[I read this novel in four sections, writing about each section before reading on.]
31 October 2018
Chapters 1-27 of Part 1
For a form-bending novel, this is surprisingly easy to read. This is not a criticism. It’s a measure of Saunders’ ingenuity that from whole chapters of extracts from supposed letters and reports of the 1860s, and conversations between the dead in a 19th Century Washington cemetery—I’m not making this up—he creates two such engaging worlds. Some of the quoted reports, which I took to be genuine at first (I’ve no idea whether any of them are), are written by Yankees close enough to the president to be invited to a big reception, while upstairs Lincoln’s son is dying. In other chapters, the dead converse near to where the boy’s body has just been interred.
We expect writers of historical novels to create a fictional world in which characters talk to one another and do stuff in ways we’d more or less expect. For such a novel to be successful usually depends on whether the reader buys into the author’s conjuring trick. Does the illusion of an invented reality actually feel plausible? It’s a difficult trick to pull off, to make past human behaviour seem both recognisable and yet entirely alien to our own attitudes and mores, and… this isn’t really what Saunders sets out to do. I’m fine with that, because he delivers a different magic routine, one he seems to have invented just for our beguilement in this novel.
And here’s a coincidence. I just went to an online dictionary to help me decide whether ‘beguilement’ was the best word I could have chosen for that sentence, and the quotation used to illustrate Google’s first chosen definition is from Abraham Lincoln: ‘to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.’ This, I discover, is from what has sometimes been described as one of the best letters in history… which, according to recent linguistic analysis, was almost certainly not written by Lincoln himself, but by his secretary. It’s easy to understand the misattribution, if that’s what it is. We like stories that confirm what we know about the past—or we adjust our view of historical documents according to their authorship. This is the kind of thing Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address, could do—so of course we’re happy to attribute to him the authorship of this famously poignant letter. It confirms what we already know about him.
This is relevant, because it’s partly what Saunders relies on in this novel for the success of the beguiling conjuring trick I’ve been describing. I’ve mentioned the two worlds Saunders presents. In each, he takes more or less conventional ideas or tropes, and gives them his own very particular spin. It isn’t unusual for an author to use verifiable quotations from real people in the creation of a fictional structure. These might be as quotations, as here, or—the more usual method, but not usually Saunders’—woven into invented or imagined conversations that the historical figures are portrayed as having. For me, the author who did the latter most successfully was Tolstoy in War and Peace. Napoleon, thinking in recognisably Napoleonic terms, reflects on and discusses the success or otherwise of his Russian campaign, while a fictional character, Andrei, witnesses the imagined discussions between real Russian generals concerning the conduct of the Battle of Austerlitz.
War and Peace was published 150 years before Lincoln in the Bardo, and Tolstoy’s method isn’t how Saunders does it in the White House chapters. Instead, he presents eyewitness accounts verbatim, without commentary. His authorial choices include not only which quotations to present but, like an artist creating a collage, which ones to place side-by-side. A minor detail, like the moon on the night of the big White House reception, gets a whole chapter to itself. There are eleven mainly short references, starting with three remarking on its beauty: ‘A common feature of these narratives is the golden moon, hanging quaintly above the scene. (‘In “White House Soirees, an Anthology,” by Bernadette Evon.’) This one, the third, is immediately followed by ‘There was no moon that night, and the sky was heavy with clouds.’ (‘Wickett, op. cit.’) Beware of eyewitness accounts.
This isn’t a new idea, or a new technique. I don’t know when it was first used in fiction, but it’s an everyday truth that Alan Jay Lerner knew all about in 1958. A man and woman in Gigi take turns to remember an evening they spent together years before. The DNA of the song Lerner wrote with Fred Loewe, ‘I Remember It Well,’ is now so deep in the English-speaking psyche that it’s often the go-to quotation whenever events are misremembered. Perhaps inevitably, among all the other false memories, the woman has to correct this one: ‘That dazzling April moon! / There was none that night….’ Just saying.
Maybe this is why the White House chapters are an easy read. Saunders might be doing something new in his unedited stream of real and invented quotations. (He might not, of course. For all I know this could be just another trope.) But, by essentially re-presenting a familiar idea in an unfamiliar form—long lists of extracts, each just a few lines long and followed by the relevant citation—he doesn’t put too much strain on the reader. We know about this stuff. OK, I mentioned that the reader doesn’t know how many of the quotations are genuine—but, if we think about it at all, it doesn’t matter. We know this is a novel and, like Tolstoy, the author can make things up if he wants. OK, unlike Tolstoy, Saunders gives each extract a supposed provenance, but if he wants to just how unreliable eye-witnesses can be. If he’s made some of them up—even the uncertainty is apt—that’s fine.
