Saunders in the Bardo

America … had never really been a gay nation. Rather it had been heavily and noisily jocular, with a substratum of worry and insecurity, in the image of its patron saint, Lincoln of the rollicking stories and the tragic heart.

-Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

George Saunders has been publishing fiction for decades now, but Lincoln in the Bardo, released Valentine’s Day this year, is his first novel. As an avid fan of his, my expectations were perhaps unfairly high. Not to worry—Saunders has exceeded them. Something that might indicate the unusual format of this book is the format of the reading Saunders gave for his appearance at Houston’s Inprint Reading Series last month: he had five readers from the Alley Theater company join him in his reading onstage.

The novel is told through individual characters’ distinct voices—the majority of them ghosts—with a cast that swells into the hundreds (I’m pretty sure the number 600 was quoted at the reading, which was shocking; Vox.com has tallied a more likely but still impressive 166). In a kind of inversion of the typical play format, the names of each speaker are presented after their lines. The chapters with these speakers are intermittently alternated with snippets collaged from historical texts—some real, some not—describing specific events relevant to the plot, and allowing non-ghost speakers some room to narrate.

All the action takes place the first night Abe Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie is spending in a cemetery after dying of typhoid fever. Saunders recounted that he was inspired by the book on a trip to DC decades ago when someone pointed out the cemetery where Willie was buried and told him that Lincoln had come to visit the body and even taken it out of its tomb. He says he was struck by an image: Lincoln, as immortalized in DC’s Lincoln Memorial, holding his dead son across his lap in the manner of Mary holding Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture the Pietà. But the prospect of tackling such historical material was too daunting, and while the idea periodically recurred, he didn’t make the attempt until a couple of years ago.

The other major influence on this plot is Saunders’ Buddhism. He described the Bardo as a place where your most common thought patterns in life were amplified a hundredfold, which he finds deeply chilling.

The novel has two primary speakers or narrators, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. (The attributions after each speaker do not capitalize their names, but names are capitalized when other characters refer to them in text.) Vollman, with interjections along the way from Bevins, opens the novel with the story of how he died at forty-six years old. Having been married to a young girl whom he could tell did not want him, Vollman did not force her to consummate the marriage, and due to this kindness she eventually grew fond enough of him that she became willing to consummate of her own accord. He dies the day they’re slated to do the deed when a wooden beam falls from his office ceiling and strikes him in the head. In the Bardo, He refers to his coffin as a “sick-box” and the cemetery as a “hospital-yard.” Before the end of the first chapter he’s observed a new arrival, a young boy.

The next couple of chapters are historical snippets describing a party the Lincolns hosted at the White House during the Civil War. A chapter of snippets following these describes Lincoln’s son Willie being sick upstairs during the party, followed by a chapter of snippets describing the moon that night (with conflicting accounts). Still more snippet chapters describe the procession to the cemetery and Willie’s tomb.

We finally return to the ghosts for an account of how Bevins died—having a “predilection” for liking men, he slit his wrists after his lover Gilbert told him he wanted to “live correctly.” He realizes that he actually does not want to die as he’s bleeding out, which will lead to his characteristic (that is, character-defining) trait in the Bardo:

Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I—well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind. Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and 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—

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Sir. Friend.

hans vollman

 

Am I—am I doing it again?

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Not only does he frequently spew lists of life-affirming images, but now that Bevins has entered this realm with a heightened appreciation for life’s pleasures, this, in the Bardo, manifests in a particular physicality:

“Bevins” had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive

Little bit scary

In telling his story he had grown so many extra eyes and noses and hands that his body all but vanished Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands

Slashes on every one of the wrists.

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Through Willie’s observation, we also learn how Vollman’s circumstances of entry into the Bardo manifest physically:

The other man (the one hit by a beam) Quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off

It bounced as he

Body like a dumpling Broad flat nose like a sheep’s

Quite naked indeed

Awful dent in the head How could he walk around and talk with such a nasty—

willie lincoln

Vollman and Bevins are joined in greeting Willie the newcomer by the Reverend Everly Thomas. They want to know if Willie has “An urge? To go? Somewhere? More comfortable?” But Willie says he needs to wait for his parents to collect him, alarming Bevins and Vollman, there apparently being something especially dangerous for children who linger in this particular realm. By way of explanation, they show Willie his corpse, then take him to “the Traynor girl,” who is trapped in the iron fence at the boundary of the cemetery, manifesting at that moment as a furnace; she speaks to him bitterly of having left life too soon. Vollman and Bevins have just about convinced Willie that he needs to leave when Willie’s living father shows up, President Abraham Lincoln. Here it is indicated that some of our narrators might at times be unreliable:

He was softly sobbing.

