‘Giving Up the Ghosts: a Review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo’, by Dominic Amerena

It kills me to say it, it really does, but maybe George Saunders should stick to short stories. Or maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe it’s an aberration that his long awaited debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo is scatty and gassy, and kind of a total mess. Maybe the novel is a masterpiece, or it’s merely good-to-great; most other reviewers certainly seem to think so. Maybe I was just expecting too much.

Zooming out a little, I think that Lincoln in the Bardo speaks to the pressures and expectations that we—the critics, the readers, the users—exert upon our great artists. Basically, do we want them—the writers, the thinkers, the ones who make our lives that little bit lighter—to change or to stay the same? Viewed within the context of Saunders’s body of work, Lincoln in the Bardo does both; it’s a departure and a return, a parabola and a plateau. Sadly, I don’t mean any of this as a compliment.

There was a certain sense of finality to Tenth of December, Saunders’s fourth collection of short stories, published in 2013. The ten stories were set in a dystopic neoliberal shadow world of bullshit jobs and mega corporations, populated by loveable losers who are—for one reason or another—struggling to keep their heads above water. These collections had heart and they had craft. They were (are) adored by middle-aged mums and lit bros alike. But they also felt like the exclamation point at the end of a fictional project that Saunders had been working on since his first collection Civilwarland in Bad Decline (1996). Everyone loved Tenth of December, of course, but they also wanted to know: what comes next?1

What came next is a novel about Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, and ghosts, lots and lots of ghosts. Set in 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War, the novel revolves around the death of eleven-year-old Willie, from typhoid fever. Willie’s coffin is interred in a crypt in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, in preparation for his funeral the next day. Abraham is unable to say goodbye to his son, and spends the evening beside Willie’s coffin. The titular ‘Bardo’ refers to the Buddhist conception of a liminal world where a consciousness passes between death and reincarnation to a new form; a kind of non-judgemental purgatory.

So the cemetery is chock full of spirits who have lingered in this realm. They’re ghouls with vampiric tendencies; they sleep in their coffins (“sick-boxes” in the novel) during the day and are released to wander (or “walk-skim”), in various states of decay, around the cemetery at night. None of them know that they are dead. Moved by the appearance of the forlorn Willie Lincoln, the ghosts team up to help the child pass through to the other side.

The conceit is audacious and dangerous, total high-wire act stuff. In books like this there’s the potential for the writer to put on a great spectacle, or to fall flat on his face, and Saunders manages to do both at the same time. Lincoln in the Bardo is pure voice, comprised of little more than the ghosts (with their names transcribed, almost like a film script) narrating their interactions with Willie, and the pitiable back stories which have led them to be trapped in “this place of great sadness.” Woven throughout are excerpts from real primary documents (meticulously cited by Saunders), describing the historical circumstances surrounding Willie’s death. In a sense Saunders feels like a kind of curator, blending the real world with the one he has invented.

There’s often a feeling of defamiliarisation in the first few pages of a Saunders story; a kind of seasickness, where the reader must acclimatise herself to the atmosphere of each particular micro-environment. Sometimes it’s a setting or a premise that she has to get used to, such as the Palaeolithic re-enactment scenario in the title story from Pastoralia. Other times, it takes a while to understand the idiosyncrasies of a particular voice.2

In the shorter form, this feeling of not-knowingness (and the resulting feeling of discovery when the story’s logic starts to make sense) is an asset. But the array of voices in Lincoln in the Bardo is completely disorientating, a kind of literary tinnitus. Though Saunders remains a fantastic ventriloquist, the experience of reading the ghosts’ rapid-fire dialogue often reminded me of sitting at the back of a particularly unruly classroom. Below is an egregious example, but you get the idea:

It was me started that fire.

andy thorne

I steal every chanse I git.

janice p. dwightson

I give her dimonds and perls and broke the harts of wife and children and sell the house from under us to buy more dimonds and perls but she thows me over for mr hollyfen with his big yellow laughing horseteeth and huge preceding paunch?

robert g. twistings

It’s a shame because when Saunders’s narrative eye focuses on a particular character for more than a few paragraphs, the results are usually splendid. The recitations of the multiple narrators’ past lives are told with verve and pathos, and make for the most interesting (and most classically Saundersian) writing in the novel.

