Lincoln in the Bardo

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Read 12/12/2017-22/12/2017

Rating: 3 stars

I went into this novel blind. I’ve heard of George Saunders. He features in Nick Offerman’s book Gumption. He’s someone I’ve been meaning to read but never got round to. Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Booker Prize. It was on the shelf in the library last time I went in to change my books, and someone had recently told me I should read it.

The same someone told me that Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange book, boring for long stretches then, just as you’re about to give up on it, something interesting happens that hooks you back in. They also told me that it was kind of like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but not.

It’s certainly a strange book. There are underworld elements to it that resemble Lost Hope in Suzanna Clarke’s novel, in the way they explore the thin wall that separates the living from the dead. The structure is the strangest thing about it. The narrative form is more play than novel, with characters making pronouncements as though they’re in a Greek tragedy, or incidental characters in Shakespeare whose conversation moves the plot along, or the random assortment of nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters that Alice encounters in Wonderland. The mid-19th century mannerisms of speech put me in mind of Dickens. Quite often the voice in my head was that of working class London in the 1840s, before I remembered that the setting is a cemetery in US Civil War era Washington DC.

I liked the range of voices present in the cemetery, and the way they represented the social strata of American life. I enjoyed the candour and ribaldry, as well as the attempts to keep up appearances, to maintain dignity. I was interested by the world Saunders built in this graveyard, particularly the reasons some of the characters clung to their past lives, and the way none of them were able to acknowledge that they were dead. Coffins become sick boxes, mausoleums become sick houses, as though the inhabitants will recover any minute and be back in the land of the living, able to make amends or say the things they didn’t have chance to. It interested me because I no longer believe in an after life. I think that whatever the thing is that we call our spirit or our soul, whatever aspect of our brain and nervous system that enables us to describe ourselves as thinking, feeling creatures, stops when our bodies do. The current cuts, the circuit breaks, we reach the end of our resistance, we burn out. I still enjoy a good ghost story, though. Fables, fairytales, magical realism, the lot.

My favourite passages were those that told of the night of Willie Lincoln’s death, as described by various friends, servants and hangers on present at the party being thrown at the White House, and Saunders’ imaginings of Willie’s resolve to linger in the bardo in order to be there when his father came for him. The scenes in which the grief stricken Abraham Lincoln holds his dead son’s body and mourns his passing, as the spirit of the boy tries to make a physical connection, were also very well written. The historical context, drawn from a mix of real and imagined sources (of the handful I checked, roughly half didn’t exist), played into my love of historical fiction, and acted as bellwether texts for popular contemporary opinion on Lincoln. They did, however, remind me of those Civil War documentaries in which mournful Appalachian music plays over photographs of people with haunted faces while actors read from diaries and letters of the time, intoning the names of the witnesses with sentimental gravity.

The action takes place over a single night. Unable to make peace with his young son’s passing, Lincoln returns to the mausoleum where Willie’s coffin has been placed. Before, during and after this moment of mourning, the various inhabitants of the cemetery give up the stories of their lives and reluctant deaths. Three, Vollman, Bevins and Thomas, act as guides to this limbo and are keen to provide Willie with reasons to move on. An unsettling truth about the souls of the young who don’t pass on to the next stage of death is revealed. Parades of supernatural shape shifters attempt to persuade the weakening dead to leave the bardo behind. If the term bardo is to be taken literally, the next stage of death is reincarnation. But this is a Christian cemetery in a Christian country, so the unspoken assumption is that the next stage of death for these souls is at best purgatory, at worst hell. But this is America, and the majority of people would have been evangelical protestants, so what are they doing in limbo anyway? The mystery of death is that nobody knows what death is, so Saunders is free to make up anything he likes.

Willie has determination. He really believes that he has unfinished business to attend to with his parents. When his father does come to see him, it’s like a glitch has appeared in the matrix of life and death. It’s not supposed to happen. We’re not supposed to permit our rawness to drive us to take up the bodies of the dead and try to commune with them one last time. Not in uptight protestant culture, anyway. Willie’s guides are nonplussed enough to go looking for Abraham Lincoln, who has taken refuge in the cemetery to come to terms with his grief rather than return home to his wife and surviving son.

