In an ancient cemetery on a hill near Washington D. C. the dead-who-know-not-they-are-dead rise from their sick boxes at night to cavort, cajole, console and wonder, wander, ponder. They have developed their own culture, their own shadowy cadence of “living” in this self-inflicted purgatory, patiently waiting for some sign to know what to do next, while fellow spirits vanish in the matterlightblooming and others join them in fresh sick boxes, an eternally spiraling phantom world of temporary inhabits…ships passing in a melancholic feverishly nightmarish harbor where the waters are haunted by memories of thier life in that other place from before they so long for…
One such spirit is left dispirited by another (who committed suicide)…exclaiming…
“You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world…Forgoing eternally, sir, such things as, for example: two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gust-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warming griddle (and early morning pot-clangs and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearby harbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling, chime-inciting breeze that causes, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus of childish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like -” (p. 140-141)
Apparently in George Saunders’ purgatorious bardo, every ghost is a poet…and a grammarian champion of the semi-colon. Saunders’ ghosts go through the metaphysical motions, getting bawdy like Shakespeare in their regaling of tales and nihilistic like Beckett’s Godot waiters…waiting, for something…someone…to rock their boats.
Into the bardo steps young Willie Lincoln, freshly dead from typhoid fever and confused as all get-out by his grieving father’s actions when he visits his son’s…sick box. You see, Saunders’ novel (written more like a play with voices reading lines) is a bit of historical fiction (as well as a master study in grief) circling around Abraham Lincoln’s reactions to his young son’s untimely and tragic death. Interspliced with the ghostly chorus of commentary, dis-enchanhment and fantastic descriptions of otherworldly phenomena (including the spirits’ ability to enter the body of Abraham Lincoln and not only hear his internal monologues, but also perhaps influence his very thoughts and actions) are supposed excerpts from personal accounts detailing the President’s behavior and actions. Across Saunders’ sprawling yet lightning quick 343 pages are what seems like hundreds of voices – the dead screaming, and churning, and yearning to be free.
Ultimately, Saunders would have us believe that Lincoln’s presidential fortitude and greatness arose after his son’s death in three-fold ways: 1. He owned his grief and eventually drew strength from it (aha! Willie would want us to see this horrible thing – the war – through!). 2. The cacophony of voices from the bardo married to his innate feelings of sympathy and empathy toward all manners of folk, driving his long arms of justice out across the land. 3. One such voice…one such spirit, actually…that of a deceased slave… entered him permantly…and voiced in Lincoln the unified voice of all the previously and presently enslaved…
“Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel that you are, and inclined toward us as you seem to be, endeavour to do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves. We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy; turn us loose, sir, lt us at it, let us show what we can do.” – (p. 312)
So while dear Willie, upon his father’s declaration that he is indeed dead, finds eternal solace in matterlightblooming to a realm where EVERYTHING including “swinging from the chandelier and floating up to the ceiling…is allowed allowed allowed!”, his father armed with all those spirits who touched him, mirrors for us a rallying cry that is as timely as it is timeless.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo is preposterously beautiful powerful stuff. And for all time, no matter what terrible thing is upon us, let this kind of art be allowed allowed allowed…and heard heard heard.
Written by David H. Schleicher