George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo is the #1 New York Times Bestseller in Hardcover Fiction. I had access to an advance copy for purposes of the reviews I've been writing for PineStraw Magazine. I was very enamored with Saunders' experimentation and rejection of the novel's traditional form, but couldn't put my feelings into words until a few weeks ago, when a writer for Slate published this piece regarding the new novel. You can read the article here.
I then wrote the following essay—which might be described as a multi-part rebuttal:
A Séance of Spirits: Historicity in
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo
Great American Novels
Slate’s Laura Miller published an article praising the prose of George Saunders' previous work, but ultimately deciding his first foray into the novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is “fundamentally the wrong book for this moment in history.”
The problem with such a statement, to accuse an artist’s work of failing to be timely, is that it begs the following question:
If not now, then when?
If Lincoln in the Bardo is not immediately apparent as a breakout hit, a cultural tent pole, or the kind of zeitgeist we might expect from a storyteller of Saunders’ stature, it would seem this is because it fails to be relevant in our present time of crisis—Donald Trump’s American Dystopia.
Saunders’ debut novel is the story of the lives of Abraham Lincoln, his family—and the afterlife of his third youngest son Willie (who dies early on in the novel).
In a morbid twist that also forms the narrative’s framing device, Willie’s journey does not end with his young life. After his body is deposited in a wall vault, the reader follows as he enters a kind of purgatory—the titular bardo. This locus, existing at a stage between living and the transmigration of the soul, is a concept borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism. While inside this iteration of the bardo, the dead are adjacent to, but completely unbeknownst to the living. Parley with the ghosts encountered there serves to further illustrate that their plight is as much a state of mind as it is being confined to this liminal place.
If you’re confused as to how Saunders could already be well-established as a pioneer of fiction—despite this only being his first stab at the novel—it’s because he is one of those rare storytellers that has made a name for himself almost exclusively through short stories and subsequent anthologies. It would seem the author’s aim was to slowly, but surely master the art of telling a good story, being in no particular hurry to write the Great American Novel.
Perhaps this is why he took so long to go about writing it.
Lincoln in the Bardo not only represents personal growth on the part of the author, it’s exactly the sort of novel dictated by the present political culture in the United States.
Via Miller's article, the term "Saundersian" might be described as "a tiny flame of decency that remains stubbornly lit despite the humiliations and disappointments heaped upon [one]."
Idiosyncratic of Saunders is an aesthetic that might be described as American humble pie. His protagonists are the pitiful, the forlorn, and the self-proclaimed marginalized. From CivilWarLand in Bad Decline to Tenth of December, he effectively plants readers directly in the narrator’s shoes via the first-person perspective.
In Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders proceeds to break a fundamental rule of fiction. In writing a novel, it is generally anticipated that an author will proceed to adopt a singular point of view. Whether this is omniscience or speaking directly from the horses’ mouth—as Saunders is wont to—the narrative is carried solely by this fixed perspective and thus, expected not to be abandoned. This is not just for the sake of consistency, but for the sake of clarity, too.
Saunders has experimented with telling a single tale from multiple points of view in the past. Tenth of December’s “Victory Lap” tells of a ballerina, her kidnapper, and the hapless boy next door who must choose between being a bystander (as his overbearing parents would have him do) or indulging fantasies of heroism. The story is told in parts. Each part permitting the reader a direct window into the thoughts of one of these three characters. The ballerina's monologue is the most entertaining by far—characterized by parentheticals that make the reader physically aware of her ronds de jambes and arabesques. Of course, the despicable kidnapper's misfortune does not escape the reader’s notice when he laments the pain of having his head caved in. The boy, on the other hand, cannot claim that he succeeds in entirely selfless heroism—more an accidental happenstance in which he was in the right place at the right time. His triumph doesn't feel like a victory.
In each of Saunders' short stories, the conflict and ongoing tension takes the form of an ongoing paradigm shift. This might be best described as unexpected destabilization in the viewpoint character’s fundamental assumptions. This is either through an unforeseen development or previously unavailable insight. The meandering internal monologue is peppered with comic relief—satire, maudlin sentimentality, masking what is really at work within—a dialectic.
There is nothing unique in Saunders’ choice of protagonists. Nor is it a laudable feat that he makes readers feel pathos for a character one might not expect to or even care to sympathize with. Plenty of writers can make us weep for kidnappers, deceivers, and senior managers.