These lists of quotations aren’t the only chapters, and the novel doesn’t open with them. Saunders does a similar thing in the ‘Bardo’ chapters—taking familiar elements, of fantasy this time, and making them new and strange. In popular and literary culture the idea of the dead having an afterlife of grudging (or unknowing) sociability has been around a long time. In Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings (1983), a lot of the action consists of the ancient Egyptian dead talking in their culture’s version of the afterlife, take it or leave it. And I can remember vividly a TV mystery story from decades ago in which the recently dead don’t understand, or won’t accept, the truth of their fate. In it, a family travelling by car suddenly skid off the road and seek help at the mysterious house nearby—the pay-off, of course, being that they didn’t just skid and stop, they were all killed. I can still remember the last line, when one of them has gone back to the wreck and returns to tell the others the bad news. All that was left were ‘four burnt… black… things.’ Lincoln in the Bardo opens with exactly this scenario, but made new again through Saunders’ own special spin.
The opening account is spoken by a middle-aged man, and it isn’t until the third page that we realise he’s dead. He describes the accident that means his plans for a blissful new chapter in his life, with his much younger bride, ‘must be deferred, while I recovered. Per the advice of my physician, I took to my— / —A sort of sick-box was judged—was judged to be—’ Another speaker prompts him: ‘Efficacious.’ He thanks the other man. ‘Efficacious, yes.’ Over the next few lines, it becomes clear that the sick-box is really a coffin, and when the speaker admits that any plans will be ‘indefinitely delayed’ he still seems to be unaware of the full truth. This is Hans Vollman, perhaps a fairly new arrival, while the man who prompts him is Roger Bevins III. These are characters with their own take on things, and with their own personalities. (These two, sometimes joined by the Reverend Everly Thomas, are the cemetery residents who tell us most.)
I love it that one of the unspoken rules of cemetery etiquette that nobody refers to death or names its accoutrements. It’s like a macabre version of polite 19th Century society’s squeamishness about a different set of subjects, and it can be gruesomely hilarious. It’s like the embarrassment, say, of a dinner-guest of the era needing to tell the hostess that he urgently needs the toilet. (Interestingly, the dead soon seem to lose their squeamishness over scatological matters. Vollman refers, pretty early on, to the ‘poop’ that he couldn’t prevent himself voiding, and that is now dried up.)
But sometimes the embarrassment is deeply poignant, as in the scene that changes everything for the residents of the cemetery. Hans Vollman, still not quite sure of the terminology, struggles to describe an unprecedented event: a tall, scrawny man—only the reader knows it’s Abraham Lincoln—wants to take final leave of his son in his own way. Vollman searches for circumlocutions—‘I do not quite know how to—’ and the others help him out. The man is ‘able to slide the boy’s— / Sick-box. / The man slid the box out of the slot in the wall … looked down upon that which— / He looked down upon the lad’s prone form in the sick-box….’ They are describing a historical event that really took place: Lincoln, to the embarrassment of staff, asked to be let into the cemetery at night, and he really did remove the lid of his son’s coffin to say one final goodbye. But again, in order to make it extraordinary, Saunders has taken a not unprecedented idea and done something new with it….
I can remember an American film, possibly a TV movie, in which the personnel of a WW2 bomber spend each day hoping they’ll be rescued, and we slowly come to realise they are dead, but can’t rest until their bodies are given a proper burial. I mention this one because of the implicit materialism of the main idea. When the body of one of them is found, he suddenly—or shimmeringly, I forget which—disappears. People disappear in Lincoln in the Bardo, too, when they are ready to accept the truth of their state. But this wished-for consummation—if it is wished for—has nothing to do with materialism, and everything to do with acceptance. Children, we come to understand, often disappear within minutes—they even speak of one who hadn’t yet reached the cemetery—but Willie Lincoln is different, and is still around late at night on the day of his interment. So, when his father comes to the mausoleum, the boy is longing to embrace and speak to him. But, of course, his father approaches not him, but the coffin—and Willie attempts something desperate.
It’s the most extraordinary passage in the novel so far. Lincoln has reached into the coffin, and holds his dead son. As the residents report it, ‘For nearly ten minutes the man held the— / Sick-form. / The boy, frustrated at being denied the attention he felt he deserved, moved in and leaned against his father, as the father continued to hold and gently rock the— / Sick form….’ And so on, as a crowd of dead onlookers gathers to watch. The boy becomes desperate, moves in more and more closely to hear the words his father speaks to the corpse, until… ‘His frustration becoming unbearable, the boy began to— / The lad began to enter himself. / As it were. / The boy began to enter himself; had soon entered himself entirely, and at this, the man began sobbing anew, as if he could feel the altered condition of that which he held. / It was all too much, too private, and I left that place, and walked alone. / As did I.’
(I can only think of one other time I’ve come across anything remotely like this, and it’s exactly contemporary with Saunders’ novel. In Blade Runner 2049, also released in 2017, a male character wants to have physical contact with a virtual cyber-woman who has no corporeal substance. As he embraces a real woman—I can’t remember whether he’s told her what he’s going to attempt—the virtual woman is able to manoeuvre herself into precisely the same physical space. It’s achieved through a mind-boggling feat of CGI, not words—but the idea is remarkably similar. It’s physical and—what? metaphysical?—at the same time.)
