An American Sutra: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Michael J. Sanders

New York, NY: Random House, 2017. 344 pages. $28.00.

Apart from George Saunders’s moving new novel Lincoln in the Bardo, out this February from Random House, The Tibetan Book of the Dead has seen at least two other comedic reincarnations in American fiction. In his wildly popular English language paperback from the 1960s, the theosophist W.Y. Evans-Wentz notes that the book’s Tibetan title literally translates to “The Liberation by Hearing [Thödol] on the After-Death Plane [Bardo].” Peg me paranoid, but when we learn that the soul wanders through the bardo for seven weeks, it’s hard not to hear Evans-Wentz’s two words re-echoed as The Crying of Lot 49 (1965). Similarly, Don DeLillo has often said that a working title for White Noise (1985) was “The American Book of the Dead.” This idea of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as partial allegory for the nation has the reverb effect of making the characters, the reader, and America sit ear to amplifier and wade patiently through their own dissonances. Each of the three works—through a California in crisis, the suburbs in paralysis, or the souls of slaves and princes—tries earnestly to hear, to catch those voices of the voiceless stirring all around us, just one frequency off of our moral dial.

And so within this context then, what of this haunted American past remains in our Trumpocalyptic present, refusing to die and stay dead?

Hoo boy, Saunders seems to say, quite a lot.

Lincoln in the Bardo opens with chapters alternating between pure fiction and a pastiche of historical accounts, often humorously incompatible, cut from the ever-growing Lincoln shelf of the public library. Saunders then limits himself here again, mostly disallowing any one voice from either side to go on for more than a few lines, leaving the reader, like the historian, to wonder whether she can or even should puzzle together something that might pass for true and complete. The pleasing result that appears on each page is a narrative itself in a bardo, an intermediate state between fact and fiction, imagined life and real death, a litany of accounts that can read like a scroll of Buddhist sutras or an eerie Twitter feed of the dead.

From this strange form, we enter the story on the living side during a charged half-week of Lincoln’s presidency. However contentious and irresolvable we think the two largest factions of American political life are now, Saunders lovingly prods us to peel up the past, compare, and learn. February 2017 was no February 1862. To a month in which the war dead were beginning to heap not in piles but mountains, add that Willie, the Lincolns’ third and purest child, would contract typhoid and die. Mary Todd would drink herself out of sorts on sorrow and laudanum. And the President himself, reviled on all sides, would suffer greatly, but he would not succumb.

Yet why not? Saunders asks. To answer, he takes us back to the after-death plane of the Tibetan Buddhist bardo, where souls painfully look toward the resumption of their old lives instead of affirming the truth: that they are dead and may never go back. Those unschooled in the concepts of dharma, sangsara, or rdzu-hphrul that support this after-death logic will find that the culture has attuned them to the bardo metaphysic with films like Spirited Away (2001), Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), and Albert Brooks’s cult classic Defending Your Life (1991). Yet for Saunders’s characters, like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the realization that one is dead is both entirely positive and ultimately inevitable, and is the key feat of awareness one can perform in the bardo, an awakening accompanied by a celebratory “matterlightblooming” kerplow of energy.

Though for Willie Lincoln’s two main psychopomps through the bardo, such pyrotechnic overcoming of ignorance is anathematic and frightening. Hans Vollman, killed by a beam to the face on his wedding night, floats about in the bardo with a member like a Louisville Slugger. And his friend Roger Bevins III is a blob of multiple eyes and noses with a dozen hands each slit at the wrist. Both characters instruct Willie on the ways of the bardo, misleading him to value persistence in their lost cause of reentry into life. No analog with southern secession is meant, one feels the writer smile. Here Saunders’s best talents come to the fore in having Bevins and Vollman, less akin to Dante and Virgil than to Beavis and Butthead, encourage Willie into misadventuring and exploring the topographic limits of their cemetery-space of the bardo world. The lascivious and the love-shy, the rich and the down-and-out, the unsung and the unknown—all these lovable preterite coexist in a mutually reinforced cognitive dissonance.

The magic happens when the two Lincolns—the dead boy a Pietà to the grieving man—unite. An unfulfilled first meeting leads numerous bardo souls to try to persuade (via spirit-possession) the President to return. The ensuing ruckus causes much of consequence below, including a grave-break of the slave souls out of their segregated corner of the cemetery. Saunders expertly cleaves both Lincolns between both races, powerfully questioning what, exactly, things like moral and political courage truly are, and when—or if—America has ever seen such things flower into something like justice—or like liberty—for all.

Here and elsewhere, the creative form of the book lends itself to thoughtful extrapolation. A nation mid-civil war is not unlike a soul in psychomachia, at once both oneself and not, struggling for new indices of ethical movement, reconciliation, and truth. We are a nation bifurcated by generation, old and young, poorer and richer, often at cross-purposes, racing ever-faster at dreams, schemes, and each other’s throats. And we have been so not just since Reagan, but since Lincoln, maybe since always.

Saunders, the good leftie, reminds us that today we are still dealing with white and male privilege, the tragedies of a war economy, the unbroken lineage of racism and slavery. But there is also something more micropolitical at play. We Americans, of mostly all stripes tend to sing of Ego glad and big, to paraphrase a poet. And Saunders knows there is a lie there. If, collectively, we haven’t really come that far since slavery, it’s hopeful, perhaps, to know that personally, no one really has that far to go. Somewhere, at some point, each storied American seeker must settle. The pilgrim toward what may be better—or may be just better business—must plop down. Assay the land. Breathe in that craving, breathe out its ending. Rest.

A dead child then becomes the ultimate stage for Saunders to play out both his Buddhist primer (all is suffering, all grasps at permanence illusory) and his lasting idea—constant in all his work—of radical tenderness. And though Saunders can at times push the idea too far, bleeding pathos into masochism or conflating negligence with malice, his calls for forgiveness and endearment sync up against an American sangsara as prevalent then as now, as always. Don’t harden your mind that another might soften. Don’t go to war for peace. Instead, build peace like a house within you. Let anyone in who asks, and then maybe go out and find others in order to neighbor that community.

But not too far, Saunders warns. For we expand as far as we must contract. If the just society exists somewhere in the bardo—between a never-was and a never-will-be—then maybe we only make it by letting go. Maybe it only exists in a paradoxical higher connection that—like author with reader—can be nothing more than an invisible embrace.

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