From Virginia to Tennessee, from east to west and from north to south, war was raging. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln had said – and the biblical prediction had been proved right. From 1861 to 1865 the United States were the divided states, riven by a war whose horror has not faded. But in February 1862 death came to Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s door when their 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever. The couple were no stranger to grief; their son Edward had died at the age of three in 1850, not long before Willie was born. But Willie was the Lincolns’ blue-eyed boy, their darling. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was Mary’s seamstress and friend, left an account of the president’s grief. “I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder,” she wrote. “His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.”
Keckley’s words can be found threaded through George Saunders’s astonishing first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders is a literary hero in his native land – this novel went straight to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list – but until now he had published only short stories by way of fiction. Consequently, his name is less well known in Britain, even though his last book, The Tenth of December, won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2014. British readers may have come across his commencement speech to Syracuse University’s graduating class of 2013, a viral hit online that was published the following year as Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. But as far back as his debut in 1996, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders’s unusual sensibility has been apparent: a blend of humour and serious intent so finely balanced as to seem almost a magic trick. Although much of that first book was set in the not-too-distant future, it is clear from the title alone that the cataclysm of a riven nation was already on his mind. And that collection, like this novel, is populated not only by the living, but by the dead.
In Lincoln in the Bardo, little Willie Lincoln dies; but that is just the beginning of the story. He is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, where the president, alone, repeatedly visits the still body of his beloved son. There the spirits who inhabit the cemetery, and whose polyphonic chorus powers this beautiful book, encounter Lincoln the living man: his presence forces them to confront the fact of their own deaths. So the division of the country, the division between slave and free, is mirrored in a division between this world and the next. The novel’s speaking voices are punctuated with historical description, some authentic, some invented, all perfectly judged.
Saunders gives readers two central narrators for his tale, which is structured more like a play than like a novel. Hans Vollman was a printer who remarried late in life and found more happiness than he might ever have dreamt of – happiness stolen from him when a heavy beam fell from the ceiling of his shop, cracking his skull and killing him. Roger Bevins III was a young man who fell in love with another young man, but the object of his love vowed to “live correctly”, and so Bevins slit his wrists; that he regretted the action the instant he performed it could not save him from the grave.
Neither Vollman nor Bevins is quite aware of being dead. One of the wonders of this novel is its characters’ expressions for their own state. After his accident, Vollman finds himself confined to a “sick-box”, not a coffin. Young Willie is sent not to a tomb but to a “white stone home”: the simple rhythm of these three words is like a chant running through the book. It is the task of Vollman and Bevins to help Willie – bewildered by his situation – escape from the cemetery. The spirits of children, we come to understand, do not belong in this place: “These young ones are not meant to tarry,” Bevins says. But it seems that Abraham Lincoln’s visits to the cemetery, and the power of his love, keep both himself and the boy in a bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist term signifying a transitional state. A third voice, that of the Reverend Everly Thomas, has a greater understanding of what his situation, and that of his fellows, might be; his knowledge is frightening rather than consoling.
As befits its sombre subject, this is a moving and deeply felt book. Its speaking spectres are haunted not only by their severance from their former lives but by what they suffered in those lives. Like Marley’s ghost, they wear the chains they forged in life.
One of the most remarkable feats of the novel is that no character, however briefly he or she may speak, feels extraneous: not Jane Ellis, whose marriage was bitterly unhappy: not Mrs Francis Hodge, who, kept as a slave in her lifetime, tried to be a friend to Litzie Wright, a young woman so brutalised by her rapists that she is rendered utterly silent, her speech a sequence of asterisks. And yet, somehow, there is always humour in this novel, as Saunders creates an invisible universe that is both terrible and wonderful. Vollman, whose life was cut short before his marriage was consummated, manifests as a man with an enormous “member” that is forever getting in his way; Bevins, in telling the awful story of his suicide, grows extra eyes and noses and hands, so that his body “all but vanished”. And, more than humour, there is that quality that Saunders has already told us he prizes so highly: kindness.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his portrait of America’s 16th president. It takes courage to reimagine so venerable a figure as Lincoln: but here his voice rings clear and true. We hear it when the spirits – Vollman, Bevins, the president’s departed boy – enter his body and so experience his thoughts, translating them for the reader. We hear how his love for Willie, his solitary sorrow, comes to bear on his thoughts about the war he must prosecute, the sorrow he must inflict on others:
Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?
These are urgent questions for any age, no matter what is going on in the world. Laura Miller, the excellent critic for the American online magazine Slate, has taken issue with Saunders for turning to historical fiction at a time when our best novelists ought to be addressing the peculiar and worrying times in which we live. “The timing on this thing is really, really bad,” she wrote, describing the book as a “melancholy, inward-looking, often lovely and moving but fundamentally private novel” and the author’s most “gently accessible work”: this last has the sound of faint praise. Granted, some novelists are busy scribbling away to address our political and cultural problems head on, most notably Howard Jacobson, whose novella Pussy (no prizes for guessing how he chose the title) will be published next month. Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, to be published in September, will feature “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair”, according to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape. Ali Smith’s Autumn, published late last year, was hailed as the first “post-Brexit” novel.
With no disrespect to those fine authors, not every novel written (or published) in the heat of the moment endures; not every enduring novel must stare directly at the sun. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the past, but its portrait of a violently divided nation, in which even the dead are discriminated against because of their race or social status, offers little reassurance. Abraham Lincoln’s need to steel himself for the task ahead, so powerfully realised by Saunders, will resonate with readers, if they, too, are willing to steel themselves for what lies ahead.
Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.
Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.
He would lead the rabble in managing.
The thing would be won.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a great novel; a human cry for action – and compassion.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury (343pp, £18.99)
Erica Wagner will be in conversation with George Saunders in a free Goldsmiths Prize/New Statesman event at Goldsmiths University, London SE14, on 15 March: newstatesman.com/events
Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo, featuring Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and George Saunders (Audible)
This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda