A strange beast of a novel
Fiction: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, Bloomsbury, hdbk, 368 pages, €18.20
Anthony Cummins admires a dazzlingly weird book about Lincoln's dead son from America's short-story master.
As far back as 2004, the American writer George Saunders admitted he "sometimes" felt pressure to turn from short stories to a novel. A US headline a few years ago put it more bluntly: "George Saunders Needs to Write a Goddamn Novel Already".
While the clamour exposes some flimsy prejudices about the relative value we put on different forms of fiction, it has been tantalising to wonder how Saunders would manage the side-shuffle.
There are distinct themes we might have expected. When he started writing, aged 37, after a career as a geophysical engineer, it was small-town America that held his focus, refracted through baby-boomer concerns about the deleterious effect of a corporate-driven culture that Saunders both loved and hated.
The world he wrote about was recognisable but dialled up to dystopian levels. Through it all, though, Saunders affirmed the little guy's potential to do the right thing in a world where corporate values have leaked into all corners of society.
So now we have it, his first novel. Is Lincoln in the Bardo some kind of sprawling, multi-threaded, speculative future America? Not exactly. Instead, he's taken a left turn into the past for a historical novel like no other - a supernatural ensemble extravaganza of awesome intricacy and somewhat perplexing purpose.
It's a ghost story built around the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie in February 1862 during the American Civil War. Ready to greet the dead boy after dark in a Georgetown boneyard are two old hands: Bevins, his body covered with extra eyes and his hands mutilated after his suicide; and Vollman, a fat printer brained by a fallen beam. Like their neighbours in the cemetery, they're tormented by grotesque visions of the past, but together with a cleric, Thomas - the only one who knows he's actually dead - they try to engineer communication between Willie and the living Abraham in the belief this purgatorial "hospital-yard" of "sick-boxes" is no place for a child.
A large appeal of Saunders' short fiction is his flair for fantastical but unobtrusive world-building. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders immerses himself in the texture of the afterlife - not just the shock of seeing one's own dead body but the ghosts' capacity to inhabit the living by entering their bodies: "taking exploratory runs... or brushing glancingly against him, or darting into and then out of him, as a loon might break the surface of a lake to seize a fish".
It goes without saying that this is all pretty weird. A fate the undead particularly fear, and which they want to spare Willie, is being snared by creeping tendrils and trapped under a carapace fashioned from the bodies of murderers and paedophiles; but there's also "matterlightblooming", which occurs whenever a ghost, well, gives up the ghost. Whether this is to be avoided or embraced ends up being important.
Saunders doesn't explain the title's reference to the Bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism a kind of interstate anteroom in which the time spent before reincarnation depends on how you spent your life on Earth. Saunders - a Buddhist - has expressed, guardedly, an open mind about dream-based communication from beyond the grave: "We tend to treat these things as kooky, but speaking scientifically, if 50pc of a data pool reports something, we ought to consider that."
How this plays out in the novel is a tricky matter. Saunders gives us a barrel-load of his typically bizarre conceits, but to what end? Willie's fate after death is plainly meant to be the focus, but the jeopardies on offer are drama-drainingly opaque and finicky to the point of equivalence: characters talk of "this place where no action can matter", or of being "tired of being nothing, and doing nothing, and mattering not at all".
That may be Saunders' point - the novel turns on a scrupulous weighing up over whether it's better to cling on to life as a shade or pass away into the unknown - but it's risky, all the same.
More invigoratingly, Saunders uses the mounting casualties from Lincoln's contentious pursuit of civil war to give a social panorama of America at a time of tumult. Some two dozen of Willie's new neighbours are wheeled out to tell us their stories - be it a "poor multiply-raped" mute amputee or a pickle tycoon called Lawrence T DeCroix, or two foul-mouthed, destitute dope-fiends, Eddie and Betsy Baron, run over in a road accident and dumped in a "common sick-pit".
But through all of this there is a feeling that we're being encouraged to lean back in our seat, impressed at the show rather than hunching forward eagerly to see what happens next. This is because Lincoln in the Bardo is, above all, a feat of style: there is no single narrator. The book proceeds as gobbets of text captioned to indicate which speaker is on the mic. While I found myself applauding Saunders's ingenuity in outsourcing to this complex apparatus the who-what-where-when of sentence-making, this ingenious trick for covering the acreage doesn't always work. In a novel that necessarily devotes time to outlining its otherworldly procedures, it can feel longwinded; to fill in the historical backdrop, there's also a good deal of quotation from various secondary sources.
Moreover, it doesn't spare him the hard work of having to put himself in the head of real-life figures, where the language deliberately flails: "matterlightblooming" for the final passing, or our glimpse inside the grieving Lincoln's mind ("blankblankblank").
It's moot how far the novel's most affecting moments testify to his skill or if they simply come with the territory. Certainly the pathos is strongest when the ingredients are plainest and Saunders's portmanteau concoctions don't get in the way - when Lincoln watches his son's dead body, for instance, and notices "The mouth a tight line. He does not (no) look like he is sleeping. He was an open-mouthed sleeper..." or when the boy, on first rising from his burial, thinks his parents are going to collect him from the cemetery, a hope swiftly followed by dismay that his father can't see or hear him.
That state of affairs doesn't last and for a book centrally concerned with the numinous it leaves little room for doubt and mystery in its desire to hammer home the idea that empathy might transcend even death. There's a certain irony that Saunders's most grown-up work should in its turning point feel like a cousin to his children's book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, about a widower lifted from his grief by his daughter's example.
The spooky eccentricity of Lincoln in the Bardo is ultimately put in the service of some fairly conventional ideas. When departing ghosts are shown the lives they "never succeeded in attaining", we're told the dope fiend Betsy Baron would never have been an "attentive mother" or "mindful baker of bread and cakes", which feels a bit mean when Saunders has relied on her invective for spice.
All in all, it's a strange beast, and closing it, I couldn't help wondering if George Saunders Needs to Write Another Goddamn Short Story Already.