What else? Too much to write about—I can only hope to convey an impression of this book’s strangeness. And Saunders’ playfulness too. After his father leaves, the boy—who, in interleaved chapters, is described as surprisingly old for his years by many real (and/or imagined) witnesses—is suddenly a celebrity. There’s no kind of communion during conventional cemetery visits by relatives, which some of them describe dismissively as a kind of irrelevance. It seems that everybody in the cemetery now wants to speak to one of their own who has had actual contact with the living (another word they never use). It’s something to be craved, even though they are aware that the contents of their own sick-boxes are not as wholesome as an eleven-year-old newcomer. Cue descriptions of what is really in there, as petty rivalries and resentments among the less polite residents lead to name-calling and insults…. And we see the differences between people, even in death. One couple never stop swearing and shouting, a woman tells the same story over and over again, as obsessed in death as Miss Havisham in her hollowed-out life.
And there’s another absurdity. If we’d been imagining these voices emerging from ghostly versions of the polite 19th Century living—like the phantoms of remorseful money-lenders and landlords that Marley shows Scrooge, floating outside his window in A Christmas Carol—we’re disabused when Willie Lincoln first joins their company. Someone points out to polite, hesitant Hans Vollman that the boy will be shocked by his nakedness, and his permanent and highly noticeable erection. The boy himself, still unused to this new reality, gazes in wonderment. Gaps in the lines of his statements show how difficult is all is. Bevins, for instance, ‘had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that….’ And things become more disturbing. As Bevins tells Willie his story: ‘Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands / Slashes on every one of the wrists.’
I thought at first about how Saunders seems determined to make his novel unfilmable. And then I thought of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth… and, thinking about that multi-limbed figure poor Willie Lincoln is trying to describe, another spectral figure comes to mind. Plenty of film directors have attempted to portray the Spirit of Christmas Past that appears to Scrooge on the first night in A Christmas Carol: ‘the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away.’ As I’ve suggested several times now, Saunders takes features from literary and popular culture, and makes them strange in his own way.
Chapters 28-55—to the end of Part 1
The world of the Bardo has become even stranger, and enough things keep happening for it to be even more engaging. These chapters are a continuation of that same day when Willie Lincoln was laid to rest, while there are far fewer chapters of those contemporary quotations collaged together en masse. As before, what the quotations offer is an oblique context or commentary on what is going on in the Willie/Abraham Lincoln thread. In fact, they do this far more relevantly than the often disconnected, obsessive musings of the dead. Sometimes these will be remarking on what has happened to the boy since his father’s visit, and later the two most familiar residents, Vollman and Bevins, go to find the President, who hasn’t yet left the cemetery. But, mostly, what we’re getting is a hilarious, horrifying, poignant, surreal (etc.) insight into a bizarre alternative reality. These people used to know about things, but very little of that is of any use to them now. Usually the opposite.
Where to start? With some new elements in the Bardo—not new to the residents, but new to us. They know that ‘trouble is brewing.’ First, as preternaturally sudden but welcome-seeming changes take place in the cemetery—leaves on the tees, spring flowers, all kinds of sounds and (if I remember rightly) voices—the residents prepare to batten down the hatches. Except there aren’t any hatches, so they brace themselves for some kind of onslaught. In fact, it’s like a surreal carnival parade, as spirits who used to be tied to their existence in the cemetery go all-out to sell the alternative they’ve now embraced. Each resident of the cemetery is forced to endure exactly the kind of persuasion that is most likely to work for him or her, and the die-hards (can I call them that?) like Vollman, Bevins and the Reverend Thomas hate every moment of it. During the ambush they hear the tell-tale sound of three of them giving in and, once the unwelcome visitors have gone, they go about finding out who has let the side down.
The boy, to their surprise, isn’t one of them. They find him, and there’s been another development, again familiar to the residents but this time surreally horrific. The top of the mausoleum where he tends to sit has ‘liquefied,’ and a vine is growing out of it, around the boy’s legs. The Reverend Thomas, reaching to brush it away, finds it ‘stiff, more stone than snake.’ They know this is a bad sign, but the effects won’t necessarily be quick. They describe a young girl who was reluctant to leave and became fixed by the vines, ‘Gulliver-like,’ then grown over with something like a ‘placental sheen’—Reverend Thomas’s italics—eventually forming a carapace. I can’t think where on earth Saunders picked up such an idea, unless from descriptions of scarring tissue…. Whatever, the girl continued to sing for a long time afterwards, her voice fading and turning into such a croak the others couldn’t stand to visit any more.
