One hardly need have one’s finger on the pulse of the publishing industry to guess that the office of the American presidency will be a popular topic among the books to come out in 2017. Given that the union of the states is now as perilously close to fragmenting as it has been since the Civil War, one may further suppose it likely that Abraham Lincoln’s term will see a marked uptick in interest. But however many volumes devoted to Lincoln may be released or rereleased in the coming months, I can say with absolute certainty none of them will beareven the remotest resemblance to the new novel from George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo.
The story takes as its starting point an historical footnote. In February of 1862, one year into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever and was interred in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington D.C., some two miles from the White House. In the days that followed, the newspapers of the time reported that the grieving President would leave the White House under cover of night to visit the crypt after hours,where he held his son’s body. From that germ, Saunders weaves a visionary tale told by a babel of dead voices from the city’s past, as nightmarish and darkly comic as Saunders’s finest short fiction.
It is notable that, although he is one of the most highly esteemed writers working today, with half a dozen collections under his belt, this book is Saunders’s first foray into the novel form. I hope it is not his last. Lincoln in the Bardo is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Saunders deploys the remarkable inventiveness that characterises all his work and sustains it effortlessly over the course of the unconventional plot. Formally, it modulates between documentary assemblage and a first person choral narrative, the bulk being told through the latter device. This technique of alternating narrators throughout a novel, as codified by Faulkner, has experienced somewhat of a renaissance over the last decade, ever since the translation of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives brought it to renewed prominence that has culminated in Marlon James’s Man Booker win for A Brief History of Seven Killings. Tough acts to follow, but Saunders’s approach resists comparison to those works. The voices that take turns to tell his story are those of the unquiet souls interred in Willie Lincoln’s corner of Oak Hill Cemetery. They converse amongst themselves, rehearse the tales of their lives, and relate the events surrounding Willie’s admittance to their midst. There is a resemblance here to the third act of Our Town, or perhaps to a Greek chorus, especially at moments when the exchanges become so short that the narration lapses into something like a play text, but again, it’s effects are quite different to these. Its execution is inimitably Saunders.
In his afterlife, an idiosyncratic take on the Tibetan Buddhist concept of ‘bardo’, the dead manifest as grotesque caricatures of their living selves, persisting on earth in a perpetual state of denial of the fact that they are dead. Their collective delusion is precariously preserved, since they are compelled to return by day to their decomposing corpses in their coffins, which they refer to as their “sick boxes”. Some bicker constantly, others act out half-forgotten conflicts. Others still develop such co-dependencies to reinforce their fading sense of selfhood that they become almost one mind, finishing one another’s sentences or sharing thoughts. Saunders sounds out the full range of possibilities for this set up. The cemetery scenes are often comedic (in both the modern and Dantesque senses of the word) but they can equally be very moving, as in the episode towards the end of the book’s first part when the three main ghost narrators begin to apprehend the passing of time that has taken place unnoticed beyond the tether of their graves.
To read Lincoln in the Bardo is to be caught in a complex rhythm in which oneness of mind and the proliferation of perspectives are juxtaposed, collapsing the dichotomy between unity and plurality. This is at work as much in the graveyard sequences as in the collages of documentary sources that alternate with them, which Saunders uses to furnish us with the historical background. As remarkable as the depiction of Saunders’s limbo is, it is in these compositions of snippets from supposed history books and eyewitness testimonies that we may appreciate the superfine brushwork of his prose. His command of voice is so consummate that it becomes sometimes possible to distinguish between the academic styles of his most quoted faux historians before reaching the attributions. He breathes life into minor characters like Strumphort, the White House butler, in the space of perhaps one hundred words. Tiny details – four sentences from an essay on the death of child, for instance – are exquisitely worked. This is rare artistry.
To pick only one extraordinary passage among many, Saunders at one point uses the assemblage to render a description of Abraham Lincoln (pp. 196-201). The first two pages are given over to Lincoln’s physicality, and, within them, fourteen different quotations (or let us call them “fauxtations”) from thirteen different sources are carefully positioned. The accounts at times simply proceed logically, moving from describing Lincoln’s nose to his eyes, for example, but they as frequently conflict, or aggregate impressions. Sometimes they repeat information already given in a previous fauxtation, or diverge only slightly. It is a chaotic chorus, its frequent dissonances building to an overall harmony from which a strikingly vivid picture emerges.
This novel is a unique experience. For all the surreal exuberance initsbardo, there is nothing alienating about it. Despite the barrage of fauxtations, at no moment does is it slip into sterility or abstruseness. Like all the best experimental fiction, you come for the verbal pyrotechnics, but you stay for the beating human heart of the story. Lincoln in the Bardo is a profound, affecting, humorous meditation on grief and loss that opens an entirely new perspective on what it means to exist in the world. Global events of the past year should have made everyone wary of making predictions for the year coming. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine that there will be a better book published in 2017.
Lincoln in the Bardo will be published by Bloomsbury (UK) and Penguin Random House (US).
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Review by Gareth Dickson
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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Long Gaze Back‘.
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