George Saunders never meant to write a novel. Or maybe he had come to a certain acceptance about his work. “I had gotten to the place,” he admits, over the phone from Santa Cruz, California, where he is on book tour, “where I was all right with not writing a novel. You know, me and Alice Munro: we don’t do that.”
Saunders may be joking, but there’s a strong line of substance behind the jest. Like Munro, after all, he is considered among the finest living practitioners of the story, the author of four collections—CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation, and Tenth of December—that, each in its own way, reconfigures our conceptions about how short fiction operates. “My aesthetic,” he explains, his accent flat, with the broad vowel sounds of the Midwest (he was raised in the suburbs of Chicago), “is one of efficiency, of understatement. Isaac Babel is someone who is often in my mind. Get in and get out.”
And yet, the irony is that Saunders is on the road for, yes, his first novel: Lincoln in the Bardo, which uses a moment of historical ephemera—the report of an 1862 visit by then-President Abraham Lincoln to the crypt of his 11-year-old son Willie—as a launching point for a remarkable inquiry into life and death and love and moral responsibility.
“I’ve been carrying this idea for 20 years, ever since my wife’s cousin pointed out the crypt on a tour of Rock Creek Park,” Saunders says about the book, which frames Lincoln as not just a leader, but also a father, a man unable to process his grief. “He told us that Lincoln had supposedly gone there, alone one night, and held the body. This was during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and I was struck by the idea that Lincoln could leave the White House by himself.”
If that makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound like a historical novel, this both is and isn’t the case. Yes, the circumstances are as they must have been: a nation consumed by civil war, a president under attack for his policies and his inexperience, a father adrift in the wake of enormous personal tragedy. What makes the novel transcendent, however, is Saunders’ approach.
Rather than a traditional narrative, he stitches his story by accretion: a Greek chorus of voices, dozens of them, who recall their lives while also recounting that of the Republic—echoing, in many ways, Lincoln himself. The novel is narrated, for the most part, by the ghosts who occupy the cemetery where Willie has been brought, and they are a complex bunch: Hans Vollman, who died at 46, the night after consummating his marriage to a much younger woman; Roger Bevins III, who committed suicide in despair over a homosexual affair only to realize as he lay dying “how unspeakably beautiful all of this was…this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.”
We are in the bardo, in other words, a kind of middle, or liminal, space between the living and the dying, where, in Tibetan Buddhism, souls are sent before reincarnation. That Saunders, who is a Buddhist, has superimposed such a mythic territory upon the very real landscape of a graveyard is just one of the leaps that make the novel so unexpected. “What if,” he asks simply, describing his characters, all of whom carry into death their earthly fixations and longings, “neuroses, intentions, and regrets get supersized at the moment of death?”
What Saunders is talking about is imagination, which has been his métier all along. The title novella of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline takes place at a decaying amusement park, while “The Semplica Girl Diaries” unfolds in a world almost exactly similar to this one, except for the women imported from developing nations to serve as living lawn ornaments. Pyrotechnics is a word critics and readers often use to describe his facility with the outrageous, but if Saunders agrees that this is not inaccurate, he also insists on taking a more complicated point of view.
“What I’m trying to do in the novel,” he says, “is pyrotechnic in a higher sense, to construct a bunch of mirrors that reflect a more nuanced reality.” To get at that, he intercuts the graveyard action with citations from historical works, real and invented, to create a tapestry of phrases and impressions: narrative by collage.
As an example, Saunders cites Lincoln’s realization, late in the novel, that “[t]he swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest.” It’s a bitter moral reckoning—and one that gave its author pause. “I had to force myself to write it,” he says. “I didn’t want Lincoln to be that guy. Still, I’m looking not to avoid those contradictions in the text but to embrace them, to let them sit there unresolved. This is what I mean by pyrotechnics, some element that takes us somewhere deeper than we knew we had to go.”
In order to pull that off, Saunders acknowledges, he had to create some guidelines. The entire novel takes place over a single night and never leaves the graveyard—“strict parameters,” the author notes, to keep the story bound.
“At one point,” he says, “I wanted the book to take place over three consecutive nights, but when I tried to write about Lincoln in the White House, I didn’t care.” Eventually, he chose to collapse the time frame; “one night,” he laughs, “I felt I could do.” The humility is genuine: “Someone like me,” Saunders observes, “who came to the game late, with only a limited ledger of abilities, has to find a way to do what he’s good at. How do you accept the basic constraint of your talent but make the illusion of expansiveness?” The answer is to frame the one night as somehow representative, not only for the ghosts trapped in the bardo, but also for Lincoln and the republic, which is itself a tapestry of voices and of souls.
For Saunders, this is the point—not just of history, but of literature. “When I think about the book,” he says, “I think about the modes in which we communicate. If Facebook and Twitter are fragmentary blips, quick bits of sugar, the novel can be an antidote.” That’s a powerful notion, and it resides at the core of Lincoln in the Bardo, in which the overlap of characters adds up to a consciousness that can only be called collective: representative, in other words, of all of us.
What this means, Saunders suggests, is that, especially in a culture that appears as divided as the one in which Lincoln lived, fiction can be restorative. “The novel,” he insists, “relies on a multiplicity of viewpoints. The novel relies on ambiguity. If we are looking, in fact, at two different modes of information, we are finding out the limits of the one. But the other reminds us of the full capabilities we have as human beings. It is a more sustained way of engaging than momentary bursts. That mode of communication reduces not just our intellect, but also our emotional life. It’s almost as if we are angels who have forgotten we have wings.”
David L. Ulin is the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times.