We don’t know if Willie was subjected to the spirits’ charm offensive, but something bad has happened. He’s lost half his weight and we overhear his long, harrowing musings. His only vision of a better future existence is based on a mash-up of fragments of memories from his deathbed and some favourite childhood recollections. ‘Mother says I may taste of the candy city Once I am up and about She has saved me a chocolate fish … Mother has such a nice way of laughing … Father comes along, says, Say, can I get in on this pile-up … No more pile-ups unless I am strong … I must stay If I wish to get Home When will I When may I / Never if weak / Maybe if strong.’
The others try to explain to him, as Vollman relates: ‘One gets used to it, said the Reverend. / If one belongs here, said Mr Bevins. / Which you don’t, said the Reverend.’ They would love to do something to help—and they think they have a chance. They find out that the boy’s father hasn’t gone yet—time seems to have no meaning in this place—and two of them, not waiting for the Reverend’s protests, go to find him. Saunders has some fun on the way, as they pass a whole circus of cemetery freaks, and I’ll come back to them…. What Bevins and Vollman need to do is to get ‘the gentleman’—they don’t know who he is yet, but they will—to go back to the boy, to persuade him that staying around is the worst thing his son can do.
They reach him and, for the first time ever, they are going to try out Willie’s merging technique on him. First in is Vollman, as Bevins reports it, his ‘greater girth somewhat overflowing the gentleman, his massive member existing wholly outside….’ Vollman is enjoying this: ‘Bevins, come in! I called out. This is not to be missed.’ Bevins enters too, but he isn’t so sure that they can really influence a living person. Vollman reminds him of a doubtful time when he says they managed it once. Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, they knock the preposterous story back and forth of how they might or might not have persuaded a young couple, who had decided to split up, to do the opposite. In plain sight, much to Vollman’s visible pleasure…. And Vollman reminds Bevin they are as close as they’ll ever be to the boy’s father now. ‘We are here. / Already here. / Within.’
Where, exactly? A cobbled-together, farcical version of a Vulcan mind-meld? Except Saunders is audacious enough to make us believe it—and to make the thoughts of the grieving father as moving as anything we’ve encountered so far. Vollman and Bevin want to make the father think about his son, and try ‘to “see” the boy’s face.’ What they perceive in his mind is not grief but a fond memory: ‘First time we fitted him for a suit….’ But, it transpires—‘Same one he is wearing back in there, now. … But he who is wearing it is— / (I so want it not to be true.) / Broken. / Pale broken thing.’ Where did the ‘spark’ go that makes a body work? What was it that could ‘switch this one off?’ And the president—because we know who it is, even if his short-term tenants don’t—has a terrible thought. ‘What a sin it would be. Who would dare. God forbid I …’ And Bevins reports, ‘Something troubling us.’ Vollman: ‘We ran one hand roughly over our face, as if attempting to suppress a notion….’
Can you guess? The next chapter mainly consists of three pages of accounts of the young men killed in recent battles as the war begins to escalate. The last is a semi-literate letter—‘One minit there was our litle Nate on that bridge with a fishpole and ware is that boy now?’—and the opening of the next chapter is agonisingly sad. ‘He is just one. / And the weight of it is about to kill me.’ He means his son, but: ‘Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain of boys.’ And these are just the first few lines. He worries for his own state of mind, having to send these boys into battle—‘What am I doing’—and feels an awful envy of people at the funeral earlier: ‘Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks. … I wish I was one of them….’
Whether or not Bevins and Vollman are able to influence his thoughts—it seems doubtful, despite one of them claiming he’d made him remember the key to the mausoleum he’d accidentally kept—his thoughts are definitely leaking into them. Which means that, haphazardly, the history of past decades is creakingly revealed to them. Vollman knows this can’t be the president, because that is Polk (in office in the 1840s, in fact). But knowledge arrives with a lurch. ’Now, I knew (with a dazzling clarity) that Polk had been succeeded by Taylor, that Taylor had been succeeded by Buchanan….’ And Bevins takes over the list, culminating in—‘Lincoln!’
As I’ve said before, it’s only possible to give an impression of this novel. By the end of Part 1, Lincoln has stood up and unceremoniously left them behind as he strides back to ‘the white stone home.’ They follow, cartoonishly, ‘Mr Bevins’s hair and numerous eyes, hands and noses velocity-streaming behind him,’ and ‘Mr Vollman bearing his tremendous member in his hands, so as not to trip himself up on it.’ He likes his popular culture, Saunders. And I’ve remembered I haven’t even started on the bizarre pageant of fellow-residents they had passed on their way to find him in the first place….
