Things get strange when we die, but George Saunders is a very good guide, writes Rosa Lyster for the Sunday Times
Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
Everyone who loves George Saunders felt the same thing when they heard he was publishing a novel: please let this be good. It will not be as good as Tenth of December, because nothing is as good as Tenth of December, but please let this be good.
He inspires this kind of goodwill in people because he is so good and generous himself. It isn’t just that he is brilliant; it’s that he is kind. Saunders’s gift is his ability to imagine himself into the minds of others. He is constantly asking his readers to think about the lives of people they wouldn’t normally think about. He can make the inner life of an obscure teenage nerd seem not only riveting but morally important. A lot of the stories in Tenth of December take as their subject the lives of apparently ordinary people, but Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, focuses on someone so well-known you wouldn’t think there’d be anything left to say.
It’s Saunders, though, so of course he has found something new.
These are the facts: Abraham Lincoln and his wife had four boys, Robert, Eddie, Willie and Tad. The only one who lived past the age of 18 was Robert, the eldest. The Lincolns were deeply affected by the deaths of all their children, but Willie’s death in 1862 (a year into the Civil War) seems to have been the one that broke his father’s heart. Historical accounts depict Willie as an especially loved and lovable child, very close to his father, whom he resembled in many respects. He died at age 11 of typhoid fever, and was interred in a Georgetown cemetery. The first night after the funeral, his father came to visit the grave twice.
I can think of a lot of novelists who would take this information and make a good book out of it. I can’t think of anyone who would do what Saunders did. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a bardo is an intermediate state of existence between death and rebirth, a transitional phase of consciousness. During the bardo of the time of death, souls either ascend toward nirvana or descend gradually and violently into a new body, doomed to start all over again. Saunders, a practising Buddhist, has incorporated aspects of that belief system and fused it with American history.
Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over one night in the cemetery where Willie Lincoln lies. The story is told, mostly, from the perspective of the spirits in the cemetery with him, souls who are trapped in the bardo for one reason or another. Some of them can’t leave, but most of them don’t want to. Moving on means accepting the fact of their deaths, and they can’t do that. They don’t call it a coffin, they call it a sick-box. They don’t call it dead, they call it being less well.
The forms that the spirits take on are informed by their personalities and preoccupations while living, which means that parts of the story are told by things with 1000 eyes, women enclosed by orbs, people without hands or feet. Willie, being a child, has no reason to linger in such a strange and scary place, but he is held back by his father’s love and devastation at his passing. Everyone knows he shouldn’t be there, but he is.
The above makes the book sound stranger and more difficult than it is. It is a strange book, no getting around it, but it’s also lovely and beautiful and so, so sad.
Saunders is never weird simply for the sake of being weird. He is experimental, but never for show. A clever writer who doesn’t care about seeming clever is a rare thing. Saunders is trying, always, to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, and he uses every creative tool at his disposal to do that. His inventiveness is linked to his humanity — he is weird because he is trying to make us see something we haven’t seen before.
Follow Rosa Lyster @rosalyster