Okay, so what happens when we die? Writers of fiction have been peering across into that unfathomable abyss from time out of mind. You might even say that this is what great fiction writers do: they look at the grand questions, and especially at immortality, or the lack thereof.
George Saunders’ rather ironic take on the afterlife (Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 343 pages) goes roughly like this: after death some of us get caught up in the fulgurant thing called “the bone-chilling firesound” of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Amidst lots of explosions and smashing to smithereens—imagine something like the shoot-em-up-blow-em-up special effects of Hollywood—this phenomenon transports us off to . . . well, the author never tells us exactly where. Is it a nice place? That’s a good question. At times there are suggestions that it might be fine, but only for the better-behaved of human beings in their fleshy existence, and not even for all of them.
Some of the deceased, so we’re told, resist the matterlightblooming, preferring to hang around in a limbo, neither fish nor fowl. Saunders uses the term “bardo” (borrowed, apparently, from Tibetan religious tradition) for that liminal state, although a better title for this book might be something like Lincoln in Liminality. Why? Because the novel is eminently American, it is anchored in American history; therefore, it might be better not to bring in an obscure term from an alien tradition. Sometimes it seems, at any rate, as if we were looking at some standard purgatory, as in the passage where a former hunter is forced to sit before an enormous heap of the animals he had killed over a lifetime, “each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months.”
The bardo of this book is Oak Lawn Cemetery in Georgetown, and most of the characters are sort of ghosts who, having been interred there, are now living out their liminality. Why do they resist what is apparently decreed by God’s law: the move on to the next stage in the universal progression? Mainly because they are still bound to the fleshy world from which they have departed. They have left things undone back in the world, and they have hopes of returning to flesh, so they delude themselves, pretending that they are merely ill, not really dead. They have made up euphemisms for unpleasant things. The coffin is a “sick-box,” the hearse is a “sick-cart.” To be dead is to be “unlovable,” and the ghosts of Oak Lawn, above all, crave love.
The central plot of the book revolves around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie in February of 1862. Although Lincoln remains alive, he too is in a state of liminality, stunned by bereavement, frozen by his refusal to accept the death of his son and his wish to believe that even after death father and son can find some sort of communion. Much to the delight of the ghosts of Oak Lawn, Lincoln returns to the cemetery, goes to the crypt of his son, even opens the coffin and holds the dead boy.
Although the author gives the narration briefly to a multitude of narrators throughout the book, there are mainly three tellers of the tale, all of them ghosts. Roger Bevins III, a young homosexual who committed suicide when his lover decided to go straight; Hans Vollman, a forty-six-year-old man who was on the verge of consummating his marriage to a young wife when a ceiling beam fell on his head (consequently he ambles about the bardo with a perpetual erection); the Reverend Everly Thomas, who, unlike the other denizens of the bardo, has already taken a tentative step into the next stage and is terrified of going back there.
In the background of the story is the theme of The War Between the States and the carnage. On the day that Willie is laid to rest the casualty lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson are announced. “The dead at Donelson, sweet Jesus. Heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top or two on top of three. I walked through it after with a bad feeling. Lord, it was me done that, I thought.”
In this semi-historical novel of sorts the above quote is attributed to “First Lieutenant Daniel Brower,” cited from “These Battle Memories.” The book is full of citations from historical sources. In addition to sources describing the war, there are others telling of the trauma in the Lincoln household as young Willie wastes away and dies. I have not checked the historical sources, but I strongly suspect that many of them come not out of books, but out of the creative mind of George Saunders.
The sources often contradict each other. In one description of Willie’s final days a variety of different people describe the moon. For some it is full, for some a crescent, for others there was no moon at all in the sky that night. So how was it really? One effect that the author achieves by mixing real and fictional people is to suggest that even those alive in 1862 are now so long gone that they are as insubstantial as fictional characters. We come upon one “Prince Felix Salm-Salm, a Prussian nobleman and cavalry officer, who was serving on General Blenker’s staff.” Another source on the same page refers to him as “the dashing German Salum-Salum,” and we think, Ah, this is one of Saunders’ made-up characters. But a check on the internet reveals that Salm-Salm actually existed in the flesh. Never mind. He is chimerical now. A big theme of the novel (and of world literature in the age of postmodernism): who is really real and who is chimerical? And, given that we all begin dying on the day we are born, how really real can our lives in flesh be?
