Ghosts in the Machine: A Review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo

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The brilliant novel by George Saunders is about memory and pain and the ghosts that make us who we are, as people, and as a nation. It is a novel that is stunningly important for the now. 

(Contains vague spoilers, but nothing that will diminish enjoyment)

Probably the only negative review (and negative here is relative) I’ve seen of George Saunders’s first novel, the moving and terror-filled and ultimately hopeful Lincoln in the Bardo, came from Laura Miller, at Slate. She called it “fundamentally the wrong book for this moment in history.” And at first, it is easy to see why.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place firmly in the past, over the course of one night in 1862 (with some flashbacks, mostly told first “person”). It isn’t an allegory, though to say it is historical fiction is stretching the term past the breaking point. But I can see why Miller would have wished that the first novel from the contemporary master of short stories would be, well, contemporary.

There is no one better than Saunders at catching the weird and hazy disconnect of our time: the way the distortion of language and expectation through media and technology alters our perceptions of ourselves, our lives, and our place in the world. So given the rise of the worst avatar of our degraded time, I can see why Miller wished he had captured our perilous times (she of course knows the book was written before anyone took Trump seriously, but meant it would be nice if he used the full expansion of his gifts to tackle the now).

But I don’t think that is fair. The novel might not be of the moment, but it speaks to us, as a country, and as individuals. It’s about acceptance, but that acceptance isn’t a call for passivity: it is a call to arms. It’s about taking up the mantle of what it means to be a free and engaged people, with all the burdens of history we carry, and all our individual weaknesses, and doing something with them. It’s a ghost story about love, which, really, is all that the mythology of a country really is.

The Long Night of Willie Lincoln

On February 20th, 1862, Willie Lincoln succumbed to typhoid. He was his father’s beloved, and was not yet 12. By all accounts he was a bright and loving child, curious and precocious, but still rambunctious. He’s sweet and kind and doomed.

We don’t see him die, per se. The book is partly composed of “contemporary” accounts, little snippets which tell of his sickness and death, and the world swirling around the Lincolns. Some are real, possibly, and others are fake. But they paint a picture of the world at the time, and the horrible drama around Lincoln, whose world had fallen apart even as the country did the same.

(You also notice that then, as now, no one can agree on basic facts. The moon on the fatal night was full and bright, or a shining sliver, or occluded by clouds. Lincoln’s hair was brown or jet black or going gray, and he was either the ugliest man his contemporaries had seen, or handsome: but the way he was seen depended on the conceptions of the viewer. In that, we’re still very modern).

But the book doesn’t revolve around the living, as such, but the dead. Willie Lincoln is buried, but that is just the beginning. The dead here aren’t dead. They believe they are sick. Our main narrators are three long dead not-ghosts (more on this coming). They all believe they are sick. Coffins, indeed, are “sick-boxes”. There’s a disconnect. They remember the fatal moment, but don’t actually believe in death. And that’s why they are stuck there.

Everyone in the graveyard believes that they will be getting better, and they know that if they accept….something, they’ll disappear. They’ll go off somewhere in what Saunders describes as a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. We’re made, through our detached ontologies, to understand that this disappearance is an acceptance of death. But for those in the graveyard, it is giving up on the earth, and on the chance to get back what they have lost, so they resist it every night.

What they have lost defines them. There are three main characters. The Reverend Everly Thomas, who always looks shocked. There is Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who killed himself out of despair, but at the moment of death wished he could take it back. He longs to experience the world, and is prone to wild descriptions of the sensual tastes and smells of everything from the sea to sunsets to spilled spices on a plain table, appears as a riot of mouths and hands and eyes and noses, multiplying as he reimagines what he needs to get back to. And Hans Vollman, who was about to finally consummate his marriage with his young and beautiful bride (whom, out of friendship and tenderness, he let take her time to come around, out of respect for her age), was marked by a split skull from the falling beam that felled him, and an enormous pendulous member, a symbol of his last longings.

