George Saunders has long had a thing for ghosts, especially ghosts who haven’t figured out that they’re dead. The title story of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), concerned a down-on-its-luck theme park with a Blacksmith Shoppe, a ninety-foot section of the Erie Canal, and a holographic projection of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States. It also featured a family of dead homesteaders who carry on reading and doing their laundry as though it were still 1865. In ‘CommComm’, published in the New Yorker in 2003, a murdered couple unwittingly haunt their surviving son. No longer hungry, unable to pick up a fork or pee, they are baffled by their posthumous condition. ‘Something’s off but I don’t know what,’ the father says. That line could stand as a shorthand description of much of Saunders’s fiction, which, over twenty years and four collections, has often revelled in a sense of uncanny disorientation. But it seems especially fitting for Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, a polyphonic arrangement narrated by a chorus of ghosts who don’t know they’re ghosts.
The main action of the book takes place on a single night in February 1862, in Washington DC’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Every character we meet in the graveyard, save two (a nightwatchman and Abraham Lincoln) is recently dead. Convinced the coffins in which they spend the daylight hours are mere ‘sick-boxes’, and half-persuaded that they might recover into health at any moment, the ghosts are ‘tarrying’ in the near beyond. This grey purgatorial state is the ‘bardo’ of the novel’s title. It has little in common with the Buddhist concept of that name, which envisioned a sort of metempsychotic wormhole that connected successive cycles of rebirth. In Saunders’s bardo, a Dantean contrapasso transforms the ghosts in accordance with the moral ailments that afflicted their lives. Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who committed suicide, appears covered in eyes, noses and hands, a nod to the sensualist he became in the moments after he slit his wrists. A printer called Hans Vollman, killed by a falling roof beam hours before he planned to bed his young bride for the first time, is rewarded with a dented forehead and enormous erection. What awaits the spirits, once they work up the nerve to abandon their attachment to their former lives, is a confrontation with a mysterious ‘matterlightblooming phenomenon’, which escorts them to a terrifying final judgment.
The Lincoln of the title is not Abe but Willie, the president’s 11-year-old son, who dies of typhoid just hours before the novel begins. Like most of the ghosts, he is at first unaware of his own demise, and resolves to wait for his father to find him at the cemetery. This resolution gives the plot the kick it needs, as Willie’s determination runs up against a gruesome quirk of his new existence: children who tarry risk being trapped in the bardo for ever. To escape this fate, Willie must choose to yield to the matterlightblooming phenomenon, but that means accepting his separation from his father, and thus the reality of his own death.
Willie is only one of the narrators of his tale, which reads less like a traditional novel than a script for screen or stage. (Spliced within the central narrative is a second, composed of passages from real and invented historical sources, that describes the life of the Lincolns in the days just before and after their tragedy.) But while Willie is, with his father, the hero of his story, it is Bevins, Vollman and a preacher called Everly Thomas who deliver most of the lines. Joining these three are a throng of shades – each ‘wronged Neglected Overlooked Misunderstood’, as Willie puts it – who are eager to retail their own stories of woe. This is a ghost story, in other words, narrated by the ghosts.
In the early part of his career, Saunders was celebrated mostly as a satirist. He trained as a petrochemical engineer, and wrote his earliest published stories while working as a technical writer in upstate New York. The experience left him on intimate terms with the microhumiliations of white-collar drudge work. Years before The Office mined the same seam, Saunders identified the specific perversity of the modern corporation, which demands not just work from its employees but loyalty and affection – even something like love. Unlike Ricky Gervais, however, who hitched his on-screen satires to a realistic setting, Saunders translated his stories out into the near future, or over into cockeyed alternative versions of the present. His stories were filled with perverted theme parks, creepy testing facilities and grungy sci-fi conceits, all rendered in a hypercolloquial idiolect that set the chipper barbarities of capitalism in scathing relief.
