After the death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln (apparently from typhoid fever) in 1862, grief-stricken President Abraham Lincoln returned to the crypt to hold his son’s body. This anecdote haunted writer George Saunders, who now haunts us with “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a brilliant, empathetic and wonderfully weird novel.
In Tibetan Buddhism, bardo refers to a transitional state between death and rebirth. So “Lincoln in the Bardo” is a ghost story. As imagined by Saunders, this bardo is coterminous with the cemetery where Willie Lincoln is laid to rest. The ghosts here can see and hear the living human visitors (a la “Our Town”) but not vice versa, or so it seems.
Unlike a Catholic purgatory, the ghosts aren’t confined in this bardo to expiate their sins. No, most linger here because they refuse to accept they are dead. They long to return to life or are too attached to some earthly desire to accept their state. One ghost, the formerly middle-aged Hans Vollman, wanders around naked and tumescent because he died before consummating his marriage to his second wife. His ghostly friend Roger Bevins III manifests extra eyes and hands, greedy for the sensory life he denied himself after slitting his wrists.
They’ve developed obfuscating vocabulary to maintain their denial: Coffins are sick-boxes, their dead bodies sick-forms. But they’re aware that some ghosts depart the bardo, moving on to the next, undefined phase through a transition Saunders poetically calls “the matter-lightblooming phenomenon” and its accompanying “firesound.”
Unwilling to leave the bardo themselves, Vollman and Bevins become concerned when Willie Lincoln enters it, because the spirits of children who don’t transition almost immediately become trapped in a horrible carapace.
When the two begin to persuade Willie to move on, an extraordinary thing happens: President Lincoln returns to the crypt and communes with the body of his son. When Willie’s spirit re-enters his body, it almost appears that his father recognizes the return of his spark. The whole thing is unprecedented: “No one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly,” Vollman says.
Awestruck by the love displayed, the older ghosts are also alarmed that the father-son bond amplified by grief may keep Willie trapped there, so they resolve to enter President Lincoln’s body to persuade him to accept Willie’s death.
In between bardo scenes, Saunders intersperses short quotes from memoirs and contemporary accounts of Willie’s death, President Lincoln’s grief, and how both were viewed by their contemporaries (often harshly). These provide enriching detail and context, but also reinforce the novel’s theme of faulty perception: President Lincoln’s contemporaries can’t even agree on what color his eyes were.
Many ghosts speak in this novel, trapped in the story of their desires. Vollman and Bevins play off each other like Vladimir and Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” But they don’t grok each other until their essences briefly merge while trying to persuade President Lincoln to return to the crypt. Each immediately understands the other. The homosexual Bevins feels Vollman’s yearning: “I saw his Anna’s face, and understood his reluctance to leave her behind.” In turn, the straight Vollman empathizes with his ghostly friend: “I desired the man-smell and the strong hold of a man.”
Whether subtly influenced by the ghosts or not, President Lincoln also comes to empathy and compassion in the midst of his personal suffering. In the poetic words of Bevins and Vollman: “Made less rigidly himself through this loss / Therefore quite powerful.”
“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders; Random House, 368 pages, $28.