The chief characteristic of what might be described as Saundersian is how the author manages to cultivate empathy not just for the first-person narrator through whom the story is experienced, but for other individuals vicariously through them. These are the kidnappers, deceivers, and senior managers that mean this narrator no particular malice, yet would not hesitate to cause said protagonist harm if necessity prevails or (as perhaps in the case of the Milgram experiments in 1961) orders arrive from above dictating obedience to a higher authority.
Readers are charmed not only by Saunders’ dark wit, but at his character’s being smitten with that which is precious and worthy of saving—namely life itself. All their inclinations toward self-pity and tendencies leading them to self-preservation are compromised by their own capacity to feel compassion. Any action toward upward mobility or self-aggrandizing is complicated and eventually thwarted by an underlying belief in fatalism—rationalization of their condition as being somehow deserved—or schadenfreude (thoughts of others in straits far more dire than that of their own).
In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ choice of protagonist is merely an act of misdirection.
Abraham Lincoln has all the makings of a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success story. Born and reared in a log cabin, he has since ascended. His family live in comfort, they have a butler, and Lincoln is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He has come to achieve not only the rank of President of the United States, but also, that of being one of the most key pivotal figures in American history. Thus, at the novel’s outset, it is difficult to imagine what kind of adversity could possibly tarnish the grandeur they live in. What personal tragedy is tangible for the First Family of the United States?
When 11-year-old Willie Lincoln contracts Typhoid Fever (likely due to contamination of the White House’s water supply) the Lincolns are advised not to worry about their son. Even as his condition worsens, they are continually assured by their family doctor that Willie’s health will improve. Despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, the Lincolns trust their doctor’s advice and are sorry for it.
After the tragic death of young Lincoln and his emergence in the bardo, there follows a subsequent fleshing out of the prior existences of the numerous ghosts encountered there. It is this quality of intangibility, unfinished business in the “previous place,” and finally, an inability to cope with the very idea that they have died (and that it is time for them to move on) that forms the basis of much of their torment. The dead refer to the caskets that hold their respective rotting cadavers as “sick-boxes”—a euphemism illustrating this taboo and evidence that they hold out hope that they will somehow be restored to their former physical forms. Saunders’ approach to the tone of each spirit’s woe varies, ranging from sincere depictions of suffering to the downright facetious—not entirely unlike the macabre BEETLEJUICE (1988).
Because Miller’s article gives a really diligent summary of the characters, there is no need to list them. Little else need be said save that each of these stranded souls has a story to tell—individual, satirical Sisyphean subplots that define their malingering existence in limbo. While entertaining, their overall purpose in the novel is to act as mouthpieces—to describe what they see, hear, and feel as they are moved by the act of love when the bereaved Abraham Lincoln visits his son’s grave.
The death of Willie Lincoln was not only a tragedy for the family and the Union, it further torments the mind and morale of President Lincoln (who was more than often a melancholic man). Guilt pervades the President. He sinks deeply into despondency. Willie, beyond the veil and seeing his father in this state, begins to come unraveled.
Despite many of the ghosts having lead lives far more tragic than that of Willie’s all gather around him with pity when the anxiety of separation and abandonment takes hold. Children do not fare well to “tarry” in the bardo being far more susceptible to metamorphoses—horrific ones. It is Willie Lincoln then—at times resembling the child sage of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and at others no different than any other child raised in privilege and prosperity (believing the world revolves around them)—that this exaggerated sympathy is projected on. It is the ghost’s collective idealization of Willie Lincoln—his becoming the projection of all their hopes and dreams of these unhappy souls that may grant them the potential for transcendence from the bardo.
Lincoln in the Bardo, then, is a venture as a novel, as Saunders chooses not just one first-person narrator, but as many as he can possibly fit. His novel is a spiritual medium—haunted by voices.
The prose is told in anecdotes and reads like a play—blurring the line between fiction and drama. In the resulting chimerical form, being composed of a play's dialogue minus the stage direction, Saunders derives his story’s diegetic form. Details, even when described in flowery language are told to the audience by a disembodied voice. The audience knows who is speaking from the character’s name centered and attributed to beneath the aforesaid dialogue. “Telling” is occurring, even when “showing” is being feigned. For this reason, it feels less like Saunders wrote a novel, and more as though he is performing a séance—summoning up the spirits of the dead that they may literally speak for themselves. Saunders' success at conveying a whole host of voices is due to his ear for dialogue—the vagaries and fluctuations comprising of the individual ghosts. All of these have been cleverly and carefully arranged so as to illustrate the setting.
A Very Divided Nation
Lincoln in the Bardo naturally reflects the nation's current state of affairs, though it might not be immediately obvious.
