I. Almost Surreal

I usually avoid the word surreal in my reviews. It has become a millennial faux synonym for unusual, fanciful, or magical. (Even worse is almost surreal, faux synonym for surreal). Then I encounter the following in George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo:

"'Bevins' had several sets of eyes All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive..."

"...In telling his story he had grown so many extra eyes and noses and hands that his body all but vanished Eyes like grapes on a vine Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands Slashes on every one of the wrists."

Okay, no almost there.

Mr Bevins is gay. He is also dead, although he doesn't quite get that yet. He's in denial. So are his friends (dead, not gay): Mr Vollman, a muffin-shaped spook with a flat sheep's nose and a freakishly large penis; and the Reverend Everly Thomas, the calmest and most reflective of the three, whose eyes nevertheless protrude in horror, whose hair stands on end, and whose lips are permanently pursed in an o of surprise. So, in fact, are the hundreds if not thousands of less-than-blithe spirits who haunt (if you can call it haunting) a fenced necropolis in beleaguered, Civil War Washington. The spooks provide a kind of Greek chorus for Lincoln in the Bardo. Or are they the protagonists of an odd literary confluence of Samuel Beckett and Thornton Wilder? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Saunders' novel won the 2017 Man Booker prize. Saunders himself is a poet and prose author, a Syracuse University professor, and a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Reputed to be a master of the modern short story, He was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people (in 2013) by the increasingly irrelevant Time magazine. In short, he's an academic darling who could write his name on a monkey's bottom and still be heralded as a literary genius for it. I'll try not to hold that against him.

Two things quickly become clear about Saunders long-anticipated novel (although granted there is much about Lincoln in the Bardo that is not clear). The first is that it should have been a play. The novel's dialogue is supported by no conventional narration. There are only long strings of quotations (like the epigraphs at the beginnings of novels) to represent the spirits talking among themselves. (Even the description of Mr Bevin's eyes and noses and hands is a line of ghostly dialogue). The work in fact began life as a play but morphed into an experimental novel because of something new Saunders wanted to try. He supplements his ghostly jaw-boning
with clusters of historical quotations. I do not know if Saunders wrote any of these passages himself. I recognize a few from books I've read or from the Ken Burn's television program about the Civil War. If he wrote none of them, then I take my hat off to his scholarship. The novel's historical chapters become like pointillist canopies composed of the bric-a-brac of selected (mostly primary) sources. And in Lincoln in the Bardo's early phase, it looks thrillingly like Saunders is going to succeed. But he does not. Soon enough the yammering of the living melts into the cacophony of the dead. Little plot moves forward and the novel becomes tedious if not outright irritating. Without conventional narration or dialogue (for the living at least), character development proves virtually impossible, and the novel becomes, in effect, a cartoon. Let us give George Saunders his due: Lincoln in the Bardo's form experiment was an inspired risk. But let us also be honest: the experiment failed.

II. Attack of the Tricky Angels

The second thing that is abundantly clear about Saunder's novel is that it is more confused than confusing. It is not an an imposing work. It can easily be read in a day and a night. The plot is (no pun intended) bare bones. Abraham Lincoln's 11-year old son Wille dies in the early years of the American Civil War (historically accurate). His distraught father twice pays secret nighttime visits to Willie's tomb (historically accurate) during which he opens the crypt and embraces his son's body (historically debatable). That's it. That's the plot of Lincoln in the Bardo.

Well, that's not exactly fair. Much else happens in the ghost world--mostly of a grotesque or cartoonish nature. Willie joins the cemetery gang. There is (eventually) a resolution of the spirits' denial of death as well as Papa Lincoln's grief. And most of all there is an extended fantasia on the afterlife, jumbled (meaning that it confuses Christian and Buddhist cosmologies) and ridiculously overblown at times. But while Saunders avails himself of the lavishly absurd, he never strays far from the ideological (faux Buddhist) reservation, giving his grotesque imagery an annoying sort of self-importance. For all its earnestness, Lincoln in the Bardo is a pretentious and pedantic novel. It is dogmatic without owning its sins: a novel that preaches without really knowing itself.

But okay, for the sake of clarity, let's go through it. The Bardo is not the name of the cemetery in which most of the novel is set; it is a Tibetan term referring to a state of consciousness. Though Bardo could mean several things (a dream state, a meditative state), it is most specifically the state of being after death but prior to reaching Nirvana or falling back into reincarnation and suffering. Some scions insist that Saunders' Bardo is the Catholic Purgatory. But Purgatory is a place of temporary and expiatory suffering, in distinction from hell, which is permanent. (Buddhist hells are temporary and expiatory, too, but later dialogue shows that Saunders doesn't get that--all part of the muddle). Willie's ghostly gang, however, are not suffering to expiate their sins. They are simply kidding themselves about being dead. That is why they are stuck in the Bardo.

