Lincoln in the Bardo—George Saunders

[I am reading the novel in four sections. I write about each section before reading on, so I don’t know how any of it will turn out. So far I have read two sections, i.e. all of Part 1.]

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 We like stories that confirm what we know about the past—or we adjust our view of historical documents according to their authorship.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.

25 November

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.

ime to read on.