At present, at least half of the country is still aghast, bitter with resentment, and afraid for tomorrow. Many feel betrayed and rightfully so. Hillary Clinton was not only projected to win, she also won the popular vote. She has the honor of out-distancing Trump by almost 2.9 million votes. Yet, here we are. A month into Trump’s Presidency with the mogul-appointed-executive-officer claiming that he and he alone speaks for the vox populi—purporting the persona of being the people's millionaire.
It was an embarrassing election. All throughout the campaigning there was talk of voting for the lesser of two evils. It seemed the general consensus was in agreement on Clinton as the preferable one. Even Republicans seemed to understand this, though not until following the coming to light of comments exchanged between Billy Bush and Donald Trump. What is utterly astounding is that, given that soundbite, and an abundance of other sordid boons for his opponent, a portion of this country decided that Trump was the more trustworthy candidate. It’s concerning, to say the least.
Whether you live in a red or blue state, either your neighbors, your electors, or your representatives have betrayed you somehow. They’ve voted for the enemy. Now, what is to be done?
In Trump’s own words:
“I think one of the reasons I won the election is we have a very, very divided nation. Very divided. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to do something about that. And, you know, it was something that was very important to me.”
Trump's persistent attempts to disassemble and divide the people of this country, despite his insistence on the contrary, are precisely why the setting of Lincoln in the Bardo is relevant.
There is another period in history in which an election had rendered this nation so bitterly irreconcilable, it tore the land asunder. This faultline separated North from South, pitting brother against brother. You may have heard of it. I’m talking of the Civil War. Depending on where you grew up and learned your American History, different parts of the country use different names for the same respective battles. Even in parts of the South today, the war isn’t referred to as “Civil,” but is known as the "War of Northern Aggression."
The Civil War is often cited as tearing families apart. Look around you at your own holiday get-togethers and tell me this election hasn’t revealed some kind of ugly truth. About your parents. About your coworkers. About what depths the Republican Party will stoop to—and strange bedfellows it will make in order to win.
Though Lincoln the Bardo begins a little earlier chronologically, the first significant event with a pin-pointed date is the night of February 5, 1862. It’s the night that the Lincolns host a gala at the White House—the Grand Presidential Party. The party is meant to represent not just a display of American opulence, but also to stand as a symbol of the Union’s stability—in a time when it is anything but.
The war between the Union and the Confederacy had almost reached just a few months short of an entire year. A year since the unexpectedly brutal skirmishes that beget an all-out war. It is the Lincoln administration’s intention not to show weakness. To give the appearance that even if some battles had been lost, the war will be won and the State of the Union preserved. As Trump might put it, functioning with the efficiency of a “finely-tuned machine.”
Upstairs, as young Willie lolls in bed, the Lincolns put on a full-scale show—sparing no expense—if only in spite of the South.
Willie’s condition does not improve. He dies on February 20, 1862. His death is not only tragic, it is absurd. Despite the fact his parents were assured he would make a full recovery, in retrospect, it’s hard to look beyond the fact that for the sake of keeping up appearances, the Lincolns threw a party downstairs while their son lay on his death bed.
Things would not get better from here. There would be four more bleak years of fighting (the war lasted from April 12, 1861, to May 9, 1865) before Robert E. Lee surrenders following the massacre at Gettysburg. Abraham Lincoln makes his subsequent address.
Look at the red and blue states and you’ll find that certain divisions don’t really change. Certain trends persisted in this election—North vs. South is one. To say the South is responsible for the election of Trump, however, is also an oversimplification. Regardless, it reminds us that despite the things that change, many systematic overarching trends remain.
Saunders’ novel and its crisis is both a reflection and reminder of the perpetual fractious nature of this country. It does not merely imply that under a Trump Presidency, we have once again reached a point in which the State of the Union is very fragile, but that it has always been this way. This delicate balance is why Trump is (and should be) just as afraid of us as we are of him.
The reader will recall that Laura Miller’s aforementioned article surmised Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo of being “fundamentally the wrong book for this moment in history.” For Miller, this is because, Lincoln in a Bardo is an attempt by the author to be too accessible, to write something more mainstream, whereas “reality has abruptly caught up to his darkest visions [in his short stories].” This would seem a point where an agreement can be met, whether you describe the present scenario as being wrought by Saunders or Kafka, the daily lives of the American people are nightmarish—clogged with an embolism of announcements regarding Trump’s plans, policies and faux-pas—both domestic and abroad. That which was once only speculative has arrived.