But it’s the only thing we have, this temporary existence in flesh, and Saunders sometimes revels in lovely lyrical descriptions of the sensuous joys of life. Here is Roger Bevins, who, having slit his wrists, is having second thoughts: “saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing: swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arriving breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chill autumn.” Here is Bevins again later, in the same mode: “such things as, for example: two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gust-loosened acorns” (this goes on for five more lines).
Bevins’ best buddy in the bardo, Hans Vollman, later launches into a similar lyrical outburst: “the great beauty of the things of this world: waterdrops in the woods around us plopped from leaf to ground; the stars were low, blue-white, tentative; the wind-scent bore traces of fire, dryweed, rivermuck; the tssking drybush rattles swelled with a peaking breeze, as some distant cross-creek sleigh-nag tossed its neck-bells.” Near the end of the novel Bevins gets going again: “a bloody roast death-red on a platter; a hedgetop under-hand as you flee late to some chalk-and-woodfire-smelling schoolhouse” (two whole pages of this). The muse of George Saunders is obviously in charge of the poetry here—for how would Vollman and Bevins, who have never written a line of poetry in their fleshy lives or bardo existence—come up with such stuff? Saunders the poet, it seems, is partial to hyphenated expressions.
What do the semi-dead do with themselves in this particular purgatory, as they wait to get over being “sick” so that they can return to flesh and the carnate pleasures described above? They lead, mostly, a boring life. “We had sat every branch on every tree. Had read and re-read every stone. Had walked down (run down, crawled down, laid upon) every walk, path, and weedy trail, had waded every brook; possessed a comprehensive knowledge of the textures and tastes of the four distinct soil types here; had made a thorough inventory of every hair-style, costume, hair-pin, watch-fob, sock-brace, and belt worn by our compatriots; I had heard Mr. Vollman’s story many thousands of times, and had, I fear, told him my own at least as many times” (Bevins again). One woman keeps herself busy collecting pebbles, twigs, and dead bird parts.
Then again, the ghosts of the bardo, determined as they are to get their lives back, are obsessed with the preoccupations of those still in flesh. Class and race distinctions remain the same. The issue of slavery and abuse of slaves is a sub-theme of the narrative. There are poor white trash ghosts, aristocratic ghosts, racially oppressed ghosts and racist ghosts, all of them fighting for a bit of respect, insisting that the lives they led should be valued. No one, it seems, gets the credit he/she deserves in life, and in their liminal state the semi-dead go on bemoaning that fact. A former professor is still nursing his ego: “I made many discoveries previously unknown in the scientific pantheon, for which I was never properly credited.” A former pickle maker still boasts of the loveliness of his wares: “Say, did you ever taste one of my pickles?”
In the world of the flesh, apparently nothing ever changes: “things ‘out there’ were as they had been; i.e., eating, loving, brawling, births, binges, grudges, all still proceeded apace.” . . . . “We were at war, said Mr. Vollman. At war with ourselves.” The reference is to the Civil War, but the war within the bifurcated self is also implied. Human beastliness, so the narrative suggests, might well go on perpetuating itself into eternity, “unless some fundamental and unimaginable alteration of reality should occur.” But Saunders’ novel, deeply pessimistic at its core, never suggests that the reality of human existence can be altered.
Since the world of the bardo is a place where everyone yearns to go back to being alive, the preoccupations of the bardo-dwellers mirror those of the fleshy world.
When Abraham Lincoln shows up at the cemetery, to visit his dead son Willie in the crypt, the denizens of the bardo perk up. After all, most of those still in flesh shun the land of the semi-dead, but here is a man who embraces his dead boy in the coffin. The man, to boot, is the President, although they do not realize this at first, since many of them have departed the world under President Polk, say, or Buchanan. Some of the most touching scenes in the book are those in which Lincoln attempts to find communion with his dead son’s body—while that son’s shade hovers about, agonizes, unable to make contact with his beloved father. Lincoln comes across as a sympathetic character, bedeviled by countrymen who criticize his running of the war, depressed not only by the loss of his own son, but by the many sons of others who have perished in battle.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a postmodernist novel; it presents a narrative that is skewed, in harmony with the surrealistic, skewed plot about a world of purgatory. The story unfolds through bits and pieces, staccato bursts of action; the narrative does without the usual “he said” or “she said.” Readers not accustomed to this may find the going hard at first. Here’s a typical example of the way the story is laid out on the page.
I, for one, was afraid of him.
roger bevins iii
I was not afraid of him.
But we had urgent business. Must not linger.
