By W. Perry Hall/Contributing Writer
Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel,” a brilliant literary achievement, is the ideal book for the Fourth of July as it profoundly reminding us of our union as citizens of the United States of America — this great nation created by our forefathers’ Declaration of Independence from the “absolute Despotism,” “long train of abuses and usurpations” and “invasions on the rights of the people” by the then “King of Great Britain,” our democracy founded upon principles of equality and each individual’s endowment “by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights, [such as] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The novel provides just as important a remembrance of how our country was nearly crushed, but ultimately was forged, by the crucible of a civil war that cost the lives of more than 620,000 young men (in perspective, a number that today would be roughly 6.5 million). More significant than these, through a fictional rendering of President Abraham Lincoln’s loss of his 11-year-old son, Willie, the novel elegantly recalls our connectedness, despite our many differences, through our shared human experience of love, family and the anguishing grief each of us suffers in losing those we love.
In February 1862, close to a year after Lincoln’s inauguration and 10 months after the start of the Civil War, he lost Willie to typhoid fever. Author George Saunders, primarily known for his satirical short stories, speculates that President Lincoln’s revival in the face of a human being’s greatest loss — of his child — prepared him especially to pull the nation through the jaws of darkness and the legion of losses suffered by families on both sides of the war.
Saunders crafts three vibrant, compelling characters from differing backgrounds to drive the novel’s narrative in Georgetown’s Oak Hill cemetery, in the “bardo” (Tibetan for limbo between the world and the eternal afterlife). Hans Vollman is a charmingly gruff printer who carries about in a tumescent state (existing as he died, just prior to consummating his marriage to a wife 20 years his junior); Roger Bevins, an Orphean suicide with a bounty of extra eyes, hands, ears, noses that pop out when he becomes agitated or excited; and Reverend Everly Thomas, a sage man of the cloth whose mouth is cast permanently in an “O” of fright.
This trio is joined by a host of other colorful characters as they chaperone young Willie, left behind in the bardo instead of ascending because he wanted to see his dad once more.
Saunders seamlessly intersperses the novel’s rich and intellectually stimulating dialogue with brief chapters containing excerpts from news accounts, memoirs, diaries and biographies of the time, which display the harsh tenor of the public outcry in the months after Lincoln assumed the presidency, when he had no clear plan for resolving the nascent war or the conflicts leading to the Southern states’ secessions, including: “The President is an idiot” — George B. McClellan; “Vain, weak, puerile, hypocritical … By all odds, the weakest man who has ever been elected” — Sherrard Clemens; and “Will go down to posterity as the man who could not … understand the circumstances and interests of his country … who plunged his country into a great war without a plan; who failed without excuse, and fell without a friend” — London Morning Post.
The novel largely enamors with its punchy tone, containing humor enough to prompt a few laughs loud enough to wake the family. The narrative tightens for a short stretch after departed slaves from outside the segregated cemetery travel to Oak Hill to see the president, only to be met by resistance from a violent, racist faction led by a bombastic Confederate officer.
I cannot recall a novel so manifesting that which unites us as a country and as human beings: “At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.” At the same time, the novel inspires in its portrayal of the human spirit’s resilience and perseverance. Abraham Lincoln, generally acknowledged as the country’s greatest president, who had been “broken, awed, humbled, diminished” by his son’s death and roundly ridiculed as “a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis,” rises from the ruins to remake himself and hold together a nation seemingly torn asunder.
The bardo’s voices range widely from farmers and soldiers to priests and suicides, emblematic of the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of our country’s departed in 1861. Saunders writes each tone as valued and as if he is conducting a symphony, with the result being a sort of cosmic chorus in “cordial unison” under brocades of blue, twinkling white willows and a rain of red glare, celebrating the human spirit and similarities that can unite our nation.
By novel’s end, Lincoln’s final goodbye to the body of his son can leave one undone; for others, the trio’s farewell aria might do just as well, by lacing the reader with the unalloyed beauty of simple things in life we take for granted as if our days here are limitless. Bevins, the young, erudite poet, captures it best as he contemplates leaving the world behind: “… the things of the world were strong with me still … such as … cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post-June rain … Pearls, rags, buttons … The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars … writing one’s beloved’s name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger …”
It is no stretch to predict time will bestow this novel with the status of a “modern classic,” one that is studied in literature classes when your children’s children attend grade school. “Lincoln in the Bardo” represents a memorial to those who have gone before us, a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln and a celebration of Americans’ spirit to rise from defeats and our resolve to endure and succeed.
“Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel”
By George Saunders
Random House, 2017