Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders has been renowned over the last two decades for his short stories. Since we are running a review of the book by Brent Schnipke in our Lent 2017 magazine, I asked Brett Wiley to write a short reflection that was less review and more setting the novel in the context of his earlier work…
By W. Brett Wiley
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, like many of the stories in earlier collections, creates a strange version of the real world, but, remarkably, it all seems entirely plausible. The novel, Saunders’ first, meets Aristotle’s famous requirement for art: “a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” The impossible is easy to identify. The novel is populated, mostly, by ghosts of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery who, as the title of the novel suggests, are in the bardo, a liminal space between death and rebirth described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The novel opens with three main characters, all ghosts, welcoming Willie Lincoln—the sixteenth president’s second son who died on February 20, 1862—to the afterlife. The historical event of Willie’s death suggests that the book is historical fiction, but it is not. In fact, like many of Saunders’ short stories, the genre is difficult to nail down. Previous stories have taken unusual forms including a lab report, a corporate complaint letter response, a memo, and diary entries.
Lincoln in the Bardo, though, most closely resembles a play. The novel includes a dramatis personae of over one-hundred and fifty characters; when the characters speak, their “lines” include attribution. The plot mainly advances via dialogue, but there are monologues as well and even soliloquies of a sort. For instance, one characters shares his experience of heaven while alone on “stage,” a story he cannot share with his companions. The entire novel is incredibly episodic, with what feel like scenes, and is broken into two parts, or acts, a common model for drama.
It is certainly an unusual set-up. But then, we have come to expect nothing less from Saunders, who has never shied from the bizarre. His four collections of short stories have included narratives that incorporate science fiction elements such as virtual reality machines that download memories, a terrifying episode of home invasion, alternative realities in which humans are used as yard decorations, and fantastical elements like anthropomorphized snack foods. His propensity for the outlandish, however, is not hackneyed. As he has explained in interviews, including strange things is a way of creating energy within a story. The energy created allows him the space to investigate those things that are right in front of us but are often overlooked, issues such as immigration, advertising, and personal discontent. The novel is no different; prevalent in the novel are similarly difficult topics such as the afterlife, war, and mourning.
Saunders, even while incorporating these issues, has always handled his characters with a certain delicateness. Congratulations, by the way, the published version of his now-famous commencement address at Syracuse University in 2013, is best summed up as the author’s entreaty to graduates to be kind or live to regret it. That same plea undergirds so much of his fiction including Lincoln in the Bardo.
Ultimately, though, the novel mainly deals with another question also familiar in Saunders’ work: are things really as they appear to be and how do you know? The stories feature many impossible elements, as do other works such as The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil; things are hardly ever clear. Some of these works function parabolically, others satirically, and so there is work to be done to determine what is true or what is to be done in light of the depictions. There are often answers offered, some of them coming from traditional sources such as religion, but these are often not comforting nor definitive. There is the sense that the confusion that results from a fantastic premise, myriad characters, humorous descriptions, and things unknown is exactly what is needed if only to make us ask the questions and to encourage us to be less dogmatic about how we answer. In this effort, the novel succeeds as Saunders’ earlier works have as well.