The bardo is a Buddhist concept of a place between the death of the body and the death of the soul where the spirit lingers until it has accepted what must be. Reincarnation, if I understand the concept correctly, then follows.
Lincoln is, if any one person deserves the title, the 'soul' of America. He is not a Jeffersonian deist, Enlightenment intellectual, and wealthy slave-owner like TJ himself, who got along wonderfully with the French and wanted to buy everything he saw there and send it back to Virginia.
Lincoln is a struggling believer, a self-made man, a poor frontier-born American striver, whose mind glimpsed higher things and whose gifts and determination enabled him to immigrate from dirt farmer to the world of power and responsibility.
What a risky business to imagine his suffering soul into a piece of serious fiction, and what a wholly original piece of fiction "Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders proves to be.
In the darkest year of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln appears as one of a relatively few living characters in George Saunders' novel of death, mourning, and resolution, set largely inside the cemetery where his 11-year-old son Willie is interred after a typhoid fever takes his life.
To the loss of a child, and Willie was apparently everybody's favorite little boy, parents are seldom (and never easily) reconciled. Nor are human beings of any age easily reconciled to their own passing.
The author of a number of highly praised collections of short stories, Saunders is clearly not afraid of taking on big subjects in his first novel.
He's also not afraid of inventing a new way to write a novel; or even, perhaps, inventing a new kind of novel.
In February of 1862, the spirits of the departed who have not yet found the will or courage to let go of their former lives discover a new inmate being delivered to their cheerless home inside the cemetery fence, an unusual new arrival because so young.
The inmates of this intermediary zone -- the "bardo" of the title; which may also be seen as a kind purgatory, perhaps, a place of penitential suffering -- whose status also accords with the common, unscientific term 'ghost' are highly interested in new arrivals. Many of them have idled here many years. One of the book's many clever bits is their out of touch dialogue over the identity of the occupant of the White House. They've never heard of this fellow Lincoln, or of the great fraternal conflict that is tearing their former earthly home apart.
Among the distinguishing characteristics of those lingering in the bardo is they don't like thinking of themselves as dead. Comic dialogue arises around this evasion and the reliance on unique euphemisms. Their remains do not dwell in coffins. Rather these are "sick-boxes." The cause of death is rendered as 'the sickness' that sent them here.
Here's a snatch of dialogue between the two central fictional characters, who serve as dual narrators for much of the novel's ghostly action, though they also receive a great deal of assistance from other nowhere-land spirits who force their way into the oddest predicaments, enabled by the advantages of no longer needing to carry around a material form. The two central speakers are a middle-aged man who dies by a freak accident before he can consummate his love for his young bride; and a young man whose unacceptable 'predilection' for other young man leads him to slash his wrists.
Hans Vollman: "A bean from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk.... A sort of sick-box was judged -- was judged to be --"
Roger Bevins iii: "Efficacious."
Vollman: "Efficacious, yes. Thank you, friend."
Bevins: "Always pleasure."
Vollman: "There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish..."
Bevins: "And yet all things must be borne."
These two are an unconscious vaudeville team, endless in their misguided attempts to evade their own -- 'situation' (fate might be the more 'efficacious' term) -- as they attempt to save the child who has fallen into their midst from making the serious mistake of avoiding his own necessary step.
A great deal of the book's pleasure lies in the author's ability to render the voices of all his ghostly speakers with enough formality, excessive politeness, and reliance on circumlocutions and euphemism to avoid speaking bluntly on any subject that would violate pre-Civil War 19th century conventions of modesty, courtesy, or sensitivity. The central twosome are darlings in their well-intended busy (un)bodying.
Other speakers of the bardo are blunt, profane, immodest, needy, pathetic, drunk and disorderly, heart-breaking, put-upon, or still white-hot with outrage over the horrors imposed on them in the course of their earthly existence. They are young, old, male and female, victims, fighters, black, white (some white supremacists among them), and they are unreconciled to the injustices that were visited upon them.
Even the souls of the damned, who make appearances here in demonic form, are articulate in their own self-defense. I never asked to be born, they say in effect, in circumstances and with such tendencies as would drive me to commit various terrible acts. I too, these voices say, am a victim.
The pleasure and profundity of Saunders' novel lies in his ability to allow every voice of the departed to articulate an un-dismissable point of view.
The living, too, eventually attain the same quality. Willie, his ghostly character consistent with the plaudits given him by those who knew him in life, makes a spiritual progress that impacts the living, especially his father. How Saunders' novel connects the place of the irreconciled departed with the great tragedies of the living, to which we all (it is fair to say) remain at a loss to understand or accept is a measure of this novel's deep ambition.
Because of course it's Lincoln, the unmatched "soul of America" among major national figures, who in this book must confront the complex tragedy of human life as, by the testimony of history, he did in the blood-strewn actuality of his life and fate. Until the nation's history has something worse in store for us (and the odds on that question have surely undergone a recent shift), our Civil War remains America's single greatest, bloodiest tragedy.
We still have to ask ourselves, perhaps, what would we have done in his place?