Whether employed at oddly themed amusement/re-enactment parks or cooperating in and experiencing unethical experiments in the penal system, George Saunders' characters inhabit the American Dystopia. The setting is usually the present or near-future. This affords him considerable leeway to invent and hypothesize by bending genre into what might be described as speculative fiction.
In an era of that which said Dystopia has arrived, how is it poignant to write more fiction about it? Miller suggests instead that it would be more timely and appropriate if Saunders’ first novel had been something more akin to an “inner monologue of Sean Spicer, under orders to parrot and defend the manifest falsehoods embraced by his delusional boss as he stands squirming like a bug under the gaze the nation’s press.” How would that represent progress on the author's part? What else is there to explore?
What of nostalgia? Yearning for yesteryears? Days of yore?
In any period piece, there are bound to be inaccuracies—liberties taken in the dialogue, set design, and more than often, copious instances of historical revisionism. This is most obvious in film throughout the decades—just look at the costuming. For every translation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to the language of the screen, you’ll find a different interpretation of Regency fashion. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) and CABARET (1972) speak as much on behalf of the counterculture in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as they do to their own evocative settings in time and space. Likewise, is the case of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s celebrated Hamilton (whose eponymous figure is, unfortunately, the very one responsible for the establishment of the electoral college system that has granted Donald Trump the presidency). There must be a reason we are collectively drawn again and again by makeshift time travel to recreate the past. Perhaps it really is, as some say, a kind of soothsaying by which we attempt to understand our present. Consider Trump’s present condemnation and attempts to delegitimize the media—and similar steps dictators have taken before embarking on enforced censorship.
Curiously, it is oft-forgotten that Lincoln himself was also a republican. Even republicans forget this, except, of course, when they want to come up with some hackneyed argument for why they aren’t racist. Yes, it’s easy to praise Lincoln for his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but he wasn’t a perfect president. His suspension of the writ of habeas corpus—the necessity of producing a person before a court and providing them with a fair trial before proceeding with detainment and sentencing—was not only unconstitutional but virtually the action of a tyrant.
An author is someone who claims authorship.
A biographer sets out with the premise that they are, as an author, an authority on a certain subject. That subject being a life. A life that is not their own.
In writing a biography or any piece of historical fiction, there was an obvious concern for Saunders—validity. A lot of books have been written about Lincoln. Is any single biography more factually accurate than another? The act of choosing one story might also be seen as an act of exclusion—a negligence of other sources.
When faced with the problem of weeding through sources, is it possible to, in turn, produce a work of historical fiction that is completely airtight? Free from inaccuracy? Historians have sought to separate fact from fiction, but what happens when there are concurrent and conflicting accounts of the same event? Can any primary source be verified as completely uncompromised?
One particularly grueling mirthful scene (in the exceedingly brief Chapter V) depicting the details of the night sky visible during the gala Grand Presidential Ball. In this chapter, the moon alone is described a total of twelve times—from twelve different sources.
Sometimes the night is moonless. Sometimes it is full. Sometimes the moon is a crescent. Sometimes it is obscured by clouds.
In each and every apparition (or lack thereof) the moon is recalled in an entirely different way. It is clear that in consulting numerous sources and authorities regarding the life of Honest Abe, Saunders encountered many anecdotes of which contradicted one another. In summary of the plethora of texts Saunders encountered he says “[they] had the effect of destabilizing my view of history, underscoring the notion that any history is just a selective sampling, and that reality is always eluding our attempts to reduce it.”
It is here, specifically, where wise readers begin to realize what kind of game Saunders is playing. He has collected all the facts that he conceivably could and now displays his deck before the reader as a kind of parody played both on the ideas of plagiarism and credibility. Saunders isn’t telling lies. His sleight of hand is arranging truths instead. He presents them next to one another without comment (except perhaps for the ways they comment when juxtaposed with each other).
Of course, when there is a figure so pervasive and ubiquitous as Abraham Lincoln there are bound to be some conflicting stories.
Of interest are the folk myths, allegories, and origin stories that have sprung up around historical figures—George Washington and the cherry tree, Napoleon and the snowball fight, or perhaps the story of Andrew Jackson’s scar. These are stories often found in abridged biographies of famous persons written intended for children. They cannot be disproved, but as “truths” they act as necessary cultural touchstones encountered on school shelves. At least one of these is supposedly true, but can the other two be called outright lies? Speaking of bardos, how many different tales are there referring to the character of Buddha?