Lots of unused space here (more on the white space later). A normal novel would read as follows: “I, for one, was afraid of him,” said Roger Bevins III. “I was not afraid of him. Not exactly, but we had urgent business and must not linger,” said Hans Vollman. But Saunders, who is writing about a ghost world after death, does not want it done “normal.” This is something like a movie about the supernatural, which uses distortions on the screen, out of focus shots, fadings in and out, along with eerie music in the background, all for effect.
Then again, there is the nineteenth century language used by the characters; nothing odd about that, since the book is set in 1862. But many characters also are shown speaking with misspelled, or even totally distorted words. This too adds to the weirdness effect for which the author strives. Sometimes the inarticulate dead struggle to find the right words. “who kome to ogle and mok me and ask me to swindle no, that is not the werd slender slander that wich I am doing.” Those whose existence seems in the final stages of dissipation, such as one Mr. Papers, of whom little is left except “a cringing gray supine line,” cry out for help in a language that dissipates along with them: “Cannery anyhelpmate? Come. To. Heap me? Cannery help? . . . . Place hepMay.”
Although American readers these days seem to need a lot of pampering—see some of the complaints about the “difficulty” of this novel on the Amazon book reviews—the narrative line of the plot is not particularly hard to follow. You want real difficulty, go back and give James Joyce a try. No contemporary American writer, it appears, would dare write the kind of demanding sentences that we find in his Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Saunders is to be commended for daring even his modest (compared, say, to Joyce or Nabokov) stylistic innovations and literary devices. Risk taking is not a common thing in the present state of the American novel.
Saunders here follows rather typical modernist conventions: preferring fragments over wholes, resisting any sort of “closure,” and bathing the whole thing in a subtle irony. Note that we are not talking satire here. Satire implies the possibility that evils can be overcome and life improved. Irony implies a certain light absurdity underlying everything.
Given the postmodernist devices, you might assume that Lincoln in the Bardo is a hard, slow read, but nothing of the sort. It’s a fast read. The unique narrative method makes for few words on a page, and some pages are nearly empty. Here is page 9: “Willie was burning with fever on the night of the fifth, as his mother dressed for the party. He drew every breath with difficulty. She could see that his lungs were congested and she was frightened.” Then the attribution of the source, and that’s it; no more words on the whole page. Unless you want to stop and contemplate the meaning of all that empty space, you the reader quickly skip on to page ten. And this is not an isolated occurrence. There are plenty of such nearly empty pages in the book, and even the regular telling of the tale, split up between the many narrators, leaves globs of white space on every page. The novel in print has a total of 343 pages, but were it printed in a normal way, utilizing the space available on the pages, it would be hardly a novel at all, but a novella or long story of some 200-odd pages.
Then again, in a book that is post-modernist in its narrative techniques and ironic stances, Lincoln in the Bardo is often quite conventional in its ethics and morality. What people have done in life very much matters in the afterlife. Judeo-Christian morality is ascendant, and the idea of a Judeo-Christian heaven and hell underlies the action. At one point former persons who have committed the worst sins of all—massacring an entire regiment, murdering loved ones with poison, having sexual congress with children—make their appearance as demons. They consist now of “thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting minuscule faces up at us.” When Bevins asks them if they are in Hell, one of them replies, “Not in the worst one.” There are many degrees of Hell, and in the worst one skulls are smashed against a series of clustered screwdrivers, or you are sodomized in perpetuity by a flaming bull. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.
At several points in the novel, however, it is suggested that the universe of Judeo-Christian punishment and reward is somehow flawed. One woman, a rather comical character who has murdered her intolerable husband Elmer asks, “Was that my doing? Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find Elmer so irritating? I did not. But there I was.” Here we touch lightly upon the age-old polemic of free will versus determinism. Lincoln in the Bardo rehashes, almost always in an ironic way, many of the major philosophical issues throughout the history of the Western literature.
One of the most enigmatic characters is one of the three main narrators, the Reverend Everly Thomas. This character is different from the other ghosts of the bardo, for he does not delude himself. He knows that he is dead, and he has already once gone beyond the liminality and stood at the threshold of the next stage. What he finds there is another traditional Judeo-Christian scenario, the scene of the Last Judgment. For eight pages in the middle of the book he describes what happens when you get to Judgment Day. Along with two others recently deceased he trudges up to the spot of the judgment. “Inside, a vast expanse of diamond floor led to a single diamond table at which sat a man I knew to be a prince; not Christ, but Christ’s direct emissary.”