Saunders’ version of Lincoln is a strange construct. He’s largely portrayed as a kind and gentle man, sympathetic to all, and the great unifier of the American republic. He made me think of the myth of Obama, how much expectation was put onto him as the man to heal America’s divisions of race and gender. The aim of Vollman, Bevins and Thomas is to persuade Lincoln to remain long enough to speak with Willie again. It is Willie’s experience of re-entering his own body as his father holds it, thereby accidentally finding himself partially inside his father’s body too, that persuades them to insert themselves in Lincoln’s body, where they experience Lincoln’s mind and each other’s, and have an orgasm of unity. Saunders has Lincoln experience his son’s death in the context of the deaths of 3000 soldiers in a single battle, and makes him re-evaluate his stance on the necessity of the Civil War as a consequence of his new found understanding of the loss of a life still full of potential. Perhaps he really did. Perhaps he learned from his son’s death, and the deaths of all those soldiers, that suffering in life is inevitable as are difficult decisions, and all we can do is act according to our personal moral code. That’s what Saunders seems to be suggesting about Lincoln.

Lincoln wasn’t a sentimental figure, though, any more than Obama is. He was a politician tasked with abolishing slavery and bringing together two vehemently opposed political factions to form a single nation. The repercussions of Lincoln’s unsentimental use of political power for the greater good are still felt in today’s America. One thing this novel led me to think was that the Civil War for Americans holds a similar mythological place in the collective consciousness that the Second World War does for the English. It flavours everything for a certain type of white person. It’s extended in America, though, to have an ongoing and real impact on the lives of those who aren’t white. The dream that Obama might be able to exercise a politics of sentiment in order to end prejudice and engender unity was a false one. We might hope on the liberal side of the divide for what Jeremy Corbyn calls a kinder politics, but there will always be an opposing side that doesn’t want the same thing. Sometimes we have to engage on their terms in order to make a difference.

On the subject of slavery, Saunders makes glancing reference to the experiences of the black souls interred in a common grave outside the cemetery bounds, as he makes glancing reference to the attitudes of the dead slavers interred within the cemetery. To me, this felt a bit “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” in that it didn’t integrate well with the rest of the plot, should have been handled with a different set of emotions to the awkward guilt of a white man (however woke) writing about black experience, and, in spite of the subject matter, lacked the appropriate righteous anger it should have conveyed. You can’t discuss the American Civil War without reference to slavery, of course you can’t, but nor can you treat it as incidental backdrop to the story of a man grieving the loss of a child. If it was Saunders’ intention to make this book about more than that, for me, he failed.

There were some funny parts in the novel, such as when Vollman and Bevins realise the passage of time since their deaths, as well as the thought-provoking and disturbing parts, and while I was reading I was certainly immersed. There were moments of dramatic tension as Vollman, Bevins and Thomas try to bring about the spirit/body reunion of child and parent. Over all, though, there was something missing. It was an easy book to put down and not pick up again. Perhaps it was down to my lack of belief that any of what Saunders has invented in it could be a plausible version of reality. Perhaps my political stance is more at odds with the liberal one Saunders represents than I’d realised. Perhaps ineffectual dreaming of a different future gets my goat too much. Perhaps, too, grief and mourning are still too near for me. I recognised Lincoln’s conflict between wanting to carry on loving and fussing and worrying for someone, and accepting they are dead. Perhaps now I find more comfort in the thought that the dead are just that, free from life, no longer troubled by the things that concern the living, than I do from any notion that they might be hanging around somewhere else, waiting for a big reunion. Some people do get comfort from that sort of thought, I get that, and I wouldn’t dream of saying they’re wrong. It’s not the way I think, and that probably made it harder for me to feel wowed by this novel.

I can see why its quirky form won the recognition of the Booker judges. As an intellectual experiment with what you can do with the structure of the novel, it’s clever but not as interesting to me as Ali Smith’s playing with the form. I much preferred the cyclical temporality of Autumn as a structural device and felt there was more in Smith’s book that spoke of humanity and relationship than Saunders put into his. For what it’s worth, I found the plot too confused about what it wanted to be. Saunders needed to either focus down and make more of the interesting parts, or be ambitious and take the surrounding stories to a greater depth.

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