George Saunders is one of the most democratic of great modern writers. His story collections concern disappointed Americans stuck in thankless stations of life, and can be appreciated by such Americans, as the stories are written in satiric, empathetic, tightly coiled prose that sails off the page, propelled by hidden rhythms that are outwardly heartbreaking and inwardly brilliant and vice versa. To paraphrase Ratatouille, the author is implicitly saying that anyone can cook or, in this case, experience the transcendent illumination and sense of understanding and purpose that’s provided by art. (Last summer, Saunders even wrote a stirring and perceptive portrait of Donald J. Trump’s supporters, taking them on their own terms while rejecting said terms, somehow simultaneously.)
Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’s first novel, finds the author going for broke, trying to explode the novel form to dissolve as much as possible the distance separating writer from reader. Saunders mounts a nontraditional historical drama organized around the myths of Abraham Lincoln and his son, Willy, which, like all historical fiction, is truly about the time in which it was produced. Saunders connects the official American Civil War of the 1860s to the unofficial civil war that never ended, pitting the underclasses against one another while the upper echelon has its insidious run of the place. This novel is more demanding and exhausting than anything Saunders has previously written, but there’s something characteristically welcoming about Lincoln in the Bardo, as if Saunders is saying “let’s fly.”
Saunders has always been a distinct and idiosyncratic stylist, but the words in this novel have a particularly oily, electric, tactile quality. To borrow something that Dennis Lim wrote about David Lynch in The Man from Another Place, Saunders believes in the thing-ness of words. He renders commonplace words alien, erotic, dangerous. He mixes poetic repetition with variations of iambic pentameter, creating a syntax in which the syllabic beat is often unexpected and viscerally exhilarating. He blends 19th-century words with contemporary slang, forging a somewhat alternate language of the afterlife or the “bardo” (a Buddhist “intermediate state”), where Willy finds himself after succumbing to what was probably typhoid fever as the Civil War raged. (A coffin is a “sick-box,” a corpse a “sick-form,” while a crypt, most poignantly, is a “white stone home.”) He uses parentheticals and hyphens promiscuously, deliberately informing the writing with a rough, unfinished texture that suggests the self-interrogating, double-checking chaos of thought.
The book is told from the multiple perspectives of the dead, recalling Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Saunders’s ribald and tragic ensemble are the spirits haunting the Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willy was initially interred, and they take turns speaking to us in stanzas that suggest both a poetry collection and a play. (For Saunders, even the use of negative space on the page has emotional resonance, for this critic often found himself simply looking at this book, regarding it as an abstract art object, a visual testament to the alone-ness gripping the characters.) Tellingly, the spirits more often speak about their cohorts than they do themselves, and so we often hear thoughts indirectly, filtered through the experience and baggage of an intermediary. Oak Hill suggests another of Saunders’s metaphorical amusement parks, as well as a crazed party—a microcosm of a society ironically consumed with good manners while eating itself alive.
There’s another audacious gambit here, as Saunders quotes dozens of historical writings about Abraham Lincoln and his family and collaborators, composing entire chapters out of borrowed words, suggesting literature’s equivalent of musical sampling. As in sampling, Saunders repeats himself throughout, stitching together multiple quotations about the same seemingly straightforward observations. Ten sentences in a row, for instance, will appear from differing sources attesting to the handsomeness or ugliness of Lincoln, or to merely the color of his hair. The repetition of these quotations, like the repeating of certain fictional phrases, creates an incantatory effect that communicates obsession, doggedness, and a sense that something is being mined and prodded and chewed until a volcanic nothingness is revealed to reside underneath texture and flourish. This scrapbook structure pokes between the cracks of iconic American history, as Saunders reveals the hot subjective state that predominantly governs society. We can’t agree on Lincoln’s hair, let alone on our legacy of subjugation.
Saunders’s tricks should theoretically cancel themselves out, collapsing into self-conscious clutter, a cacophony of concept and device, but this book’s elements are united by the through line of the author’s yearning to break the strictures of his specific point of view. Saunders makes up words, scrambles words, reinvents grammar so as to expand his vision, stretching his sensory palette to accommodate the emotional realms of powerful men, dying children, and, as Saunders’s fury escalates in the book’s second half, slaves whose corpses are relegated to an anonymous dumping ground, where they find commonality with the poor white trash who was too blinkered by prejudice to understand them in life. Saunders is at war with himself, with one’s inescapable singularity of awareness, as he yearns to capture the Great Emancipator, one of the most famous and mythical of all men, while doing justice to the longings of, say, a deluded housewife so obsessed by money in life as to find herself storing twigs and stones in death.
Saunders’s aim to render the totality of America has a meta parallel in the narrative: The ghosts are eaten up with self-absorption, determined to delay their passing into the next world, which the author posits as a fantastical version of reactionary life. And, like all reactionaries, the ghosts see their cowardice as bravery. Spurred on a tragic seriocomic quest, the spirits challenge themselves, intermingling within a variety of presences living and dead, discovering and savoring a few of the many varieties of need. And Saunders races along with his characters, determined to do his dozens of perspectives justice, erecting a great, dizzying cauldron of bitterness, ultraviolence, cruelty, and compassion that could, at any moment, tip over.
George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is now available from Random House; to purchase it, click here.