Saunders keeps this vision (and its surreal morphologies) consistent for a time. Vollman's enormous, wagging member is a result of things in life he cannot relinquish. When he was elderly, he married an attractive young woman whose family had found the connection financially convenient. Too kindly to consummate the union (he believed she found him repulsive), he lived with her as a kind of protective friend. But eventually she fell in love with him and invited him to her bed. It was a happy ending--the start of a new and meaningful life together. Unfortunately, Mr Vollman died on his way to the bridal chamber--a twist of fate he can in no way accept. So he lingers, assuring himself that he is only temporarily incapacitated. I mean, real love is permanent, right?

Bevins' multiple sensory organs follow a similar pattern. Long a closeted homosexual, he could not bear his life's darkness and shame. He slashed his wrists when his lover left him for an attempt at the straight life. But as he bled to death, he was seized with a passion for existence. He understood at last the rightness of being who he was. He wanted to see and smell and touch all life had to offer (hence his many eyes and noses and hands). Like Vollman, Bevins is not being punished for sins--he is simply unable to let go of a life that was not finished. Neither are able to accept the Buddhist dictum that all things are transitory and some things will just never be.

But Saunders' Buddhist vision is quickly conflated with a Christian one. The novel's imagery becomes increasingly dark and Dante-esque. A ghostly mother who cannot relinquish concern for her two daughters is pursued by and crushed under twin orbs bearing their likenesses. A prodigious hunter must hold and comfort each of the hundreds of thousands of animals he has killed (including all the insects) "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." For all his "guilt free" ideals, Saunders seems unable to let go of notions of sin and punishment.

This muddling of religious ethics becomes more pronounced as the novel goes on. Soon the cemetery community is assailed by a host of single-winged seraph-like creatures who assume the forms of departed loved ones, seductive women, or past lovers, who try to entice the lingering spirits to leave. The ghosts stop their ears and turn their faces, convinced they are being deceived. And of course they are--a fact made plain when multiple images of Mary Todd Lincoln appear to Wille, even though his real mother in the White House at the time. These beings are liars, but in the logic of Saunders' story, in which all suffering arises from holding on to the transitory, they are (ultimately) benign and acting out of compassion for those they deceive. "You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore," they explain. Are they angels in a Christian sense? Well, as Saunders would have it, almost.

The problem is that these creature are well known in Buddhist tradition, and there is nothing benign about them. They are emanations of enemies bearing grudges and their intent is to trick you to hell where you will be tortured without mercy (near-death experience enthusiasts take warning!). But that doesn't work with Saunders "just let go message," so these demons get a moral make over. But the spirits are right to fear them, at least from a traditional Buddhist perspective.*

*My source is the Earth Treasure Sutra. I think Saunders uses the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I have not read. That tradition could be different.

III. Go to Hell

Most conspicuous of all--and most puzzling--is the case of the Reverend Everly Thomas, the calm, reflective shade whose face is permanently distorted into an expression of horrified surprise. Among the ghosts, the Reverend Thomas alone understands he is dead--yet he keeps it a terrible secret. After his death, the Reverend Thomas found himself on a road bound for a beautiful structure of radiant diamonds. Entering with two other souls (of whom he was last in line), he beheld a vast land of peace and glory presided over by King Christ. The first soul was tested and entered paradise to the joy of all. But the second was handed over to a sadistic beast who flayed victims alive and tortured them with fire. When it was the Reverend Thomas' turn, he was flabbergasted to discover that he too was damned. He could not imagine why. He had lived an upright life and repented his few sins. But there he was. Before being given over to the beast, he fled in horror. For some reason, he was not stopped, though a voice enjoined him to tell no one what he had seen or it would be worse for him when he (inevitably) returned.

Is this Buddhism? Well, not exactly. So why has Saunders included it in his book? If he is suggesting that Buddhists have Buddhist afterlives and Christians have Christian ones? If so, he is innovating--that's not a Buddhist or Christian teaching . Is Saunders consigning the Reverend Thomas to the flames for being a Calvanist? For preaching a harsh God and a doctrine of predestination? Is hell (even the Christian hell) just his karma for doing that? That may be warmer (again, no pun intended). The Reverand Thomas later comments:

"As I had many times preached, our Lord is a fearsome Lord, and mysterious, and will not be predicted, but judges as He sees fit, and we are but as lambs to Him, whom He regards with neither affection nor malice; some go to the slaughter, while others are released to the meadow, by His whim, according to a standard we are too lowly to discern."

But I think Saunders is simply drawing a kind of moral equivalency between Buddhist and Christian Judgment. Neither (he claims) is all that fair when you really think about it. The Reverend Thomas' confession of his Calvinism occurs in the context of an attack of demons (damned souls, not tricky Angels) on Willie. The demons were condemned for actual crimes, but there is nothing personal about their assault ("We are compelled," they assert repeatedly). They laugh cynically at the notion of cosmic fairness and argue that they were driven by inherited karma:

"Was I born with just those predispositions and desires that would lead me, after my whole preceding life (during which I had killed exactly no one), to do just that thing? I was. Was that my doing? Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find [my victim] so irritating? I did not. But there I was."

Another puts it:

"How could we have been otherwise? Or, being that way, have done otherwise? We were that way, at that time, and had been led to that place, not by any innate evil in ourselves, but by the state of our cognition and our experience up until that moment."

