The celebrated American writer George Saunders is known for his darkly satirical caricatures of his homeland. Stylistically and thematically akin to writers like David Foster Wallace and Kurt Vonnegut, he shares their postmodernist fascination with the absurdities of American culture. His first collection of short stories CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) is set in a dystopian hyper-corporate not-so-distant-future America characterised by overconsumption, despair, and bleak outlooks. Perhaps it’s telling that eleven years later, with his long-awaited first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders steps away from the artificially enhanced suburbia of tomorrow and looks to the past in order to explore the state of being between what is and what could have been.
With Lincoln in the Bardo Saunders combines personal tragedy with the fate of an entire nation. The date is 22nd February 1862, and the body of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year old son William has just been laid to rest in a marble crypt in Oak hill cemetery, Georgetown. Far away the Civil War is raging, and the Confederate forces are celebrating their recent success in The Battle of Valverde. The nation is in the process of tearing itself apart. Meanwhile Lincoln is pacing the graveyard, unwilling to leave the body of his boy, and unsure what to do about the war. He doesn’t see it, but he is surrounded by the restless spirits of dead.
While History (with a capital H) is constantly present in the background of Lincoln in the Bardo, it pointedly happens off-center. The actions of great men are momentarily forgotten, drowned out by a multitude of voices incessantly speaking of individual pain from an otherworldly space between life and death. In Tibetan Buddhism, Bardo is a plane populated by spirits who are either ascending towards Nirvana or falling backwards through increasingly frightening hallucinations until they are ready to be reborn. In Saunders’ interpretation of the afterlife, he combines Bardo with something of Dante’s Inferno and the Christian idea of Purgatory, and populates it with spirits who are in different ways haunted by their past mistakes and the futures they never had.
Just as in The Divine Comedy, Saunders’ Bardo has become a place of personalised punishment inhabited by people from all layers of society. Misshapen by their attempts to cling on, they have become tragicomic manifestations of their unfinished business. There’s the middle-aged printer, who died before he could consummate his happy marriage to younger bride, and is walking around in the afterlife sporting a constant, abnormally enlarged erection. There’s the young homosexual who killed himself before he really got to live, and has sprouted ears, noses and eyes all over his body. There’s the priest who has figured out that he is dead, and whose face is permanently stuck copying Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). Sometimes the damned speak British (apparently, they always did, so it’s not part of the punishment). Sometimes they used to be slave-owners and insistently still try to lord over the spirits of former slaves, suggesting that the border between life and death is sometimes easier to cross than the walls people put up between each other. Usually they have regrets, though sometimes they have no regrets at all, as expressed by one annoyed murderer to another: “Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find Elmer so irritating? I did not. But there I was.”
All in all, in their diversity and flawed humanity, the restless spirits of Oak Hill Cemetery can be understood to represent the American people. Not as a unified whole, but as a collection of individuals each with their own motivations and anxieties. The elegance of Saunders’ writing is that he manages to include it all: the dirty, the ridiculous, and the heart-breaking, and make it funny but also kind. As a connection between the individual tragedy of personal loss and the common destiny of mankind, Saunders posits a fragile idea of salvation.
One cannot really discuss Lincoln in the Bardo without highlighting the style in which it is written. Narration is shared between the great number of spirit characters in the form of a polyphonous collection of memories and ongoing report which flows back and forth between them, occasionally interrupted by quotes from history books and memoirs, some real, some faked. To get the full experience, the reader may consider listening to the seven-hour audio adaption of Lincoln in the Bardo – the cast consists of no less than 166 individual voice actors. Here the spirit of willie lincoln narrating how he’s been visited by hallucinations:
“Mother came About ten of her But none smelled the least like Mother Say, what is the trick To send a lonesome fellow ten false mothers
Come with us, Willie, one Mother said
But then All of a sudden They did smell right Very right And cuddled in around me smelling right
Mother My goodness Good old
You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore, said a second Mother
Dear Willie, said a third
Dear dear Willie, said a fourth
And all of those Mothers loved me so and wanted me to go with and said they would take me home as soon as I was ready.”
