making brief, perfunctory visits to graves, but this living loved one actually cradles the corpse of his deceased son in his arms and talks to him with great love as if he were still alive. Hans Vollman says, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community….People were happy, that was what it was; they had recovered that notion.” “It was cheering. It gave us hope,” says Reverend Thomas. And Roger Bevins adds, “We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.”

     After a lengthy visit, Lincoln leaves but promises to return, and this causes Willie to linger past the danger point, thus causing the other spirits to unite―for the first time ever―to save Willie from a terrible demonic fate. They follow Lincoln and enter his body, concentrating on trying to coerce him into returning immediately so that Willie will accept his fate and move on to the afterlife.

     As the spirits inhabit Lincoln's body, they pick up on his thoughts, most of which are consumed with grief and death―over his son and over the thousands of dead soldiers, with many more deaths to come. The two events
the child's death and the soldiers' deaths become, for Lincoln, inexorably linked. In the end, Willie's death foreshadows all of the war deaths on both sides
 and the grief that will decimate so many families. The graveyard ghosts represent a cross section of societythe pious and the perverted, the drunkards and the teetotalers, the virgins and the prostitutes, the slaves and the slavers, the mindful and the ignoranta microcosm of the living world, both in 1862 and in the present day.

     Saunders's text emphasizes Lincoln's abundance of empathy for both his supporters and his enemies―the southerners who wished for his failure and the northerners who, in their grief, wanted him banished from office (or even dead). 

     A major point of the novel is the letting go. Willie and the graveyard ghosts need to release their grip on the "previous place" and go on to whatever comes next. The President needs to let go of his grief over Willie's death and his fruitless agonizing over the war deaths, both of which have stalled his ability to plan future strategies. He has to stop being the grieving father of a dead boy and take back his role as father to a divided nation on the verge of collapse.

     Please don't let the inventive form of this novel/play discourage you from reading it from beginning to end. Enjoy the commentary, both the real and the invented. Watch the contradictions emerge. Chuckle at the dark humor. Cringe at the malice and brutality. Join Lincoln in grieving for young Willie. Admire his great humanity under such extreme personal and national pressures. And finally, appreciate Saunders's magnificent creation.

                    THE AUTHOR                    
     George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time's list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

     Click HERE to view a video entitled "George Saunders Explains How to Tell a Good Story." Click HERE and then click on the white arrow in the blue box (top left) to listen to an NPR interview with Saunders and read a print summary of that interview.

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