I hasten to add that I do not agree with that analysis (nor do I hold a Calvinistic view of predestination), but I think Saunders wants to show that one is no worse than the other. Or perhaps the whole thing is a send-up of a certain type of religious view. It's hard to say because Lincoln in the Bardo is just so bloody weird.

The novel's saving grace, if it has one, is its abundant humor. This is heavy and grotesque. Sometimes it recalls Swift. After the Reverend Thomas delivers a particularly pompous set of comments, Mr Vollman remarks: "Several of Mr. Bevins’s many eyes, I noted, were rolling." Sometimes the the three channel Thornton Wilder as they reminisce about the spooks who have come and gone ("Belinda French, Baby. Remember her?"). They fuss and gossip about their neighbors, agree or quibble with one another, discuss whether it is quite right to allow oneself to be passed through. Some of the demons who intrude into their world recall Dante's stupider devils. The humor is sometimes upsetting, but even at its most visceral (and Thomas' damnation is probably the apex), all Saunders' ghost dialogues are ultimately comedy--divine or otherwise.

And yet for all that, Lincoln in the Bardo is not a black comedy. Saunders remains ever credulous of his Buddhist trappings. When satire raises its shaggy head, the target is not Buddhism but human foibles, our grasping at illusions of permanence, with the ghost world closely paralleling our own. Lincoln in the Bardo may be contrasted to Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, a scathing black comedy of the afterlife and a superior novel in almost every way. Mantel would eat Saunders alive.

IV. Free Willie

Lincoln in the Bardo's weakest point is--well its plot. The failure of Saunders literary pointillism to move the story in the historical sections means its crisis must be established and resolved amid the grotesquely comical ghost dialogues. The result can only be compared to a Tex Avery cartoon.

Well, almost. Quite a bit of time is wasted in the world of the living, endlessly rehearsing details of Willie's death and funeral. Saunders is aware of the unctuous cult of children's death that arose in the 19th century. He wants to lampoon it, I suppose, as a way to show the unhealthiness of holding on to what's transitory (11 year olds never last: either they die or grow up). But his form experiment--we're still reading one historical quote after another--prevents him from rising above the morbid sentimentalism he objects to. Part of the problem is that the historical quotations mostly say the same thing over and over. And I don't mean to seem insensitive, but how many times do you have to bury a kid before a plot can move on? Or if that's the the point (and of course it is), isn't there another way of expressing it?

The answer, alas, is yes, and that's what the Looney Tunes ending is all about. One of the ground rules of the ghost world is that (as Mr Bevins puts it) "young ones are not meant to tarry." When that happens, it emerges, tentacle-like tendrils grow from the earth to ensnare the child, eventually forming an iron like grip and a shell-like covering. A trapped child (and the cemetery community already boasts one) comes to suffer hellish torments and transformations with no apparent way out. The demons who complained about their karmic lot were actually speaking from the tendrils that came for Willie (don't think too much--just embrace it).

Can President Lincoln free Willie before the creeping tentacles of possession claim him forever? Thufferin' thuccotash!

Of course, there is a heartfelt side to what Saunders is doing. Father Lincoln is unable to accept his beloved son's transitory nature, just as Bevins and Vollman
cannot give up the things that matter to them. And the morbid excesses of Willie's funeral are only a macrocosm of the turmoil in the bereaved parent's heart.

During one of Father Lincoln's nocturnal visits, our spooks overhear him praying that his son is in a better place. Convinced that Willie will leave if he knows this to be his father's wish (and so be saved from the creeping terror), they attempt to draw the president into another encounter with him. That story is as crazy and convoluted as everything else in the novel (at times I was literally humming Bugs Bunny music), but since it ultimately provides resolution, I will withhold comment for fear of spoilers.

But I cannot break off my discussion of the book's close without two criticisms. The first is that Willie (the nominal Lincoln in the Bardo, after all) receives no character development throughout the novel. He is recognizably the historical Willie Lincoln (and recognizably an 11-year-old boy), but that is all he ever is. He has a major role in resolving the ghost's denial of death predicament, but even then he is just a tool of the author's dogma--a preacher's prop. The second criticism is that the novel's final scene contains an implicit historical etymology so hackneyed that it is well that it was not spoken aloud. Need I add that I would not have awarded this novel the Man Booker prize?

V. An Extraordinary Pile

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. I would not recommend it to those interested in Lincoln, historical novels, or the Civil War. Those with an interest in Buddhism and religion are on their own, as are those who enjoy Saunders' poetry and short stories (since I have never read any and cannot compare). Those who want a fast read that will allow them to leave a Man Booker prize winner casually strewn about their living room will certainly find it worth the investment (although surely no such people read my reviews). Those interested in new forms for the novel will want to give it a chance, as will those who enjoy Dante, Swift, and grotesque comedy in general.

The hunter who must embrace and console the hundreds of thousands of animals he has killed sits, according to Mr Bevins, before a "tremendous heap of all the animals."

Mr Vollman adds, "It is an extraordinary pile."

"So is this book, really," I wrote in the margin. But it was only a joke, and I couldn't help but imagine George Saunders laughing at it.