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He was not sobbing. My friend remembers incorrectly. He was winded. He did not sob.

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He was softly sobbing, his sadness aggravated by his mounting frustration at being lost.

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Saunders is skilled at showing and telling in tandem as needed:

The Reverend suggested we yield the path.

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The Reverend having strong feelings about the impropriety of allowing oneself to be passed through.

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Lincoln goes to his son’s sick-box and opens it.

We break for a historical-snippets chapter about Willie’s death, its immediate aftermath, and Lincoln’s fondness for Willie. Then one about how great and smart Willie was, then Lincoln keeping vigil with the body.

Back at the cemetery, Lincoln takes the body out of the “sick-box” and cradles and speaks to it. This draws a crowd of ghostly cemetery inhabitants. Willie the ghost enters his corpse, and partially Lincoln himself, which allows him access to his father’s thoughts: Lincoln wonders whether it’s wrong to be doing this, but he believes it’s done him good (an objective correlative for his upcoming considerations about the ongoing Civil War). We then get an entry from a watchman’s logbook about how Lincoln showed up alone and asked to be let in (this seems made up, the voice betraying itself as Saundersian). The ghost community is galvanized and shocked by Lincoln’s affectionately tactile display. They press upon Willie:

What did we want? We wanted the lad to see us, I think. We wanted his blessing. We wanted to know what this apparently charmed being thought of our particular reasons for remaining.

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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.

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They form a line to talk to Willie, and in this way we hear some of their stories. Jane Ellis, who hated her husband but loved her daughters (whose forms perpetually hover around her now, and also sometimes, “On other days, everyone she met manifested as a giant mustache with legs.”); Mrs. Abigail Blass, who kept interrupting Jane Ellis, and who’s obsessed with tallying her “meager possessions”; Lieutenant Cecil Stone, a rapist who fought in the Civil War and refers to black people as “SHARDS”; Eddie and Betsy Baron, impoverished drunks who curse like sailors. The procession is interrupted by an onslaught of angels—which different characters perceive as different forms, depending on their defining desires—trying to persuade them to let go of what they’re clinging to and move on to the next realm. Mrs. Abigail Blass gives in and succumbs to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” at which point the angels redouble their efforts. The main trio tally the departed and are surprised to find Willie still among them. They try to convince him he should go, but his father has promised him he’s coming back. Mrs. Delaney passes through, continually calling for Mr. Delaney. A stone tendril emerges from the roof of the tomb where Willie is sitting and starts to seal him in. This happened to Miss Traynor and the trio are ashamed they did nothing more to help her.

The Three Bachelors appear in a fanfare of raining hats, and announce that they’ve just seen the boy’s father—Lincoln is still here. Against the reverend’s wishes, Vollman and Bevins go to find him, meeting other ghosts along the way, some of whom have been there so long they no longer look or sound coherent. They stumble on the grave of a freshly arrived Civil War captain who believes he’ll free himself by telling the truth about having cheated on his wife—and he succeeds.

They finally find Lincoln sitting in the grass and decide to do something the reverend wouldn’t approve of—enter Lincoln’s body. They access Lincoln’s thoughts as he remembers buying Willie the suit he was buried in. As Lincoln ponders the cruelty of death, something occurs to Bevins and Vollman. We jump back to historical snippets, detailing the known casualties from the Civil War that became public at the same time Willie died. In the cemetery, Lincoln questions the course he’s taken with the war, having experienced the massive amount of pain from just a single death. He tries to comfort himself by thinking Willie must be in a better place. Hearing that he hopes Willie is “in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being,” Vollman and Bevins contrive to get Lincoln back to Willie’s tomb so that Willie might enter him, hear his wish, and be convinced to leave. They experiment with persuading Lincoln to go back by means of thinking hard about it themselves, debating whether they really have the power to do this and whether it really was exercised in a previous case (convincing a pair of fighting lovers who were visiting to have passionate intercourse). Their job is made easier when they realize Lincoln still has the lock to the tomb in his pocket, which he eventually does realize and heads back. Vollman and Bevins have inadvertently accessed each other’s thoughts along the way, giving each a newfound appreciation for the other. They’re surprised to learn that Lincoln is president. End Part One.

