This morning I finished George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which I greatly enjoyed. I enjoyed it not only for the quick flecks of prose that struck like the tongue of a benevolent snake; not only for the scenes of the self-evinced departed rummaging through their own private psychoses, e.g. the Bardo; not only for the utterly imaginative mechanisms and rules of the in-between to which they clung; but for the manner in which they found freedom at the last, for the humanity of what they found, and for the way in which they found it.
Redemption was portrayed as a collective task—dare I say it?—the work of unity and relationship.
There are undoubtedly a great many more relevant elements of this novel than I have described here that I will discover in a second, slower reading, as I felt it was peppered with intriguing symbolism and image. At the same time it was vibrant, witty and immediate—alternately rollicking off the tracks and plunging into vignettes of a father’s grief. But what I was left with most palpably, in the end, were the glorious discoveries made in the climactic scene when the countless rank and file of Saunders’ Bardo piled into the body of President Lincoln in a last-ditch effort to persuade him—nevermind of what.
In this moment of frantic, almost giddy hope, the discarnate briefly forget the cocoons of story and personhood to which they must cling to remain in the Bardo, and discover in this immersion into shared presence what has been lost and all but forgotten. They remember the calamitous beauty of life, the potency of occupying a world in which they once impacted one another significantly, when time was dear, and they remember not only who they once had been, but who they had never become. It is from these heights of unexpected unity, and the delightful way that Saunders both approaches and renders the moment, that the remainder of the work unwinds.
Interspersed throughout the work are chapters in which scenes of President Lincoln are recorded in a blend of authentic and fictional historical quotations. Snippets and tag lines from various witness accounts of the same scenes are assembled to create a hodge-podge of data in which what truly happened is obscured. The eyewitness accounts differ; they betray themselves with bias; they get details wrong and out of place. But also in this work, Saunders’ provides insight into his fictional Lincoln through encounters by various characters with Lincoln’s inner life as well.
Saunder’s employs a similar narrative approach throughout the entire novel: the scenes in the cemetery—the realm of the Bardo—do not have a consistent narrator. The entire story is told through the voices of his characters, who sometimes are in dialogue and sometimes are, like the historical sound bytes described above, providing narration about the scene, their own imaginations, or even about one another. At times they even finish one another’s sentences. Sometimes it is surreal, as when Character A says what Character B is doing, and then vice versa, and then the next moment they are speaking to one another. For me the approach worked, largely because of Saunder’s incredible linguistic dexterity. Also, I enjoyed the way in which it echoed the notion of a human commonality that underlies our diversity, or as it is described in A Course of Love, our shared being in unity and relationship.
For me the book was genius—endearing and humorous, sad and compassionate all at once. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in a unique, entertaining and utterly insightful exploration of the human condition.