On February 5, 1862, the Lincolns held a grand presidential party in the East Room of the White House. As that opulent merry-making was in full swing, so was the Civil War. One year old, the war had claimed 3, 000 Americans. The other heaviness hanging over that night, while the affluent and connected partied in the White House, was the Lincolns’ eleven-year-old son, in his room a floor above, fighting typhoid fever. The war would carry on for another three years, taking 620, 000 lives; Willie would only last another two weeks.
Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over a single night in the Oak Hill Cemetery, during which – it was reported – Lincoln visited his deceased son Willie in his mausoleum several times. The story is narrated by a collage of voices: contemporary historical reports and observations, the “spirits” that populate the Oak Hill – those dallying in avoidance of a final judgment – and the grief laden thoughts of the President, relayed by those spirits as they inhabit him.
The Tibetan concept of “bardo” – in its simplest iteration – describes a transitional state between two lives. Indeed, here it connotes, on the surface, the literal ethereal place in which Willie Lincoln finds himself. It’s a place where he shouldn’t tarry, but which he’s reluctant to leave, visited as he is by his mourning father, convinced that he might still rejoin his body in the “sick-box.”
Willie’s literal bardo, as conceived by Saunders, is a fantastic, harsh place of distortion and illusion that yet presents a concrete representation of the gallimaufry of deceased Americans who, even in that liminal space, are divided along the lines of class and race. However, the larger, pervasive bardo that lanky Lincoln metaphorically inhabits in Saunders's novel is America itself – a place and an idea trapped in and distorted by a constant state of flux.
Saunders has long played with the idea of American history and Americanism itself as a sort of performance, as an ongoing imitation of the idea of perfect place and perfect identity, probably most overly in one of his earliest stories, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” In Lincoln in the Bardo, he explores this conflict more beautifully, and somehow more abstractly and literally, then ever before.
In this, his first novel, Saunders uses the state of bardo to present America – as both a place and a philosophy – as an essentially transitional thing, a country that's constantly, painfully, brutally transitioning into itself; a founding philosophy that’s ever striving to become fully realized.
“You have seized the reins, made yourself dictator, established a monolithic new form of government which must dominate over the rights of the individual. Your reign presages a terrible time when all of our liberties shall be lost in favor of the rights of the monolith. The founders look on in dismay.”
So reads an arrow shot at Abraham Lincoln by Darrel Cumberland, one of the many disembodied observers that Saunders has create his world. While it describes specifically the damage Lincoln was doing to the country – the casualties of war making “a mountain… of boys. Someone’s boys” – such a scathing criticism would fit well into the mouth of, say, someone describing the perfidy that Trump and his cabal/cabinet are currently foisting onto the country. Of course, either President would claim that their actions were or are driven by a wish to see – according to their view of what American is – American become more perfectly itself. Fighting over and for that essential incarnation of what one imagines America is supposed to be may be the fundamental constant in that nation’s history.
Lately, it’s hard not to view everything through the lens of the contemporary political melee – and it would be a reach to suggest that Saunders had any foresight into the current strife – but by thinking about things in terms of Lincoln’s sally into the bardo, the myth of one period of history being seperate and different from another is busted. The American reality is a constant state of transition; it is a constant conversation about the past, the present, the future, and the self; a constant attempt to balance what’s good for the individual with what’s good for the whole. In his inimitable, strange way, George Saunders reveals something very profound, and sorrowful, and hard in Lincoln in the Bardo.