I’ve just finished George Saunders’s 2017 Booker award winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I’d usually hesitate to add to the general clamour of praise heaped upon such a critically acclaimed book, both here and in the US, but I feel that his approach to historical fiction is so interesting and thought-provoking that I can’t help myself.
George Saunders is a truly original writer. I first came across him while working at Prospect Magazine in 2000, when his agent sent us a short story for possible publication. It was a snapshot into the life of a couple with a new baby and a technological mask that could change the baby’s cries into words – or something along those lines. It was a spare work of genius. A genuinely Ballardian story set in the near future that opened up truths of contemporary life and expectations. Unfortunately, we didn’t publish it, but I’ve followed the rising fortunes of this unusual author ever since. This is Saunder’s first novel, he’s previously published four collections of short stories – many prize winning – and two collections of essays. He takes on the great contemporary themes of consumerism and materialism with wry intelligence and uncluttered style – making it all the more fascinating that he chose the year 1862 for his first foray into the longer, novelistic form.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a great, innovative patchwork of a book exploring grief, love and empathy in a way that no other writer could have written. The main bulk of the story is set over a night in Oak Hill cemetery in Georgetown, Washington DC. Lincoln’s son, Willie, has died from fever at only eleven years old and his body is interred in a crypt. It is as much the story of a father’s pain at the untimely death of his beloved child as of the varied stories of the population of ghosts that refuse to leave this earth, because they can’t accept their own demise. They are a wide and crazy cast of characters, distended, perverted and repetitive in their inability to move on from this the temporal world with the “matterlightblooming phenomenon”. There is the Reverend Everly Thomas, who cannot face the possibility of hell; Betsy and Eddie Baron who were run over by a cart while lying paralytic on the road; a slave owner and a beautiful slave girl, raped so many times that she stopped talking; and the owner of a condiment factory who desires only praise, amongst many others. Apparently, some of the characters were real and others were made up. But it doesn’t matter, because by layering their stories, historical voices and documentation over one another in a cacophony, he creates a real sense of the preoccupations, fears and reality of the period, that feels surprisingly graceful and true. And stalking through it all is the central character of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln is one of the most documented of all the Presidents of the United States. A shambolic, impressive and moral figure, he was only in power for five years before his assassination; presiding over the civil war and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. He has had many biographies written about him over the years and films made about him – the latest was by Stephen Spielberg with Daniel Day Lewis playing the President. Gore Vidal, amongst others, wrote a historical novel about him. He is a figure who has loomed large in political and cultural discussion in the US for over one hundred and fifty years – making him a daunting character to recreate because we already have so many opinions on him. And yet, Saunders recreates him from the inside and outside, using scraps of fake documentary, thoughts accessed by ghosts, eye-witness sources and the observations of the dead. It’s an innovative layering that gives this historical figure such profound depth, that allows him to be fully human, unsure and striving, while acknowledging that he can never be known. Even his eye colour.
“His eyes were bright, keen, and a luminous gray color. In “Lincoln’s Photographs: A Complete Album,” by Lloyd Ostendorf, account of Martin PS Rindlaub.
“Gray-brown eyes sunken under thick eyebrows, as though encircled in deep, dark wrinkles. In “Personal Recollections of Mr Lincoln,” by the Marquis de Chambrun.
“His eyes were bluish-brown. In “Herndon’s Informants,” edited by Douglas L Wilson and Rodney O Davis, account of Robert Wilson.
“His eyes were bluish-gray in color – always in deep shadow, however, from his upper lids, which were unusually heavy. In “Six Months in the White House: The Story of a Picture,” by FB Carpenter.
“Kind blue eyes, over which the lids half dropped. In “With Lincoln from Washington to Richmond in 1865,” by John S Barnes.”
Saunders once wrote that his early career as a geophysicist made him untrained in the art of fiction. I suspect it allowed him a certain freedom with form. By bravely accessing Abraham Lincoln as he holds the corpse of his son in his arms, in the middle of the night in a crypt in Washington, we see the President as a man, raw and lost. Historical novelists strive to capture the sense of people and life in past times by imagining the gaps left by the written evidence. Saunders gives us the babble of ghosts and commentators in all of their subjectivity and their inherent failure to tell the whole story. While at the same time, you are left with a true impression of Lincoln’s eyes and it doesn’t matter what their actual colour was. If the art of historical fiction is a sincere effort to create a true story of the past, then Saunders cracks it in this extraordinary, moving and funny book.
I really loved it.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Bloomsbury (2018), £8.99