When CivilWarLand appeared, in the mid-1990s, it was quickly swept up into one of America’s rare and mysterious revolutions in sentiment. A broad insurgency of irony was rising up in just about every medium – The Simpsons, the Baffler, Pulp Fiction – against the schmaltz that had ruled the country’s mass culture for decades. But even then it was obvious that Saunders wasn’t interested in snark for snark’s sake. Jay McInerney, reviewing CivilWarLand for the New York Times, recognised him as ‘one of those rare writers who can effortlessly blend satire and sentiment’. The shape of that sentiment became increasingly clear. In a eulogy for David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008, Saunders explained his friend’s accomplishment in terms that made it hard not to imagine he was also describing his own aspirations: ‘Something about the prose itself was inducing a special variety of openness that I might call terrified-tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a fix we’re in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds.’ To say that Saunders sought empathy in a world that seemed hostile to it wasn’t to say that he went in for easy uplift and happy endings: the poor in his stories got poorer, the cruelties of the universe were compounded, and not even death offered much of a reprieve. Many of his protagonists aren’t kind or even objectively decent human beings, but they are, in a strict sense, sympathetic: Saunders lets us overhear their rationalisations, their excuses, the stories they tell themselves to live. The goal, as he described it in an interview last year, was to create ‘a space the reader and writer agree to participate in together, within the playing field of a work of prose – in which they agree to make up a person and, together, go: “What would it be like to be her? How does she think? From what valid impulse do her mistakes stem?”’
In retrospect, the most striking thing about this focus on compassion was the way it accompanied – and even hastened – a growing consensus in American literary circles that saw empathy as fiction’s remaining credible raison d’être. For Saunders, as for Wallace, fiction’s task among the arts was to offer an answer to the problem of other minds. ‘The prime quality of literary prose – that is, the thing it does better than any other form (movies, songs, sculpture, tweets, television, you name it) – is voice,’ Saunders wrote recently. ‘A great writer mimicking, on the page, the dynamic energy of human thought is about as close as we can get to modelling pure empathy.’ Saunders’s reputation grew to the point that in 2013 a profile in the New York Times Magazine called him ‘a kind of superhero’. What was surprising wasn’t so much the suggestion that he was ‘the writer for our time’ – it would be hard to overstate his influence on American writing – but the terms on which the claim was established. According to the profile, Saunders had ascended to the first rank of American fiction because he helped his readers be ‘wiser, better, more disciplined in [their] openness to the experience of other people’.
And yet for all this emphasis on what one critic called Saunders’s ‘humane ethics’, the stories themselves remained as giddily inventive as ever. In ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, from his most recent collection, Tenth of December (2014), a man desperate to impress his daughter leases a set of live human lawn ornaments, who are strung up by an intercranial wire that holds their feet a few inches off the grass. In ‘Escape from Spiderhead’, from the same book, an intravenous drip of an experimental drug called ED289/290 prompts ‘transcendently stupefying’ bouts of lovemaking. Both stories solicit our empathy, but also remain faithful to the strange worlds of his own imagining.
‘The probability is high that there is a vast reality that we have no way to perceive, that’s actually bearing down on us now and influencing everything,’ Saunders said in the Times Magazine profile, which appeared after he’d already begun work on Lincoln in the Bardo. ‘The idea of saying, “Well, we can’t see it, therefore we don’t need to see it,” seems really weird to me.’ I don’t doubt that Saunders’s existential attraction to the ghost-story form is sincere. And yet it seems obvious that the post-mortem set-up of the novel also offered him a useful way to channel his antic energies. It’s only barely hyperbole to say that every minute of Lincoln’s every day in office has been written about by someone, somewhere, cluttering the trail of a would-be dramatist with hundreds of hard and implacable facts. By restricting the main action of his novel to a single night, and setting it mostly among the dead in Oak Hill Cemetery, Saunders is able to slip the straitjacket of historical fiction.
What’s more, the ghosts of the bardo offer a comic counterweight to the Lincolns’ shared grief. Besides Vollman, Bevins and Thomas, we meet Eddie and Betsy Baron, a poor, dirty couple who can barely speak a sentence without expletives; Jane Ellis, whose three daughters appear in ‘gelatinous orbs floating about her person’; and the Bachelors, a trio of young men who drift overhead, dispensing showers of hats. Irritable, sarcastic and often ridiculous, the ghosts joke and jibe at one another’s expense.