Like… Mr Williams, who hunted all his life, but has become ‘gentle’ in death and is making amends. All the animals he ever killed are piled high, ‘hundreds of deer, thirty-two black bear, three bear cubs…’ and so on down to ‘twenty thousand or so insects, each of which he must hold, with loving attention … for a period ranging from several hours to several months.’ When done, they ‘trot or fly or squirm away, diminishing Mr Williams’s heap by one.’ He is bonding with the carcase of a young calf as they pass, and gestures a farewell with its hoof as they go on their way. Another, Mr Collier, owned several big properties in different directions from the cemetery. He is ‘compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass-needle.’ He stands as they pass, pleased to see them, but ‘A new property worry crossing his mind, he was thrown violently forward, stomach down, and, with a grunt of dread, spun to face north.’
It isn’t a pageant, it’s Dante played for mischievous laughs. There are plenty of others, just as absurd, and huge numbers of sad-looking ‘homes,’ empty but for the sick-boxes inside. Bevins and Vollman muse gloomily on their former occupants: ‘Surrendered. / Succumbed. / Capitulated.’ So it goes. And Part 1 has gone.
Time to read on.
14 April 2019
Chapters 56-77 of Part 2
It’s hard to believe it’s over five months since I read the first half. It feels as though the three main (dead) characters have hardly been away… which they haven’t, of course. They’ve just been hanging around, waiting, and they’re used to that.
George Saunders moves some things on, although not all. The Barons, white trash who pepper their talk with ‘f—’s, haven’t changed a bit. And, amongst new characters as obsessive in death of the same petty concerns as they were in life, there are old friends, still banging on. And Lincoln is still there half-way through Part 2, because maybe only another half-hour has passed and he has just this moment persuaded himself to leave. It’s a self-tormenting process shared only with Vollman at first—Bevins is busy trying to disentangle Willie from the tendrils—and Lincoln’s agony is dreadful. I’ll come back to that.
Long before this there is another new thing—unless it’s just a new variation on old terrors. The Reverend Everly Thomas thinks he has discovered a theological structure underlying the strange afterlife that Saunders has made familiar to us. In Part 1 we had seen returners from whatever place lies beyond the Bardo, coaxing waverers into committing to the leap into the next stage. But what might the next stage be? The Reverend knows. He describes having gone through the process that he ‘shall not even attempt to describe,’ the ‘bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlight-blooming phenomenon’ of the exit from the Bardo. (He likes kennings, the Reverend, yoking words together to describe what he says he can’t.) This was some time ago, and ever since then he has known what nobody else does, that they are all dead—uniquely in this novel, he uses the word—and that what comes next is Judgment. He knows because it’s real—he tells us after he has, surprisingly, been able to escape: ‘Is it possible … that what I saw was only a figment of my mind, my beliefs, my hopes, my secret fears? / No. / It was real.’
He’s wrong, of course. His reasoning is flawed, for a start—how on earth can a dead man be the judge of what is and isn’t real?—and the visions he has of the afterlife are second-hand. I’m guessing that the way he imagines heaven and hell is based on prints by Gustave Dore or John Martin, of apocalyptic scenes from Paradise Lost. Whatever, angelic choirs sing in a heaven seemingly composed of solid diamond and silk so white it makes our earthly silk look pitiful… and there’s a hell as nasty as anything in a Bosch nightmare. The point is, these are found images, whilst some of the workings of his personal version of Judgment Day appear to be based on a particular shop he remembers. The awe-inspiring ‘Christ-emissary’—a kind of under-manager, I guess—watches as his acolytes make a preliminary assessment. They never seem to be wrong but, on the manager’s curt ‘Quick check,’ lovingly or ‘aggressively’ reach in for the supplicant’s heart to put on to the scale. If the supplicant is found wanting, there’s a lot of grimacing and vomiting. The Reverend made his getaway before his heart was taken, but knows that he isn’t on his way to Heaven. It’s nonsense, of course…
…but it makes me wonder what Saunders is doing. It’s a fairly long chapter, early in Part 2, so he must be wanting us to consider the metaphysics of what’s going on in his Bardo. Most of the chapters around it are on what is now familiar territory, as Vollman, Bevins and the Reverend try to get Lincoln to engage with the boy in a way that will send him on his way from the Bardo. Is Saunders seeking a genuine meditation on death? Alongside the Reverend’s second-rate visions of a pre-packaged afterlife, and his now certain knowledge of his fate in spite of his best efforts in life, we are shown more of the Bardo denizens’ blindness to the pointlessness of their clinging on. To join the idiots we met in Part 2, now there’s the army man, as vain as a cockerel and pathologically racist, a pair of mutually self-congratulatory fools now literally joined at the hip, and plenty others. How we laughed. Saunders makes the comedy broad—we humans, in this universe, are as clownish in death as in life.
But the serious purpose is there all the time, lurking, a darkly comic memento mori. And there isn’t always comedy in the pathos. The serial rape victim Litzie Wright, mute in death, has the atrocities of her life recounted by another dead woman who goes with her everywhere. We get her story, alongside a ‘cacophony’ of others, when the Bardo discovers that Lincoln has been persuaded back to his son’s tomb. This time they aren’t just onlookers, because soon dozens of them, it seems, want either to make their confessions to him or, more self-servingly, just have their cases heard, again. Unlike our three friends, they have no thoughts for anybody else… and it doesn’t matter anyway. The President can’t hear them.