Quite businesslike in his demeanor, this emissary or double of Christ watches as two angels lead, in turn, the three men to be judged up to the table. One asks, “How did you live?” The other says, “Tell it truthfully.” Using a mirror and a scale, the angels look inside the man, remove his heart and weigh it on the scale. The emissary limits himself to two words, “Quick check.” The check is quickly made, although the results are puzzling. Apparently blameless individuals are summarily assigned to Hell. You have a feeling that the whole business is badly skewed, in need of a thorough revamping, particularly when the Reverend Thomas—whose life appears to have been almost entirely sinless—is assigned outright to Hades. Before the angels manage to usher him into the Inferno, poor Thomas flees from the proceedings, somehow makes it back to the Oak Lawn Cemetery, and lives there in limbo, terrified to move on. He is reluctant to tell his fellow limbo-dwellers of the judgment awaiting them, and the angels have forbidden him to do so.
Apparently assuming that children are largely sinless, or have not had time to build up a lengthy catalog of sins, Thomas, Vollman and Bevins make it their task to help Willie Lincoln move out of his liminality and on to the next stage. When they finally accomplish this task Willie is ushered into what is apparently a world of sublime loveliness.
“Whatever that former fellow (willie) had, must now be given back (is given back gladly) as it never was mine (never his) and therefore is not being taken away, not at all!
“As I (who was of willie but is no longer (merely) of willie) return
“To such beauty.”
What is the reader to make of all this? Well, nothing entirely coherent. Jesus is quoted as saying to his disciples, “What I do ye know not now, but ye shall know hereafter.” There’s the big question, not only of this novel, but of many more in Western literature: are we ever really going to know what it’s all about? We do know, so the story tells us, what we ought to do. We
“must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his [Lincoln’s] current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt by scores of others, in all times, in every time . . . . . . All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.”
Such is the liminal state of humanity. Let’s face it: we’re all in a bardo. Not knowing where we came from. Not knowing what we’re doing here. Not knowing where we’re bound. At times—as in the scene of the Last Judgment—Saunders implies that God and Christ, in their standard Judeo-Christian guise, have not done a very good job at organizing the whole affair. Here is Lincoln, musing on toward the end, over the many dead and the carnage of the war. “I will go on. I will. With God’s help. Though it seems killing must go hard against the will of God. Where might God stand on this? He has shown us. He could stop it. But has not. We must see God not as a Him (some linear rewarding fellow) but an IT, a great beast beyond our understanding, who wants something from us, and we must give it, and all we may control is the spirit in which we give it and the ultimate end which the giving serves. What end does IT wish served? I do not know. . .” This goes on for several more lines, but the wishes of IT are never established. And never will be.
Pondering over the issue of human mortality never really gets us anywhere. Here is Lincoln again, going round and round in circles. “Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.
“Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath?”
A good question, and the central question of the book: what is all this? Suffering people scream it out on a daily basis, but no philosopher, theologian, or writer of novels has ever come up with a good answer. Near the end of the novel it is suggested that people can move on out of purgatory when we are no longer sustained by “some lingering, dissipating belief in our own reality.” What is our own reality? That is what writers of literary fiction are trying to get at.
Tolstoy concludes one of the greatest works in world literature on the subject of mortality, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” with the demise of his main character. As he passes into eternity, Ivan Ilyich, finally suffering his way past the cancer that kills him, muses, “’But death? Where is it?’ He sought for his former usual fear of death and did not find it. Where is death? What death? There was no fear at all, because neither was there any death. Instead of death there was a light. ‘So that’s how it is!’ he suddenly exclaimed aloud. ‘What joy!’”
Critics have sometimes disparaged this death-bed revelation that the author gives to his character at the end of the story. You cannot legitimately have Ivan Ilyich suddenly seeing what’s out there after his death—finding the fulgurant light of joy. Because seeing what’s out there is beyond the ken of any mortal being.
Similarly, George Saunders knows that the scenario he has invented, his take on what is out there post mortem, has no basis in truth. Is at times based on rather facile re-imaginings of scenarios long current in world literature and the Western religious tradition. But imagining, as Mary Todd Lincoln does, that her dead son is somewhere—“Musn’t he yet be somewhere?”—something more than “a passing, temporary energy-burst”—that imagining gives human beings the strength to go on living.
To me there is good reason for all the empty white space on the pages of Saunders’ book. That space tangibly suggests the emptiness, the wretched void against which people go on struggling in order to live: the possibility, ever unacceptable, that there is nothing out there but white noise.
– U.R. Bowie, author of Hard Mother, 2016