All the spirits are similarly marked, and all tell their tales of woe over and over, to the ghosts that know them, and to the new ones, like Willie Lincoln. See, while the not-ghosts consider it cowardice to leave, and cowardly to give up on getting back, that doesn’t apply to children. They should leave this limbo (the “Bardo” is the Buddhist limbo, more or less). Those that don’t are tormented more than the grownups. And it is why the driving force of the book are the narrators trying to convince Willie to leave. But he wants to stay to see his father, who had snuck back into the graveyard to hold his son.

It’s here that we need to step back and look at the depiction of death. I don’t think it is a coincidence that one of the narrators is named Vollman. Indeed, I don’t see how it could be. For this depiction of death seems to owe a lot to the way William Vollman depicts it in novels like The Ice Shirt, and throughout the haunting, terrifying tales in Last Stories and Other Stories. 

In them, there is nothing ethereal or even particularly otherworldly about death. The ghosts can move around, but they are still tied to their bodies. There is no distancing haunt, no wispy spirit. They are grotesque and earthy, they reflect their lives in terrible ways, and there is the air of rot and dirt and grubs and tattered clothes and stringy hair and insects and twigs and crumbled stones among the spirits. There is no distancing grace, no divorce from physical reality. Just a new kind of physicality. The cruel magic of existence has a weight. They are of the earth, not of another place. And that is the biggest torment of them all. They are bound to their deaths, and only barely connected to their lives.

This is important to the plot. Lincoln holds the body of his son, whose spirit begs futilely for attention, and whispers a promise of return. (This is based off a probably apocryphal story that has haunted Saunders for decades). That is why the boy stays, even as the ground starts grabbing his legs with concrete tendrils, horrorshows that intend to torment him for all time. And so the ghosts have to somehow persuade Lincoln to let his son say goodbye, before he is trapped.

I won’t get into what happens. But the stories become crucial. As ghosts “enter” Lincoln, they are made to understand who he is (which helps them understand the passage of time, as well). But he gets bits and pieces too. He hears the stories we have been hearing.

Some of these are stories of slaves, from the mass grave of blacks buried just outside the cemetery.  They are lives completely lost, subsumed to racial hatred. They were unable to live as people, and their ghosts are, rightfully, the most resentful, the most angry, the ones for whom a taste of revenge is what holds them here, or the desire to live one day–just one day–to make choices for oneself. The slave stories–rape and neglect, filled with anger and sadness, filled with the desire to be free, to be treated like men and women–mean something.

And Willie’s death meant something. Lincoln finally sees this death as one of the many thousands and thousands that had happened, even as the war had yet to reach its fullness of slaughter. He accepted responsibility for the nation. He accepted responsibility for what was to come, and what he had to do. He took the country on his broad and gangled shoulders. He took that tormented history, that legacy of failure, those sins and mutations, the great burden of a country that compromised itself since birth. And he forged that into a new nation.

We know this. We know what Lincoln did. We know that he eventually refused to let the prejudices of a nation, and his own weaknesses, stand in the way of doing the right thing. In Saunders’s telling, this took death, and the weight of broken lives, filtering into the “saddest man in the world”, to happen. But we know it did. We know what our finest citizen accomplished. And that’s a message to us.

America may seem broken right now. It may seem like a grotesque nightmare. And it is that. And maybe it is true that we are too big and fractured to function as a democracy. But maybe not. Maybe we can take those legends and make them again into a battle cry of freedom instead of a call to skitter back into fear and revulsion. Maybe the past isn’t keeping us bent and broken. Maybe it can be transformed once again into something good.

While there is hope, this is still a deeply sad, heartbreaking, often terrifying look at loss. At that love which came from nothing, and then was taken away, leaving nowhere for that emotion to go. Saunders beautifully and weepingly captures the terror of how brief our time is, and how fragile our connection is to the things that we love. How it can all be snuffed out, leaving only the spirit of that emotion, which can be distorted and made ugly and bitter. It can keep us chained.

A nation is not a person. But we all have our ghosts, and we all have our terrors. How we respond to them defines us. We are all in the bardo right now. What choices will we make? What will we choose to believe about ourselves?

4 thoughts on “Ghosts in the Machine: A Review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo

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