In Part Two, we get a historical snippet questioning if Lincoln can govern in this grave hour with his grief, one about his leaving the White House that night, and then a chapter about his wife’s extreme reaction to Willie’s death. Meanwhile, in Willie’s tomb, the reverend has been left to fend off Willie’s encroaching stone tendrils alone. Two couples who have orgies, the Crutchers and the Reedys, come to watch “the decline.” When the reverend tries to use them as an example to Willie as to why he should leave, Willie points out that the reverend is there, prompting the reverend to share his story with the reader, if not Willie.

The reverend maintains he’s not like the others because he knows he is not “sick.” Knowing he was dead, he succumbed to the matterlightblooming phenomenon, and ended up in a place with two other men where they were called before a judge (whom he understands to be an emissary of Christ) and their hearts were weighed. The first man is judged to have lived well and enters a glorious tent with a feast. The second man is judged to have not lived well and in his tent people are being horrifically eaten. When it’s the reverend’s turn and he is, to his shock, judged not worthy, he flees, and winds up in the cemetery. He still doesn’t understand why he was damned.

Vollman and Bevins come back declaring they’ve brought Lincoln, and the reverend sees his face. We then get historical snippets describing Lincoln’s complex face (ugly, handsome, indicative of emotional depth). Once Lincoln is inside looking in Willie’s coffin again, they get Willie down from the roof. Again, a crowd gathers, this time shouting a cacophony of confessions. These include a pair of men who excessively compliment each other, then a crowd of black people who have followed the Barons over the fence arrive, demanding to have their say. This includes Elson Farwell, who served his white family loyally but was then left to die on a trail, forgotten because of the distraction of a 4th of July fireworks display, and now wishes extreme vengeance upon them. Thomas Havens interjects that he was able to enjoy some free moments but realizes those moments made the rest of his bondage more bitter. Then there’s Litzie Wright, no longer able to speak, which Mrs. Francis Hodge explains is due to “what was done to her,” which “was done to her many times, by many.” Lieutenant Stone and some other whites drive the black group back to the fence.

Willie is about to enter his father when the night watchman appears, and then stone tendrils from the wall start grabbing Willie again. While Bevins, younger and stronger, fights the tendrils, Vollman enters Lincoln, who is in low spirits, thinking himself a failure. We get a series of historical snippets describing Lincoln as weak and criticizing what he’s put the country through. Lincoln considers that nothing worth doing goes uncriticized, then remembers something painful, and we get historical snippets about the irresponsibility of the parents being at fault for Willie’s illness, and then some snippets about the cruelty of a party going on while he was dying. Lincoln tries to mentally get his son to rise from his coffin. Vollman implores him to stay as Lincoln concludes that staying is not helpful, and he leaves before Bevins and the reverend can get Willie free. Vollman tries to get the reverend to join him in entering Lincoln to convince him to stay, though the reverend is reticent of controlling others since that couple they made make love got married and eventually the man ended up poisoning his wife. But for Willie’s sake, he agrees. After he enters Lincoln, the rest of the crowd follows suit. And then:

It occurred to us now (as Manders, lantern held high, preceded the President into a grove of trees) that we might harness that mass power, to serve our purpose.

hans vollman

The effort of working together for a common purpose—exhorting Lincoln to stop and go back—enables them to put aside their selfish focus on their own problems, which then enables access to memories of happy times that they had heretofore forgotten.

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.

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One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story.

hans vollman

(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.)

the reverend everly thomas

But this had cost us, we now saw.

We had forgotten so much, of all else we had been and known.

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But now, through this serendipitous mass co-habitation—

the reverend everly thomas

We found ourselves (like flowers from which placed rocks had just been removed) being restored somewhat to our natural fullness.

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All the distinctive physical traits they bear as a product of their burdens—Vollman’s “tremendous member,” Bevins’ “fleshly bouquet” of sensory organs, the reverends’ perpetually terrified expression—suddenly vanish. But they have not succeeded in their mission to stop Lincoln. They enlist the Bachelors to enlist help. People begin leaving Lincoln’s body. Vollman and Bevins rush back to Willie as the reverend still fails to understand why he was damned. Back in the tomb Willie is cocooned in concrete, which starts to emanate voices:

Former people, somehow shrunken and injected into the very fabric of that structure. Thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting minuscule faces up at us.

the reverend everly thomas

Who were they? Who had they been? How had they come to be so “compelled”?

roger bevins iii

We won’t discuss that, said the woman’s voice. Will not discuss that.

