Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, May 12, 2017

George Saunders, _Lincoln in the Bardo_

I LIKE IT a great deal, but speaking as a longtime fan, Saunders's first novel is not at all what I was expecting. Our laureate of the alienation of labor in late capitalism, Saunders's short fiction tends to be set in a world recognizably our own, given a bit of satirical exaggeration--that is, even though we have no theme parks where employees have to pretend to be Neanderthals, nor teenagers raised to be marketing focus groups, nor immigrants used as lawn decorations, such things seem all-too-possible extrapolations of the world we live in.

The setting of Lincoln in the Bardo, however, is quite literally other-worldly. As the title tips off to anyone with a cursory knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, we are in the afterlife. What's more, we are in a peculiarly American afterlife, contemplating Lincoln, that most American of presidents, in the midst of the Civil War, that most American of historical traumas, as he grieves for the death of his young son, Willie.

The novel's most prominent characters, though, are neither Lincoln nor Willie, but the... souls, I guess we have to say, of several folks buried in the same cemetery Willie has been buried in. Unconvinced that they are indeed dead, confident that their loved ones are making every effort to revive them, they are hanging around in increasingly attenuated and bizarre forms, refusing to "move on." Hans Vollmer, Roger Bevins III, and the Rev. Everly Thomas are the ones we hear from most often, but there are quite a few more, including some slaves from a different section of the cemetery.

The plot turns on their recognition that Willie really ought to "move on," and that for the sake of the nation Lincoln has to "move on" as well--to which ends they bend their efforts, compromised though they are by their incorporeality.

These characters, for all their delusions, are great fictional company. It's as though they stepped out of some wild evening's collaborative composition by Melville, Hawthorne, and Stowe during the heyday of Matthiessen's American Renaissance. The afterlife conjured here evokes the same moment in the history of American spirituality: a little Emerson, a bit of borrowing from the Mysterious East, a good bit of home-made Christian cosmology รก la the Millerites, the Mormons, the Shakers, and the whole burned-over district crew.

Lincoln in the Bardo is like one of those great mid-19th-century American one-offs, say The Confidence Man or The Blithedale Romance; the surprise is that within all the pastiche it turns out to be emotionally affecting as well, in a way that my fellow Saunders-fans will recognize.

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