The three supplicants are going to make one final effort with Lincoln and the boy. The President has the boy’s coffin open again and, meanwhile, the Reverend has freed the boy’s spirit from the tendrils. What they need to do is to get the boy, now looking more frail and perplexed than ever, to enter the same physical space as his father in the way they had done in Part 1. And they almost manage it. ‘The lad drew a deep breath, prepared, it seemed, to enter, finally, and be instructed. / Only then. Bad luck.’ A lantern outside heralds the arrival of the comically nervous night-watchman, and there has to be a change of plan. The night-watchman has spoken to Lincoln, but the President hasn’t left yet. However, the boy has been captured by the tendrils again and, while Bevins goes about rescuing him again, Vollman enters Lincoln alone.
It’s terrible in there, even worse than before: ‘Lord the fellow was low.’ Vollman comes to learn more about his sense of guilt at having led the country into a civil war that might achieve nothing. Even this early in the war—it’s February 1862, ten months after it began—thousands of young men are dead, and Saunders offers us more extracts from bereaved parents’ letters. But now there’s a new misery: contemporary journalism, gleefully pronouncing him an incompetent failure in quote after quote. For a moment, Lincoln consoles himself with the fact that at least nobody can blame him for ‘this’—he means the death of his son—but then come pages of extracts covering exactly this, some writers seeking to prove that Willie’s death was indeed his fault. Contrary opinions vie for attention, so that a doctor he had consulted ‘assured Lincoln that Willie would recover,’ while the next writer describes how the sounds of the party and its ‘swaggering music … fell on the boy’s feverish mind like the taunts of a healthy playmate.’
It reads like a Twitter-storm, almost a century and a half before social media was ever thought of. Some of these accounts, if they’re real (and I’m beginning to think I really should try to find out), must have been written long afterwards. But Lincoln, we know, was advised to postpone the reception and, as another writer states, ‘Blame and Guilt are the furies that haunt houses where death takes children like Willie Lincoln; and in this case there was more than enough blame to go around.’ This is the quotation that Saunders chooses to open this chapter, and maybe it says it all. As far as Lincoln is concerned—and we get his stream-of-consciousness thoughts interleaved with the chapters of extracts—there is nowhere for him to hide.
For me, Lincoln’s thoughts, presented in italics as Vollman hears them in his own mind, are the most impressive thing in any of these chapters. This great leader is taken so far inside himself by the guilt and sorrow that he leaves rational thought behind. This is what the early days of bereavement can be like, Saunders is reminding us, as even a statesman like Lincoln can pretend to himself that, well, no mortal man knows everything, and that therefore a miracle could happen: ‘If ever there really was a Lazarus, there should be nothing preventing the conditions that pertained at that time to pertain here and now.’ But he knows it won’t do. As soon as he has this thought he dismisses it, reminds himself of the truth that even while alive Willie was not a single entity but one that changed from year to year, even from moment to moment. Over two solid pages he forces himself, agonisingly, to face the ugly fact: ‘(Absent that spark, this lying here, is merely— / Say it.) / Meat.’ As Vollman has it, ‘A most unfortunate conclusion.’ Lincoln has persuaded himself his son is no longer anywhere near this place and, irony of ironies, does what he thinks his son would have him do. He gets up to leave.
But, as Lincoln makes his way out of the cemetery, Saunders can add another new thing to the mix. Vollman and Bevins persuade the Reverend to join them in a last-ditch mass trespass into Lincoln. (The Reverend has to break a promise he made to himself after all three of them tried this with those lovers we heard about in Part 1. What neither Vollman nor Bevins had mentioned then was that the reconciliation they brought about, beginning with them having sex among the graves, ended disastrously. The woman committed suicide after a few months of marriage.) They have to merge themselves with Lincoln as he walks, in full sight of the other Bardo residents who are still hanging around. And everybody, it seems, wants to join in the fun. It’s ridiculous, of course—one resident ‘strolled into him from behind, and stayed there, moving identically within him’—
—but soon there’s yet another shift. It’s Bevins who tries to explain the strangeness of it: ‘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.’ And the others agree. ‘We thought. / We all thought. / As one. Simultaneously.’ It’s one of Saunders’ little mind-games—not exactly original, as I’ve already suggested, but an engaging conceit. Wouldn’t it be great? Yes, and Saunders has time for one last trick: their often grotesque forms somehow revert to how they looked in the prime of life….