Mistakes were made, said the bass voice.

hans vollman

(Nice Nixon sendup.)

They confess egregious sins in the guise of advice on what not to do (these characters distinguished by their own stories and traits, like the “bass lisper”). When asked if they are in Hell, they say not the worst one. The reverend figures these are who he’ll be joining and still struggles to accept God’s judgment. The hell figures agree to inter Willie on the roof, and the reverend, offering to carry Willie up, instead flees with him. The hell figures swarm in a matter-inhabiting horde and easily overtake him. They create a stone cocoon around him and Willie both, and the reverend, after shouting about that “dreadful diamond palace,” succumbs to the matterlightblooming phenomenon. Bevins and Vollman claw Willie out and, passing him back and forth, manage to get him to the chapel, but they are not protected from the demons there as anticipated. Then they realize that Lincoln is there in the chapel. We get a watchman’s log entry confirming his presence there. Then Willie enters him. Lincoln is remembering the first moment Willie’s illness presented itself. Then there are historical snippets about the ravages of the fever and how difficult it was for the sensitive Lincoln to bear. Vollman orders Willie to come out at once (a one-paragraph chapter). Then there are historical snippets about the embalming process and Willie’s being embalmed (Lincoln walking in on it at one point). Willie is clearly shocked, processing something (a one-line chapter (LXXXIX): “The boy sat stock-still, eyes very wide indeed.”) Then there are historical snippets about the burial. The last of these is Lincoln declaring to someone “Willie is dead.” In the chapel, Willie declares to everyone that they aren’t sick—they’re dead. He tries to convince everyone that they should leave. His form starts to flicker into different forms that he once was and then never was (as sometimes happens to those about to succumb), and then he is gone. Lincoln, seemingly freed from some burden, inadvertently passes through Bevins and Vollman on his way out; he is thinking about how the the only way to stop suffering is more suffering, and resolves a quick end to the war even if it’s at a heightened cost of blood. A group of black people are outside the chapel and Thomas Havens enters Lincoln, and triggered by Lincoln’s sadness, focuses on his own sadness, sharing it with Lincoln so that he might better understand it.

Upon hearing the news that they’re dead, Litzie Wright, who’s gotten her voice back, and Mrs. Francis Hodge, succumb. The watchman reports Lincoln leaving the cemetery. There’s a mass exodus from the chapel, with many succumbing. The Barons argue and succumb. As Bevins is about to succumb, he recalls that the morning he slashed his wrists he saw Gilbert in a bakery with another man (a slap in the face after Gilbert left claiming to want to “live correctly”). Bevins then reminds Vollman that his wife came to visit and thanked him for his kindness, which meant she was unsullied when she found her new husband. Before Vollman and Bevins succumb together, they visit the Traynor girl in the iron fence. Vollman enters the train she’s manifesting as and, per her request, blows it up by succumbing to the matterlightblooming phenomenon inside it. Then Bevins, after enjoying some final sensory imagery outside, succumbs, witnessed by the Reedys and Crutchers and interrupting their orgy. Those who resisted succumbing are grateful they still have more time and hope for the possibility of love. The watchman, who has a son Willie’s age, ponders the mortal bind of love and loss we’re in. Thomas Havens continues to ride forward with Lincoln, determined to stay in him. The End.    

Saunders mentioned that he thought the greatest sin was to not see oneself clearly, and in the Bardo it’s impossible not to. He admitted to copying the distinctive character-defining traits—a necessity when juggling such a large cast—from Tolstoy. These traits manifest something fundamental about the characters’ essences, providing a sort of key to them that enables us to understand their perspective. In the interview after the reading, which was of the section where Bevins and Vollman first enter Lincoln, UH Creative Writing Program director Alex Parsons pointed out that the image of a ghost entering a body and accessing that person’s thoughts was very much like what a writer did in the course of writing.

