By Matthew Spivey
Lincoln in the Bardo explains the untimely death and aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died from a fever whilst his parents partied with friends. His cruel and unfortunate demise continues to torture him in the afterlife, whilst his father’s grief becomes almost unbearable. The novel offers a raw account of mourning of the most intimate kind: a parent grieving the loss of a child. It is an exploration into the ability of humanity to contemplate, understand, and accept death; and engages in a debate surrounding the afterlife, limbo and the ‘Bardo’ as according to a twisted and hyperbolised representation of Buddhist beliefs.
George Saunders’ masterful short story explores the intimacy of death, grief, torment, stagnation, and the afterlife through the eyes of a public figure. President Lincoln’s role in the short novel is to blur the lines between historical prestige and the base human emotions of grief and torment.
Saunders’ innovative and striking epistolary-like format mixes historical accounts from the living with fictional utterances, and conversations, between the dead. Young Willie Lincoln arrives in the midst of the dead with the function (unbeknownst to him) of making the lingering dead realise the need to move on to judgement and the afterlife. The wretched souls in the liminal space between life and death await reprieve from their condemnation, or for acceptance and ‘proof of their death’. The Lincolns provide an opportunity for a demonstration of such circumstances and, as such, shed new light on the relation between the living and the dead, and the collective fear they have of accepting the latter. The use of historical figures to represent the suggested finality of death further complicates the matter as the reader knows of, and therefore feels an understanding, towards the character of President Lincoln; whose name continues after death.
The cemetery setting acts as a bridge whereby the tormented dead and grieving living are brought within the same physical space, but cruelly they are unable to communicate with, or see, one another. The lingering dead, fearful of the terrifying image of the afterlife shown to them, deny the finality of their situation, offering an interpretation of the period between life and the afterlife, in which chaos ensues. What is presented is an almost Sir Orfeo or Dante-like image of the damned souls stagnated in limbo before judgement can release them from their wretched state. Many of the characters in this Bardo stage are presented as either malformed or as carrying around a burden so large they cannot bear it; their past lives continue to this setting with them in deformed and horrifying replicas of daughters, husbands or enemies who torture them relentlessly.
The continuous shifting of the novel between historical accounts and the voices of the dead allow the reader to feel a sense of this limbo-like state as we ourselves are situated between the past (Lincoln’s present) and the afterlife. Thus Saunders successfully engages the reader in a philosophical self-debate into the need for death to be accepted, but not forgotten, so as to allow life to continue.
His writing is thought-provoking, engaging, heartbreaking, and raw; he is original and unprecedented, yet his message is recognisable. He writes what humanity subconsciously frets about and presents it to us as an innovative argument. I recommend you all to read Lincoln in the Bardo and to look out for George Saunders work in future.
Illustration: Katie Butler