There are times when the novel seems too intent on mere entertainment, as though we can’t be trusted to manage its heavier moods without a little tap dancing to carry us through. You see this at the end of the novel, when, out of nowhere, Saunders stages a spectral ménage à quatre. You see it, too, in the middle of the book, when an earnest disquisition by Reverend Everly is interrupted by Vollman rolling a pebble down his extended penis. And you see it even in the novel’s second sentence, when Vollman describes his marriage at 46 to an 18-year-old wife: ‘I know what you are thinking,’ Vollman tells us. ‘Older man (not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood), exercises the marital prerogative.’ But no, he assures us: ‘That is exactly what I refused to do.’ Vollman decided unilaterally to refrain from sex, he says, at least until his wife pleads with him to ‘expand the frontiers of our happiness together in that intimate way to which I am, as yet, a stranger’. Forget for a moment the strangeness of a scruple that finds its red line somewhere between marriage and the marriage bed. (Yes, John Ruskin, but this, we’re given to understand, was Vollman’s second wife.) What’s really odd is Vollman’s need to explain a 19th-century wedding in terms meant to flatter a 21st-century sensibility. When Vollman says: ‘I know what you are thinking,’ he’s not only coddling his young wife – he’s also (with his author behind him) coddling us.
Every metaphysics encodes a moral vision, and Saunders’s bardo is no exception. For the most part the sins that shape the bardo’s structure are recognisably Buddhist: an attachment to the things of this world, an insistence on one’s own ego, an inability to recognise the suffering at the core of every person. The most distinctive feature of his ghost-world, however, is a phenomenon the Oak Hill ghosts approach with some trepidation. By superimposing themselves on a living human, they are able to experience the thoughts, feelings and memories of their host. Through the same means they are also able to share one another’s thoughts, as Bevins and Vollman discover when they occupy Lincoln at the same time. The effect, for the ghosts, is ‘an astonishment’. It stands, too, of course, as a literal instantiation of what Saunders once claimed was ‘what all fiction does, really, or tries to do – encourages us to step out of ourselves and into someone else, temporarily’. Empathy-by-haunting is also the way that we, and Willie, come to know the specific contours of the elder Lincoln’s grief. The first time Willie tries it, in the moments after his father has removed his corpse from its coffin to hold it close, he tells us he ‘could feel the way his long legs lay How it is to have a beard Taste coffee in the mouth.’ He hears his father consoling himself: ‘The feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again.’
The encounters between Willie and his father are some of the most affecting scenes in the novel. But they also set the stage for the book’s central conundrum. Contemplating his son’s death, the president considers a familiar complaint: ‘What put out that spark? What a sin it would be. Who would dare. Ruin such a marvel. Hence is murder anathema. God forbid I should ever commit such a grievous –.’ The sentiment is cut short, according to Vollman, who reports these thoughts from inside Lincoln’s head, by ‘a notion just arising’. The next chapter, a quasi-historical collage, makes plain what that means. The first snippet in the chapter tells us that ‘young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the casualty lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted.’ The lists were a shock to the public, ‘the cost in life being unprecedented thus far in the war’. So far the story has been a more or less local affair, a smallish tale about a graveyard of cranky ghosts and a grieving father and son who might, given new clothes and a new vocabulary, have been anyone. But now Saunders brings this minor drama into juxtaposition with the major war to which Lincoln committed his broken nation. And in the crux of this conjunction we can sense Saunders testing himself – testing what appear to be his own most cherished notions about the way the world works. Take his premise that every person on earth is in sorrow and suffering, and put it beside the conclusion that ‘therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.’ What then the excuse for a righteous civil war?
Saunders doesn’t duck this dilemma, even if, in the end, his attempt to square the circle is one of the least persuasive aspects of his book. His Lincoln can defend the war as a means to ‘end suffering by causing more suffering’, as a defence of the American democratic ideal, and even as a satisfaction of a mysterious divine bloodlust, but he appears philosophically incapable of the view, expressed by the real Lincoln in his Second Inaugural, that divine justice might demand war as recompense for ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash’ and ‘the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil’. The nearest thing the novel allows to the Second Inaugural’s ‘firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right’ comes late in the book, after a grand spectacle in which all the ghosts in the cemetery pile into Lincoln, like something from Whitman or the frontispiece to Hobbes’s Leviathan. As Lincoln leaves a chapel near the graveyard, he passes through the soul of a former slave called Thomas Havens, who catches his pace and walks with him for a while. Havens’s exhilaration at the sense of freedom initially strikes an off note; we wonder what penitential scheme could possibly see fit to keep a slave in bondage after his death. But eventually he exhorts the president to ‘do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves.’ For once in this book, however late and however quietly, we are reminded that not all suffering is equal, not all loads equally deserving of reprieve.