Saunders has his characters narrate the story as part of an ongoing, constantly changing conversation which transforms back and forth between dialogue and monologue, and which mixes the current time of action with vivid memories. The form borrows stylistically from a Samuel Beckettian and James Joycean stream of consciousness – a mode of narration that performs characters’ thoughts and feelings as a continuous flow, undistracted by normative expectations of form. Beckett’s Play (1963), which also takes place in an underworld type setting, especially echoes in Saunders’ spirit voices.
In Lincoln in the Bardo, Politics, War, and History are ever-present in the corner of the reader’s eye. However, as demonstrated by the spirit narrators, the dominating theme lies with so-called smaller things. Things known privately by each lonely soul and common to all humankind. The story is told by the voices of individuals who were never all that important in the great scheme of things. In their lives they were workers, mothers, slaves, or soldiers with names that won’t be found in any history books. Even their names are written all in small letters. But in their (after)lives, they are the main characters. As they are also the narrators, with each of them the story gains a new focus. In the Bardo, they’ve lost contact with their humanity – they’ve become misshapen monsters carrying the weight of their sorrows in their flesh. But as one spirit says, “We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.”
Although Lincoln in the Bardo is narrated with a focus on thought over action, it does have a plot. The spirit of little willie must be saved before it is forever lost to the hellish illusions of the truly damned. With an actual task at hand, the spirits of Bardo make the discovery that some things are important even when all seems lost, and as they struggle to save the innocent willie, they teach each other empathy. Empathy, it appears, is the way to salvation, and with it many of the spirits move on – to Nirvana, Heaven, rebirth, or just off the page – we can’t tell. Once they’ve dared open their hearts, to listen instead of speaking, they can move forward.
Without spoiling the ending completely, it can be revealed that as Lincoln rests in the place of the not-quite-dead, they do manage to influence him ever so slightly and significantly, and though he is there for his son, he leaves with something else too, leading to the eventual abolishment of slavery. Read in line with Saunders’ earlier works, which tend towards fear for the future, Lincoln in the Bardo becomes a glance backwards to the America that was, as well as a consideration of what could have been, and maybe – possibly – could still be.
It can be argued that postmodernity in general has a problem with sincerity. Representations of ideals like love, friendship, honesty, and humanity often go through an ironic distancing machine. However, while Saunders is certainly sarcastic, he also dares to be authentically positive. A declared liberal, in 2016 he attended a Trump rally trying to understand the motivations of the other side. In the resulting article, he describes an America that has become split into “two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down.” The issues in America anno 2016/17 are eerily similar to those of the Civil War of 1861-1865: it’s about money and fear of the Other, or, more plainly, racism. To Saunders, neither side is entirely bad:
“LeftLand and RightLand are housemates who are no longer on speaking terms. And then the house is set on fire. By Donald Trump. Good people from both subnations gape at one another through the smoke.”
By trying to understand rather than simply defeat the opponents, Saunders suggests that seeing individuals instead of a formless mass of enemies is the way to overcome the fear and hatred that is threatening divided Americans. It’s essentially this idea that is repeated in Lincoln in the Bardo. Towards the very end of the book, after many of the spirits have departed their earthly prisons, the spirit of an abusive slave-owner and the spirit of a former slave remain. Too angry to move on, they are locked in a fight that the narrators-at-the-time suggest may well last into an eternity “unless some fundamental and unimaginable alteration of reality should occur.” If there is a gentle morale to the story it seems to be that History is made by little human acts of kindness, forgiveness, and understanding – and, perhaps, that it’s never too late to care. It’s a surprisingly soft and pastel-coloured conclusion to draw from the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and In Persuasion Nation (2006), but then, it is taken from the past dreams of an unattainable future.
 George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, (London: Bloomsbury, 2017): 269
 Ibid. 97-98
 Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo: 70
 George Saunders, “Who are All These Trump Supporters? At the candidate’s rallies, a new understanding of America emerges”, The New Yorker,11&18 July, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/george-saunders-goes-to-trump-rallies
 Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo: 321