Tell them that we work to save a boy, Mr Vollman said. Whose only sin is that he is a child, and the architect of this place has, for reasons we cannot know, deemed that, to be a child and to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here is, in this place, a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo – which has just won the Man Booker Prize – is a large, ambitious narrative – part historical fiction, part supernatural tale – set during the American Civil War, with a huge cast of characters (166 in all) that takes place over night in a cemetery in Washington D.C. where Willie Lincoln, younger son of the President, has been laid to rest following his death from typhoid fever.
The Tibetan Bardo Thodol is known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Lincoln of the title is not Abraham, but Willie, and the bardo is the in-between state between this world and the next, reluctant to move on because he is caught in this realm by the power of his father’s grief. Not moving on, however, for a child, causes problems, as Willie is slowly entangled in monstrous tendrils that sprout from the earth.
It falls, therefore, to the book’s three ‘heroes’ (Hans Vollman, Reverend Everly Thomas and Roger Bevins III) to persuade Willie to go on to the afterlife.
Composed almost entirely of short monologues by the ghostly inhabitants of the cemetery, it reads less like a conventional novel and more like a drama, or perhaps a scrapbook (the monologues are presented in written speech, not spoken speech, and if nothing else, Saunders is an expert at reproducing the written style of the time, right down to censoring curse words).
Saunders’ reputation is as a satirical short story writer, and while Lincoln in the Bardo represents a departure for him in its lyricism and occasional sentimentality, it is also very funny.
Interspersed with the voices are quotes from contemporary accounts of Willie’s death, commentary on the war and on the President’s conduct and appearance (including several that contradict each other, proof that History is perhaps only ever a collection of disparate narratives – some of the supposed historical documents are inventions by Saunders).
It’s a remarkably brisk read, however, because quite a lot happens. It’s an eventful night for the inhabitants of the cemetery, including several instances of “the bone-chilling firesound” and “matterlightblooming” – the moment when a spirit crosses over to the afterlife. The afterlife is much discussed in Lincoln in the Bardo, even though the central conceit of the novel is that the narrators are unaware that they are dead. Their graves are ‘sick-beds’, the rotting corpses within are ‘sick-forms’, and the ghosts spend their time wondering why relatives haven’t stopped by to see if their better.
Death is of course the overarching theme of the novel. The battlefield reports of casualties during the Civil War shook the country, and Saunders’ has taken that nineteenth century obsession with death and run with it. Lincoln in the Bardo is filled with metaphysical speculation on the meaning of life and death.
Willie Lincoln’s sickness and death is described through fragments of contemporary narratives (Lincoln and his wife Mary fretted over the child even as they had to entertain guests at a party at the White House; Mary never recovered from Willie’s death – “Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother.”)
Willie Lincoln (“the sort of child people imagine their children will be, before they have children”) died in February 1862, one year into the Civil War. In fact he was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington on the same day “that the casualty lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted, an event that caused a great shock among the public at the time, the cost in life being unprecedented thus far in the war.”
Contemporary accounts reported that the grief-stricken President visited the crypt where his son was interred several times to hold the boy’s body. When Saunders heard that story, he says he immediately had an image in his mind – “a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta” as he said in an interview with the Guardian.
The visit by Lincoln to the cemetery provides the novel’s emotional core and its dramatic tension, as the ghost of young Willie decides to stay in the in-between world rather than move on (something that is very rare as several of the other voices comment on the fact that children usually move on quickly – “these young ones are not meant to tarry” and when they do there is a “wild-onion stench” that they exude).
There are three principal narrators: Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.
Hans Vollman is a 46-year-old who died in an accident when a beam fell on his head and before he could consummate his marriage to his young wife. He is forever naked, has a massive dent in his head and a massive erection.
Roger Bevins III introduces himself to the reader thus:
“Early in my youth I found I had a certain predilection which, to me, felt quite natural and even wonderful, but to others – my father, mother, brothers, friends, teachers, clergy, grandparents – my predilection did not seem natural or wonderful at all, but perverse and shameful, and hence I suffered: must I deny my predilection, and marry, and doom myself to a certain, shall we say, dearth of fulfilment?” He spends much of the novel in fond and bittersweet recollection of a schoolmate, Gilbert, and committed suicide after Gilbert rejected him in order to “live correctly”.
As Bevins recounts his tale, he grows extra eyes and noses and hands: When Willie Lincoln sees Bevins, he describes “several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive
Little bit scary” (p27)
He describes Hans Vollman as “quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off It bounced as he Body like a dumpling Broad flat nose like a sheep’s” (p28)
The Reverend Everly Thomas joins Bevins and Vollman in an effort to persuade Willie to move on.
In their effort to convince Willie to pass over, Vollman, Bevins and Thomas take Willie to the “dreaded iron fence” (beyond which they cannot travel) to show him Elise Traynor, “trapped against and part of the fence”, a young girl who didn’t want to move on and who is now “manifesting as a sort of horrid blackened furnace” (it’s not clear why some spirits are punished in this manner other than a reluctance to leave, but the novel does contain much horror movie imagery).
Willie would probably move on; however, Abraham Lincoln arrives, and embraces the boy’s body. Willie’s spirit enters Lincoln’s, and he can feel and hear his father’s thoughts. Lincoln’s visit and the touching of the boy’s body in particular, and the subsequent decision by Willie to remain, causes the other inhabitants of the cemetery to come out.
Individuals we had not seen in years walked out, crawled out, stood slyly wringing their hands in delighted incredulity … we were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.
Crowds mill about Willie to ask him how it felt to be held like that. Memories and concerns of their lives fill their thoughts. Saunders’ characters are a varied bunch: society ladies, the rich, the poor, bigots, slaves (the cemetery is of course segregated).
The commotion around Willie presages a visit to the cemetery by angels (or perhaps demons) to bring the spirits to the afterlife; they appear in different forms according to who they appear – as young girls, as former lovers, as relatives, etc, to reveal to the spirits their true reality.
At one moment the angels stepping en masse back into a ray of moonlight to impress me with their collective radiance, I glanced up and saw, spread out around the white stone home, a remarkable tableau of suffering: dozens of us, frozen in misery: cowed, prone, crawling, wincing before the travails of the particularised onslaught each was undergoing.
At one remarkable point among many, Vollman and Bevins enter Lincoln and feel his grief-stricken thoughts:
He is just one.
And the weight of it about to kill me.
Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it … What to do? Call a halt? Toss down the loss-hole those three thousand.
Lord the fellow was low. He was attempting to formulate a goodbye, in some sort of positive spirit, not wishing to enact that final departure in gloom, in case it might be felt, somehow, by the lad (even as he told himself that the lad was now past all feeling); but all within him was sadness, guilt, regret, and he could find little else.
This is not a spoiler, but the novel ends with the voice of a slave, Thomas Havens, who enters Lincoln as the President rides out of the cemetery:
He had no aversion to me, is how I might put it. Or rather, he had once had an aversion, still bore traces of it, but in examining that aversion, pushing it into the light, had somewhat already eroded it. He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened somewhat wider. By sorrow – and by us. By all of us, black and white, who had so recently mass-inhabited him.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a moving, lyrical, beautifully written novel about grief and the acceptance of death, and a remarkable achievement. A worthy Booker winner indeed.