The tension in the narrative derives from the threat to Willie should he linger in this realm, though it’s never made explicitly clear why this realm is so threatening to children. We see the threatening outcome in the Traynor girl, and it provides our three main characters, Vollman, Bevins, and the reverend, with a desire that propels the story forward with a question: Will they succeed in convincing Willie to leave this realm before he’s apparently stuck here forever? It’s Abraham Lincoln’s appearance that complicates things and gives us our first rise in the action. His promise that he’s coming back incites Willie to stay. His hope that Willie is in some better place, accessed by Bevins and Vollman, provides the foundation for their plan that then propels the action in the rest of the novel thereafter; their goal then becomes to get Willie to enter Lincoln so he can hear this hope and be convinced to move on. But when they finally do get him to enter Lincoln, it backfires when it leads Willie to realize instead that he’s dead, and in turn apprise everyone else of this fact.

There’s also an undercurrent of chronic tension for all of the ghost characters in this realm, who are here for a reason—refusing to believe they’re dead, they cling to the stubborn belief that they can still change the outcome of something. Hearing that they’re dead from Willie, which comes through Lincoln himself, is enough to finally convince, among others, our three main characters, who have apparently been clinging among the longest, to let go. The acute tension of Willie’s appearance and all that leads to—the irrefutable revelation that they’re dead—resolves the chronic tension of their senselessly clinging to their past lives.

Saunders, who so astutely analyzed Donald Barthelme’s use of patterns in rising action, executes a pattern of his own here: Lincoln enters Willie’s tomb and opens his coffin twice in this one night, both times inciting a ghost crowd intent on justifying themselves by spilling their own stories. The first time, an external obstacle intervenes in the appearance of the tempting angels. Then Lincoln is located, and they convince him to come back to the tomb. The crowd this time enters Lincoln’s body, a significant plot point when the common mission enables them to overcome their selfishness and be liberated from their dominant Bardo manifestations. It seems they’ve failed to stop Lincoln, but after we get the exciting interlude with the hell figures, we learn that they actually succeeded in getting Lincoln to stay. Finally, the goal of their plan is realized, the main characters do succeed in their mission, but not with the expected outcome. Instead of just Willie being convinced to go, almost everyone else is convinced to go as well. Not only will Willie leave the Bardo this night—all of them will.

That Saunders doesn’t alternate the snippets and cemetery scenes in an exact pattern makes the sequence feel more climactic at the end when it does start alternating every other chapter, which provides a marked shift in pacing from slower to faster. There’s also the moment the snippets literally interact with the cemetery, providing a narratively cathartic convergence of threads:

Father said it, he said. Said I am dead. Why would he say that, if it weren’t true? I just now heard him say it. I heard him, that is, remembering having said it.

But we didn’t hear Lincoln say it in a cemetery section. We heard it in an historical-snippet section, the one immediately preceding this, so there would be no mistake. These two different worlds—as represented by the cemetery and historical-snippet sections—are interconnected, as are the world of the living and the dead, as we see by the end when Lincoln gains his spiritual breakthrough in the wake of Willie’s departure from the Bardo. This itself is symbolic of how Willie’s death spurred Lincoln’s resolve in his course with the Civil War.

Aside from casting a fresh look at distant but relevant history, Saunders knows how memories work, and is adept at summoning the collages of images that constitute them (which would be a good prompt for a writing lesson, to get to know a character through the collaged images of their memories):

Suddenly, I remembered: the showing up at church, the sending of flowers, the baking of cakes to be brought over by Teddie, the arm around the shoulder, the donning of black, the waiting at the hospital for hours.

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Leverworth giving Burmeister a kind word at the lowest moment of the bank scandal; Furbach drawing out his purse to donate generously to Dr. Pearl, for there had been a fire in the West District.

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The handholding group of us wading into the surf to search for poor drowned Chauncey; the sound of coins falling into the canvas bag crudely labeled Our Poor; a group of us on our knees weeding the churchyard at dusk; the clanking of the huge green soup pot as my deacon and I lugged it out to those wretched women of the evening in the Sheep’s Grove.

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The happy mob of us children gathered about a tremendous vat of boiling chocolate, and dear Miss Bent, stirring it, making fond noises at us, as if we were kittens.

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My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!

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How had we forgotten? All of these happy occasions?

the reverend everly thomas

Perhaps it might be a stretch that these ghosts, who as people presumably knew what death looked like and what the implications of a cemetery were, think that they are “merely sick, with some previously unknown malady,” instead of understanding that they are dead, but perhaps this is a metaphor for our general awareness (or lack thereof) of our present condition: alive.

-SCR

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