But Saunders’s shadow world feels hazy and under-developed. In his short stories, questions about where we are and how we got there are not so important; it’s the characters that make the stories sing. So a story like ‘Civilwarland in Bad Decline’3 is not really about a theme park that simulates mid-nineteenth century America. It’s about a character trying to maintain his dignity in a world, which thinks of him only in terms of the value of his labour, as meat in the grinder of late-capitalist economics. We don’t care about the park’s history, nor the minutiae of its operations (though it provides a great backdrop for the story); we care about the characters inside it.

But in the longer form, the world has to operate with its own internal logic, and Saunders’s Bardo presents a number of nagging questions. For instance, why are some ghosts allowed to mooch around the cemetery at will, while others are “punished” with Inferno-like tasks, such as the hunter who must stare into the faces of the animals he killed “for a period ranging from several hours to several months, depending on the quality of loving attention he could muster and the state of fear the beast happened to have been in at the time of its passing”?

Why is it such a big deal that Willie passes on ASAP, given that the other ghosts have been “tarrying” in the cemetery for years? Besides a few ghostly pronouncements that “These young ones are not meant to tarry” and “it’s anathema for children to tarry here”, the reasons for the ghosts’ urgency remain vague.

Eventually a “shell-like carapace” begins to grow over Willie composed of “Thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed.” The tiny bodies are all demonic souls—pederasts and infant killers etc.—who are hell-bent (I couldn’t resist) on dooming Willie to an eternity of pain and torture.

Are these souls from the Bardo or another realm? It’s never really made clear, and seems to have been inserted to manufacture some tension, and to propel the plot towards the dramatic (and very moving) finale, where the ghosts inhabit Lincoln Snr’s body in the hope of convincing him to convince his son to stop tarrying.

Saunders’s Lincoln is straight from Central Casting: a brooding, soulful man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Saunders’s portrayal relies heavily on the many, probably too many, quotations that he includes concerning Lincoln’s appearance and personality. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it mostly felt like a version of Lincoln that I’d read (and watched and listened to) many times before. I couldn’t help but picture Daniel Day-Lewis sitting there in the crypt.

But there’s no denying the affective power of Lincoln’s consciousness presented (through a spectral medium) on the page:

The world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact.

It’s probably the most explicit description that Saunders has ever given (in his fiction at least) of the humanistic project that underpins his body of work. Saunders has made his name as a stylist and a satirist, but the quality that makes his fiction truly memorable is the great compassion and dignity with which he treats his subjects. Many of his greatest stories4 are effectively sustained submersions in the consciousness of another in which we perceive (so keenly, so sadly) their fears and hopes, their strengths and failings. Saunders is obviously trying to do the same in Lincoln in the Bardo, but the structure of the novel is so chaotic, so cacophonic, that it’s hard to really keep a hold of anything.

Back in 2013, Saunders said that he has always thought of the novel as “a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief.”5 You have to wonder whether this book could have done with the same judicious (or savage) level of pruning.

And look, if I’d picked up Lincoln in the Bardo without knowing who George Saunders was, this would probably be a different review. I would have said stuff like: “remarkable sense of invention” and “grapples [literally] with questions of life and death.” All of that is true of course, but as it is, I find myself feeling the same way I did after the Tenth of December was published. I find myself wondering, what’s next?

Dominic Amerena is a writer, editor and researcher from Melbourne. His work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Australian, The Age, Overland, The Australian Book Review, Meanjin, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and Vice.

1. Headlines like “‘Writer of Our Time’ George Saunders Needs to Write a Goddamn Novel Already” were pretty representative of this vibe.

2. A good example of this—‘Victory Lap’ from Tenth of December—is available at The New Yorker.

3. This story—the first in his first collection—can be read as a sort of template for the novel. It’s set in the Civil War (though a re-enacted one), and is populated by a number of ghosts (as are a number of his other stories) who have suffered violent deaths and are unable to pass on.

4. Any of ‘Escape from Spiderhead’, ‘Pastoralia’, ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, ‘The 400-pound CEO’ or ‘CommComm’ will do the trick.

5. Tellingly, Saunders also said that three of the short stories in Tenth of December were originally novel-length (the wonderful ‘Semplica Girl Diaries’ was apparently over 200 pages long) before they were pruned back.