Showers of Hats
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Bloomsbury, 343 pp, £18.99, March 2017, ISBN 978 1 4088 7174 4
George Saunders has long had a thing for ghosts, especially ghosts who haven’t figured out that they’re dead. The title story of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), concerned a down-on-its-luck theme park with a Blacksmith Shoppe, a ninety-foot section of the Erie Canal, and a holographic projection of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States. It also featured a family of dead homesteaders who carry on reading and doing their laundry as though it were still 1865. In ‘CommComm’, published in the New Yorker in 2003, a murdered couple unwittingly haunt their surviving son. No longer hungry, unable to pick up a fork or pee, they are baffled by their posthumous condition. ‘Something’s off but I don’t know what,’ the father says. That line could stand as a shorthand description of much of Saunders’s fiction, which, over twenty years and four collections, has often revelled in a sense of uncanny disorientation. But it seems especially fitting for Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, a polyphonic arrangement narrated by a chorus of ghosts who don’t know they’re ghosts.
The main action of the book takes place on a single night in February 1862, in Washington DC’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Every character we meet in the graveyard, save two (a nightwatchman and Abraham Lincoln) is recently dead. Convinced the coffins in which they spend the daylight hours are mere ‘sick-boxes’, and half-persuaded that they might recover into health at any moment, the ghosts are ‘tarrying’ in the near beyond. This grey purgatorial state is the ‘bardo’ of the novel’s title. It has little in common with the Buddhist concept of that name, which envisioned a sort of metempsychotic wormhole that connected successive cycles of rebirth. In Saunders’s bardo, a Dantean contrapasso transforms the ghosts in accordance with the moral ailments that afflicted their lives. Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who committed suicide, appears covered in eyes, noses and hands, a nod to the sensualist he became in the moments after he slit his wrists. A printer called Hans Vollman, killed by a falling roof beam hours before he planned to bed his young bride for the first time, is rewarded with a dented forehead and enormous erection. What awaits the spirits, once they work up the nerve to abandon their attachment to their former lives, is a confrontation with a mysterious ‘matterlightblooming phenomenon’, which escorts them to a terrifying final judgment.
The Lincoln of the title is not Abe but Willie, the president’s 11-year-old son, who dies of typhoid just hours before the novel begins. Like most of the ghosts, he is at first unaware of his own demise, and resolves to wait for his father to find him at the cemetery. This resolution gives the plot the kick it needs, as Willie’s determination runs up against a gruesome quirk of his new existence: children who tarry risk being trapped in the bardo for ever. To escape this fate, Willie must choose to yield to the matterlightblooming phenomenon, but that means accepting his separation from his father, and thus the reality of his own death.
Willie is only one of the narrators of his tale, which reads less like a traditional novel than a script for screen or stage. (Spliced within the central narrative is a second, composed of passages from real and invented historical sources, that describes the life of the Lincolns in the days just before and after their tragedy.) But while Willie is, with his father, the hero of his story, it is Bevins, Vollman and a preacher called Everly Thomas who deliver most of the lines. Joining these three are a throng of shades – each ‘wronged Neglected Overlooked Misunderstood’, as Willie puts it – who are eager to retail their own stories of woe. This is a ghost story, in other words, narrated by the ghosts.
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