Lincoln in the Bardo
‘I am not a Know-Nothing’ Abraham Lincoln once protested grimly. ‘The Know-Nothings’, he explained, sought to deform the founding principles of U.S. democracy into hateful prejudice, adding twisted clauses to its basic tenets and envisioning persons as ‘created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and. . .’ But even as these zealots mired the country in a bloody civil war, Lincoln insisted that the Know-Nothings deserved compassion and understanding. This kind of knotted, compromised fellow-feeling is George Saunders’ specialty.
Saunders’ story collections throw characters into the deepest cesspits of neo-capitalist society, and demand that readers muster up sympathy for the very worst within these beleaguered, downtrodden players – for their bigotry and cruelty; their clichéd, limited, and circular world views.
Saunders’s first novel, then, Lincoln in the Bardo, pokes at the wider political sorrows of Civil War America through Lincoln’s personal grief following the death of his young son, Willie. Much of the book takes place in the trippy space of the ‘bardo’, a limbo-like afterlife where those who will not accept their own death linger, refusing to understand their entombment as anything other than ‘being healed via sick-box’.
A frenzy of stories jostle for space: Saunders sets the parley of the bardo’s spirits against Lincoln’s measured introspection, and peppers the book with (real and imagined) historical accounts of the Lincolns. The author becomes a kind of curator, a medium through whom this seance of ghostly voices are mediated and stylised. And it is captivating. All through, and especially in Lincoln’s deliberately flat, serious monologues, the novel points to the necessity of understanding others. But if Saunders has been championed as a spokesman for literary empathy, the most compelling moments of the book frustrate this faith in finding the right words to understand.
With Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders builds a pristine ‘sick-box’ of language only to tear it down, leaving us exposed and confused, ‘blundering’ artlessly ‘across all divides.’
Words – Gill Moore