So now, Vollman isn’t a naked Priapus, and Bevins, in Vollman’s words, is ‘no longer a difficult-to-look-at clustering of eyes, noses, hands et al.—but a handsome young man….’ The same is true of many other residents, and even Litzie Wright now finds herself able to speak. Maybe it’s all part of Saunders’ plan. Why should the grotesque circus of the Bardo as presented so far be any more a true version of the afterlife than the one the Reverend scurried from so hastily? But, as the chapter ends, they all have to face the terrible truth that Lincoln is leaving. Through Bevins, Saunders sums up the disappointment in the air: ‘Ah me, mumbled Verna Blow, whose restored youthful beauty struck me as wonderful, even in that moment of colossal defeat.’
What on earth are they going to do now? We heard in Part 1 how a child who couldn’t leave the Bardo was left forever trapped in a carapace of tendrils. Will the transformed residents be able to do something for Willie without his father—and will the Reverend be able to understand that his vision of eternity isn’t necessarily as real as he thinks? Will they all be able to go beyond the grimy confines of this awful place?
Chapters 78-108 of Part 2—to the end
This is brilliant. It isn’t faultless—Saunders’ presentation of the healing and reconciling power of Lincoln’s mind goes far beyond ordinary hero-worship, and the knockabout surrealism doesn’t always work for me—but, somehow, all the loose ends get tied. Vollman even gets to take satisfying revenge on the unquiet spirits who, it transpires, combine into that pesky tendril-like mass. And every single one of the Bardo residents we care about gets to die happily ever after, with Willie even getting his own special vision of the afterlife.
Before I read these final chapters I was wondering if Saunders might have some philosophical agenda. Of course he does. But it’s only as I reached the very last chapters that I realised that his real agenda, as for the heavyweight authors of the 19th Century, is how we should live. Ah. But, whilst they have been ingesting a lifetime of insights from being within him, Saunders has the Bardo residents’ most important lesson not coming directly from him at all,. Willie is finally in there—and soon Vollman is urging him to get out before he becomes too upset. He knows the President is reconciled to considering his son’s mortal remains as mere ‘meat’ and, I assume, is scared of what other terrible ideas the boy might encounter. He’s right to worry, because what Willie realises is that his father’s struggle has all been to do with accepting that he is dead.
I mentioned before that in the Bardo, the word is never used. Corpse, coffin, grave… nope—only those careful euphemisms that made me think at first that Vollman was new to this. Nope, again—as we know, he’s been there for decades. It might seem blindingly obvious to say it, but every last one of them is in denial, diligently refusing to acknowledge that they will never return to ‘the other place’, where they were alive. They pretend they are alive now, and when they hear a child not only announce the truth, but do it joyously, it opens a floodgate. I’ll come back to that.
But first, I need to rewind. The last time I wrote, the President was making his way out of the cemetery, to the general dismay of the residents. Bevins calls on the Bachelors, three young men who all now exist in a state of amused self-gratification. Will they help to enlist support in trying to dissuade the President from leaving? No they won’t, preferring ‘a merry chase across the premises.’ Next…? Nobody. Those who had taken up occupation inside Lincoln have left, and our friends begin to lose heart. But the Reverend is pensive, trying to gain some enlightenment concerning his own moral failure. Perhaps there’s been a clue: he, like his two friends, has forgotten all about Willie, and now they are on their way back to see how he’s coping.
Badly, it transpires. The tendrils have got him, and he’s in almost as binding a carapace as the girl we heard about in Part 1, the one our friends didn’t help. What to do? They know they can’t break it… so, in order to help them, Saunders breaks open a new pack of narrative rules instead. The tendril carapace isn’t some kind of malignant creeper, but—wait for it—a mass of damned souls, each of them ‘no bigger than a mustard seed.’ That’s about a tenth or twentieth of an inch each but, and here’s where the solution lies, they are capable of thought and speech. They offer the three friends the option of allowing the boy to be on top of the tomb, rather than inside it where he was when his father left. And the Reverend, acting quite independently—no doubt in order to prove his worth to the heavenly under-manager who was so negative the first time around—plays a trick on them. On top, he says, and as they loosen their grip he grabs the boy and makes a dash for it.
Only in America. Or, only in American fiction in the past 20 or so years, when serious authors like Saunders can, if they choose, use plotlines from comic books or CGI animated movies. (I don’t know if David Foster Wallace was the first serious author to use such tropes. I was struck by the comic-book slapstick of some of the plotlines in Infinite Jest, 1996, when I read it for the first time recently. He’s another novelist seeking to make a whole string of serious points about the human condition, often through absurdity bordering on clownishness.) The Reverend is ‘run-skimming’ his way towards the chapel where memorial services are held—but the tendril-like mass of damned souls isn’t going to accept defeat. Cue a scene from, say, The Incredibles. As he races along, the boy in his arms, they follow. ‘A low wave burst out … a moving knee-high wall comprised of whatever substance the demonic beings happened to be inhabiting….’ They split into two, racing alongside the Reverend, come together, and trip him up. D’oh.
