Usually, I know what I’m going to say, although I’m not quite sure how I’m going to say it. I guess I’ll start with the author, George Saunders. He’s won a stack of awards and a litany of writers—Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Hairi Kunzru and Tobias Wolff—are stacked like library cards to testify to his originality and brilliance.
I find Saunders hard work. And I don’t like reading to be work, because I read for pleasure. I’m shallow that way. I did kinda enjoy Lincoln in the Bardo or I wouldn’t have finished the 343 pages and the bit about the author afterwards telling you how brilliant he is.
343 pages sounds a lot, a hefty tome. But if I skim through the book from the back and get to chapter LIV this is how it reads.
Had we—had we done it?
It seemed that perhaps we had.
roger bevins iii
That’s a chapter finished. hans vollman and roger bevin iii are ‘shades, immaterial’. There is different shades of meaning and understanding as there as shades of ghosts. They enter President Abraham Lincoln’s body and brain to remind him that he still had the key for the white stone house, the crypt, where his twelve-year-old son lies dead and he’s no longer sure if he locked it or left it open. Doubt is the key.
The voices of demons and angels are heard and heaven and hell are present in each shade. The reverend everly thomas reaches the gates of heaven and goes inside to await judgement. He has two companions with him. One wearing a pair of swimming trunks is asked to speak honestly about his life by a Christ-like figure and his heart is weighed. There is rejoicing throughout heaven and angels sing as he is found to be one of the elect. His companion’s heart is a shrivelled thing and demons come to collect their due. When the reverend’s heart is weighed, there is a dull note and he runs from that place, expecting to be pursued, but is not and expecting to understand, but does not. He only knows his existence is marked by the boundary fence of the graveyard and he must rest in his ‘sickbox’, his body, during the day and at night he may roam, mingle and intermingle with other shades. None can be forced from that place seems to be a rule, but they must voluntarily give up that existence. Their going is marked by a state of bliss and unravelling of self into what was, is and would have been, each person existing as the shade of a multiverse.
Their staying –or overstaying – such as Willie’s refusal to move on because his father the President said he’d come back to visit causes an unpleasant stink and allows demons to enter and wrap the shade to the spot. Willie, quite simply, is in the Bardo and he should have moved on to heaven. His pure soul staying is a catalyst for change. I’m not sure if that makes sense.
Juxtaposed with the voices and backstories of the various shades inhabiting the graveyard are other voices, commentators on the social scene and what President Lincoln is doing, or not doing, or should be doing. Their voices mirror the voices of the shades, often contradicting each other and petty and vindictive as the modern-day media.
Chapter XLVII, for example, reads.
Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the causality lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted, an event that caused a great shock among the public at that time, the cost of life being unprecedented thus far in the war.
In ‘Setting the Record Straight: Memoir, Error and Evasion,’ by Jason Tumm, “Journal of American History.
The details of the losses were communicated to the President even as young Willie lay under embalmment.
More than a thousand troops on both sides were killed and three times that number wounded. It was ‘a most bloody fight,’ a young Union soldier told his father, so devastating to his company that despite the victory he remained ‘sad, lonely and down-hearted.’ Only seven out of the eighty-five men in his unit survived.
President Lincoln’s loss of his son is magnified a thousand fold, his grief mirrored by thousands of others and yet it is and can only be a private affair. Whatever way the President turns in public or private he will be found wanting.
I guess I’m found wanting too. I don’t hold with the elitist nonsense and with what W.B. Yeats termed ‘the fascination with the difficult’. But in quoting Yeats I align myself with somebody well known and give myself kudos. The truth is if I’d picked up this book and read a few pages and didn’t know the author I’d have put it down and left it unread. Saunders’s added value and the weight of other author’s praise made me read on. That’s shades of shallowness in anyone’s language. But equally in another multiverse if an unknown had presented this same book to publishers I doubt without the publicity and heft of positive praise associated with Saunders’s name that it would have been published. Read on.