Thus these American myths serve their function—telling morality tales about dead white men that society deems worthy of worship—figures frozen in time, yet depicted and circulated on our society’s currency.
Relics and Props
The most commendable facet of Saunders' novel, by far, is its complete vivisection of historicity.
What is historicity?
It was described in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (another timely adaption), as “when a thing has history in it.” In the novel, a collector of memorabilia and Americana produces two Zippo lighters. One of these purported to have belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Placing each side by side he says, “One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object has ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?”
The short answer is no.
A very careful forgery and the original are effectively and for all practical purposes indistinguishable.
Both are commodities capable of serving their intended function. There is no gulf between the two objects that cannot be bridged—replicated and artificially aged down to the slightest detail. In the aforementioned example, Roosevelt’s Zippo lighter acts as a synecdoche—a storytelling device. A part meant to represent or merely suggest that which cannot be seen and may not even exist. Like the folders containing blank pages piled beneath Trump’s podium during his press conference on January 11th (supposedly papers meant to convince viewers he had transferred control over his various businesses to his heirs), it acts as a prop.
It is harnessed in the same way a relic or shroud of a saint might be exhibited or toured around to confirm their existence. It is adherents to said faith that carry the numinous presence ascribed to the sacred artifact inside of them. Authenticity, thus, becomes a construct formed on the flimsy idea of trust and hearsay. Given a few key details, a viewer will merely fill in the blanks. The same might be said of history itself.
Produce two different books on Abraham Lincoln. Compare and contrast them side by side. If two accounts can describe exactly the same event differently, there is an obvious problem. Which account can be said to have historicity—historical accuracy? Could it be said that neither of them do?
Throughout Donald Trump's campaign, the media attempted to report on his blusters simply by quoting his own words back to him. They rarely need be taken out of context. The game so far was to catch Trump in a lie he couldn’t back out of. He gives them the very ammunition by which they use against him—fanning their flames. So far, it hasn’t been working. In fact, it seems this approach has failed considering that he is now the Chief Executive Officer of the United States.
Now we have moved into Trump’s America. We’ve been so conditioned as a whole to mistrust the media (or to trust exclusively a favored outlet of the media), that fact and fiction can no longer be distinguished.
Kellyanne Conway, former campaign manager and now counselor to the president, recently coined the term “alternative facts.” She publicly acknowledged that there are some which are favorable to the administration she serves and others that she would prefer to be suppressed. This tactic of sidestepping is gaslighting on a national scale. It was only confirmed when Trump tweeted, "Any negative polls are fake news" with regards to the executive order travel ban he signed regarding seven predominantly Muslim nations. The very idea that all negative opinions of his actions are characterized as fake news suggests we are living in a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes parable. A world where there is not truth, but truth(s).
It is Saunders then who has written a tale for the present era, by writing a piece about the past. While this idea has finally permeated the mainstream, it appears we have been living in an age of contradictions, for quite some time.
If you go into a bookstore and hear a faint, ghoulish barely perceptible laughter, it might be a copy of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.
That book is laughing at the biography section that it's not permitted to comingle with. It’s far too profane, funny, and oddly formatted for the genre anyway. It will probably be shelved in Literary Fiction, but, in that case, it’s laughing at the books around it too. What Saunders has written can't be called Fiction and not have implications for the Nonfiction section.
Is any biography that takes a perspective—asserts a single thesis statement—sufficient or trustworthy? How can anything be argued when there are absolutely no stable grounds by and which subsequent arguments might stand? In attempting to reshaped the novel, Saunders may have raised the bar for the very act of writing nonfiction as well.
Saunders refused to pick and choose a single story—and instead decides to include them all. He thus, manages to circumvent the problem of truth entirely. The novel is, as a result, awash with sources—living and dead, historical and hypocritical, biographical and apocryphal, scholarly and fabricated. The latter category consists of a ventriloquism of Abraham Lincoln himself, Willie Lincoln, plus the aforementioned séance of voices from beyond.
It could have been a nonlinear disaster. It could have been a mess of quotations. Instead, Saunders deftly navigates the sheer scale of information he is presented with and manages to shape these into a successful narrative arc.
Whether or not you care about Abraham Lincoln, his dead son, or some war and words that were spoken a century and a half ago, Lincoln in the Bardo is a triumph in the face of the obstinacy of post-truth. It’s historical fiction for an era in which historicity is moot, and alternative facts reign supreme. For this very reason, the novel has achieved a new kind of authenticity—obliterating concrete notions of authorship directly through the act of rejecting its own.