But the Reverend, far from giving up as the tendrils trap both him and the boy, brings in part 2 of his plan. They are completely encased when, ‘from inside the carapace, came the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.’ The Reverend has done his best and, clearly, is now prepared to face the emissary of Christ…. But the important thing for the others is that the space he’s left allows Vollman to cave in the carapace and rescue the boy himself, and get him into the temporary sanctuary of the chapel. Pixar would have a field-day with a scene like that. (And that phrase—‘the familiar yet always bone-chilling… etc.’—is one that is used many times from now on, and whoever is reporting it always uses exactly that form of words. Separate consciousnesses seem, to some extent, to have become one.)
There’s another change of gear when they realise the President is in the chapel. This is where the boy enters the same space that his father occupies, and comes to understand the truth. This time, mostly, instead of Lincoln’s thoughts the narrative of the boy’s death and the undertakers’ work afterwards comes through quote after quote from those real or invented sources. But, once the boy is ready to leave his father, it’s as though he’s ingested every word of them. And he’s close to a kind of ecstasy. His message to the other residents is joyful, as his that vision of the next stage that he is about to embark upon. Now that he knows he died on the night of the party, there are no barriers to hold him back. ‘Getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed …. Swinging from the chandelier, allowed; floating up to the ceiling, allowed; going to the window to have a look out, allowed allowed allowed! / Flying out window allowed allowed (the entire laughing party of guests happily joining behind me, urging me to please, yes, fly away….)’ I’ve mentioned A Christmas Carol before, and this is the view from Scrooge’s window, but redemption out there instead of a vision of perpetual, impotent despair.
Are we nearly there yet? Not far now…. Almost immediately after the boy’s announcement come quickfire volleys of ‘the familiar yet always bone-chilling…’, followed by Saunders mixing the poignant with the cartoonish. Litzie and the mother-figure who has helped her all these years depart, their clothing temporarily continuing to exist and wafting down to the ground. Some clothes are cleaner than others and, in the case of the foul-mouthed Eddie Baron, even the bone-chilling etc. is somehow dingier than usual. It’s starting to feel as though things are winding up…
…but Saunders has two important threads to tie up yet. One is to do with the two remaining friends, Vollman and Bevins, and the other is to do with what the President takes with him from the experience—and what he leaves behind. Vollman and Bevins have a job to do, in connection with that girl they didn’t save all those years ago. But first, we get to know about not only their former lives but, in a manner that has suddenly become a feature of the run-up to the matterlightblooming phenomenon, the lives they would have had if they had lived longer. It’s poignant, especially the fulfilled life of gay sexuality Bevins missed by killing himself, and the alternative endings to Vollman’s story. His wife had visited the cemetery recently, a visit Vollman tries not to remember, in order to thank him for opening up the possibility of a fulfilled family life for her after his death. The other ending, had he not died, would have been perfectly happy for both of them….
They need to save that girl, and it’s unapologetically comic-book from start to finish. They find her, wrapped in a carapace of particularly sadistic damned souls who have her participating in a kind of moving tableau. She is a train, and the scene is a horrendous crash that has killed passengers and a cargo of hogs, whose flesh now gives off a smell of cooking as it is ground beneath the spinning wheels. (I’m not kidding.) Vollman manages to communicate with the girl, and the girl’s talk becomes imbued with sex. ‘You might sire do me a service A great service / I know very wel I do not look as pretty as I onseh….’ Whatever, he enters the train and within moments the whole thing goes up in an explosive matterlightblooming as Bevins throws himself to the ground. Vollman and the girl have gone and, following a rather fine one-and-a-half-page paean to the wonderfulness of life, Bevins goes too. ‘Goodbye goodbye good—’
Nobody important is left now. The Bachelors are determined not to move on, another group who spend all the hours they can in orgiastic pleasure aren’t going to give it up now—although they have to spend the daylight hours sharing the same space as the contents of their ‘sick-boxes’—and the racist soldier seems to be locked in a bizarre eternal fight to the (short-term) death with a slave who won’t take orders ever again. But some other former slaves—and Vollman and Bevins for a moment on their way to save the girl—accidentally share Lincoln’s living-space for a moment. It’s always—to a degree I’ve already suggested is slightly overdone—an elevating experience. Vollman and Bevins can see how the President has been able to move beyond his sense of loss, to a new resolution that he must ensure that the bloody war he’s embroiled in will not be in vain. His own sorrow has strengthened his sympathy for all those bereaved families….
And one former slave decides to stay with him. He learns how this man, from a dirt-poor background, has been able to grow up and out of a closed, racist mindset. Now, genuinely, he wants to help the people he grew up in suspicion of, and he wants to move away from his own single sorrow. ‘The gentleman had much on his mind, He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well, and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin.’ But. But but but. He is going to see it out, and this former slave is going to see it out with him. He dozes, finds himself slipping. ‘I resolved nevertheless to stay … and fully rejoined the gentleman. / And we rode forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen.’
Yep, that’s how we should live. Like Abraham Lincoln. The end.