George Saunders magically splices worlds in ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

“Lincoln in the Bardo” author George Saunders has won MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” author George Saunders has won MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships.

Leave it to George Saunders to look to the past to write a love letter for the future.

“Lincoln in the Bardo,” Saunders’ widely anticipated first novel, ostensibly follows Abraham Lincoln after the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie. But the most compelling characters are the souls who linger “in the bardo,” a Tibetan phrase for the transitional state between death and rebirth.

Saunders’ short stories, which earned the writer MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, have long seemed to dwell in their own bardo between unbridled sentiment and crackling cultural critique. But here, the title feels both practical (imagine the eye-rolling alliteration of “Lincoln in Limbo”) and spiritual.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo can lead to transformative insight and understanding. In Saunders’ novel, we experience much of the same.

The book opens with a Greek chorus of ghosts in Georgetown’s Oak Hill cemetery, where Willie has been recently entombed. Nearly all of the ghosts are in the bardo because of some earthly embarrassment or disappointed hope. Most eventually shuffle off to coils unknown. But the ones who remain have formed a sort of summer camp for the dejected deceased, where once-landed gentry can rub sooty elbows with the church-mouse-poor.

One crucial exception: The black and white residents are separated by an iron fence.

As with any summer camp, we have counselors to teach us the rules. Our de facto narrative guides are two of Oak Hill’s longest lingerers: Hans Vollman, a printer who died tragicomically moments before consummating his marriage, and Roger Bevins III, a romantic young man who slit his wrists after being spurned by a (male) lover.

Vollman and Bevins are suspicious of Willie — “these young ones are not meant to tarry,” Bevins says. But when Lincoln returns to the tomb to cradle his dead son’s body, they are transfixed.

“To be touched so lovingly, so fondly,” Vollman sighs, “as if one were still —”

Still what? Still alive, but none of the graveyard denizens can bring themselves to utter it.

Most refuse to believe they’re dead; Vollman and Bevins simply won’t discuss it, trading in polite euphemism (say, “sick-box” for coffin).

The novel is structured a bit like a play script sans stage directions, and it takes time to settle into an easy rhythm.

Saunders collages several ghosts’ speeches with inner monologues from Lincoln and clipped passages from secondary sources, real and imagined (the names of fake historians are mixed in with well-known writers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Dorothy Kunhardt).

The ping-pong material, particularly from the secondary sources, can be distracting. But the pantheon of confessional voices allows Saunders to play around with different levels of intensity, poetry or abstraction, tuning erratically into new frequencies as if spinning a radio dial.

Several passages glitter with a Joycean joie de vivre. Ghosts’ departures are accompanied by a “bonechilling firesound” and “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” And Bevins relishes how “the wind-scent bore traces of fire, dryweed, rivermuck; the tssking drybrush rattles swelled with a peaking breeze.”

But the novel’s sharpest delight is Saunders’ spasmodic splicing of pop-culture casual and old-world prim.

A watchman ponderously describes how Lincoln “went forth into that stygian dark like pilgrim going forward into a trackless desert,” only to conclude: “it was awful sad.” A trio of stuffed-shirt scholars zooms around the cemetery “making fart noises with their mouths.” Blue jokes about poop and phalluses share space with piercing maxims about animal anger and cavernous grief.

The effect is, as ever, both ludicrous and charming, like wearing overalls with a top hat and tails.

Magically — and this is in many respects a magical book — Saunders never shortchanges sentiment. Music lovers all know the hair-raising pleasure of a suspended, dissonant chord finally resolving into a major key. Saunders achieves something similar here.

Readers patient enough to stick with the fractured chorus are rewarded with a fireworks display of spontaneous feeling all the more acute for the obstacles overcome.

Two quibbles: Those farting bachelor ghosts never quite justify their inclusion. And the perspectives of two former slaves — one consumed by white-hot vengeance, the other by the sweet sting of freedom too late won — are given less space than needed to fuel the book’s final image.

And it is a heavy final image: Lincoln tearing out of the cemetery on horseback, renewing his commitment to the bloody Civil War while the ghost of a former slave rides with(in) him.

But Lincoln himself is more presence than protagonist. “Lincoln in the Bardo” feels curiously contemporary in its attention to small parts and surprising arcs. The resulting novel is doggedly redemptive, but with enough humility to puncture even hardened 21st-century hearts.

“We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe,” Bevins says.

It’s not much of an epitaph, but it’ll do for the living.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders (368 pages; Random House; $28)