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Telling Ghost Stories
A Review of Lincoln in the Bardo
W. Brett Wiley

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, like many of the short story collections for which he has earned praise, creates a strange version of the real world, but, remarkably, it all seems entirely plausible. The novel seems to meet Aristotle’s famous requirement for art: “a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.” In this case, Saunders’ first novel, the impossible is easy to identify. The novel is populated mainly by ghosts, the dead of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery who, as the title of the novel suggests, are in the bardo, a liminal space between death and rebirth described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. However, Saunders is not merely telling a ghost story. The novel addresses a larger, familiar, and necessary epistemological query: how confident can we be that our understanding of things—our personal experiences, the world around us, the afterlife, ourselves—is accurate?

As one might expect from the inventive Saunders, the novel defies easy categorization. Random House, the book’s publisher, is not even sure of the genre. The webpage for Lincoln in the Bardo lists it both as “Literary Fiction,” a nod to Saunders’ place in American letters, and “Historical Fiction,” which acknowledges the presence of an actual historical event: the death of Willie Lincoln, second son to the sixteenth president, who died from typhoid fever on February 20, 1862 at the age of 11. What it really is, finally, is a mash-up. Historical fiction meets Dante. A comedic ghost story with spiritual overtones. Personal accounts of history (real and created) combined with a sentimentalized tale of guilt and loss. You might say that the novel has it all or that it simply has an identity crisis. However, the mixture of genres and perspectives contributes to the question raised in the novel about the reliability and accuracy in knowing.

Three nineteenth-century American men headline the novel, all of whom are ghosts that have differing understandings of their current state. Publisher Hans Vollman has been in a May-December marriage. Roger Bevins III is a young, homosexual man who has felt the guilt about his orientation as reinforced by the period in which he lived. Reverend Everly Thomas, a minister, has his mysterious background revealed through the course of the novel. The story opens with the three men welcoming Willie Lincoln to the afterlife.

It is certainly an unusual premise. But then, we have come to expect nothing less from Saunders. He has never shied from the bizarre. His four collections of short stories have included narratives that incorporate science fiction elements such as virtual machines that can download memories (“Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”), and prisoners testing drugs that cause severe mind-altering reactions (“Escape from Spiderhead”). He has written about brutally violent episodes, such as a home invasion (“Victory Lap”) and children being crushed to death at a waterpark (“The Wavemaker Falters”); alternative realities in which humans are used as yard decorations (“The Semplica Girl Diaries”) or amusement parks that immortalize the confederate South (“Civilwarland in Bad Decline”); fantastical ideas like anthropomorphized snack foods (“In Persuasion Nation”) and ghosts (“Sea Oak”). In a 2016 interview, he explained his propensity to include the unexpected in his stories:

Often when I do something strange in a story, it is just an attempt to find a natural-seeming way of doing something theatrical. So, for example, when I have a ghost appear, that’s a way of objectifying something that’s actually rhetorical.

The oddities in the novel are dramatic, but they are not simply “something theatrical.” Here, the strange elements are a key part of a play that Saunders has created, in novel form, in order to dramatize the epistemological ideas in question.

In fact, the novel incorporates elements of a play while still utilizing aspects of the other genres from which it borrows. For instance, the novel includes more than 150 characters, and when the characters speak, their “lines” include attribution (the audiobook version of the novel comprises 164 voices, including those of A-list actors Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon). The plot advances via dialogue, with characters often describing the actions of others, including past events or incidents occurring “off-stage.” But the novel is not without its monologues as well; a variety of characters telling their life stories over many pages with little interruption or commentary. There are even soliloquies of a sort: Reverend Thomas, for example, shares his experience of going to heaven while alone on “stage,” a story that covers two chapters and that Thomas cannot share with his graveyard companions. In addition, Saunders provides the novel’s setting and context almost as set direction, outside the action. After the first chapter introduces the main characters, the next seven chapters are comprised solely of quotes from historical documents such as memoirs and letters—some real and some fake, though the text makes no distinction—that establish the world of the play (or novel). Finally, the rather unorthodox structure results in an episodic tale, with what feels like scenes, the entire novel divided into two parts, or acts, a familiar dramatic format.

By incorporating these theatrical elements, Saunders manages both to add drama and to objectify something rhetorical. Though the novel’s “rhetoric” might be lost among the fantastic (ghosts, angels, and “matterlightblooming occurrences”), the dour (the undead floating through a cemetery), sentimental scenes (Abraham Lincoln holding his dead son in a Pietà-like pose—an image Saunders says, in part, inspired the novel), and the gratuitous, sometimes silly, details, ultimately everything contributes to the novel’s focus. The odd combination of forces intentionally leads to confusion; the entire novel emphasizes the inability to know anything for sure. From the start, as (odd) details pile up and multiple characters speak, the reader must adjust, always revising what can be known and what cannot. It’s a little like sitting down to watch a Shakespearean play for the first time. Initially, the Elizabethan English, the storyline, and the wordplay might be hard to follow; slowly but surely, though, it all becomes clearer. Yet it’s still easy to miss things. Lincoln in the Bardo seems to remind the reader that there is always more to know.

Between the central narrative, the characters’ life stories, and the supernatural elements, Lincoln confuses the reader and raises doubts. In the course of the novel, Saunders raises numerous questions—some direct, some implied. Metaphysical questions such as, “What happens to people when they die?” evolve into more specific queries: “What happens if your experience of the afterlife is not what you imagined it to be?” “What criteria are used to damn souls to hell?” Ethical questions surface, as well: “Should people be told the truth if that truth might destroy them?” “Am I obliged to help those who clearly do not want help?” As might be expected given the novel’s historical context, Saunders raises questions from the past: “Is there a moral imperative to fight a war to unite a nation that does not want to be unified?” “Can war address the very real struggles of the African-American slaves?” Finally, epistemological questions emerge: Even if one can answer the preceding questions, how do we know that the answers are right? What evidence can and should be used? There are no clear answers to the questions raised, and thus the characters, as well as the reader, feel no real confidence in anything. Roger Bevins, while reflecting upon a minor decision many of the characters make early in the novel, states, “Truth be told, there was not one among the many here—not even the strongest—who did not entertain some lingering doubt about the wisdom of his or her choice.” It is an attitude, a reaction, that resonates throughout the novel.

All of these uncertainties, and others, slyly offered through an historical, comedic, and sentimentalized ghost story, magnify in importance as the action of the novel increases steadily toward a conclusion—the dialogue and episodic nature of the text do not allow for a break in the pace. The novel, set in an impossible world, continues to examine probable questions. Are the facts legitimate (especially since some of the historical documents in the novel have been fabricated)? Have situations been interpreted correctly? And, just as importantly, how would you know if they have? (Most of the characters refuse to face the fact that they are dead, heightening the question of interpretation.) Are things as they appear? As he does in many of his works, Saunders presents Lincoln readers with possible answers, some of them coming from traditional sources such as religion. These answers are neither comforting nor definitive. It seems the confusion is intentional and necessary, if only to make readers consider the questions and to encourage us to be less dogmatic about how we answer. In this effort, as well as in efforts to entertain, intrigue, and beguile, the novel succeeds.

 

W. Brett Wiley is associate professor of English at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio.

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