At the end of a New Yorker article published this past summer, George Saunders wrote that Donald Trump had given him a gift. Saunders had been traveling across the country, attending Trump rallies, documenting the “ungentleness” of the candidate, the candidate’s supporters, and those who protested the candidate. As a “sentimental middle-aged person who cherishes certain Coplandian notions about the essential goodness of the nation,” Saunders was saddened by the brutality, both rhetorical and physical, that he observed. And yet this ungentleness came with a silver lining: Trump’s merciless campaign helped the author realize that the American republic might not, after all, end well. “I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.”
Saunders is, I suspect, not alone in discovering his imagination newly enlarged. Even for those of us who don’t cherish idealized notions about our nation, the failure of American democracy seems more plausible than ever. Liberal opinion makers have adopted an increasingly apocalyptic tone. America, some fear, is “doomed.”
As more Americans entertain such doubts, it might be helpful to ask about our prior failure to imagine this dismal possibility. What makes a future imaginable or unimaginable? What is the relationship between entertaining failure and forestalling it?
George Saunders is a great writer with whom to think through these questions. His new novel—his first!—offers an astonishing diagnosis of the liberal American imagination circa 2017. It’s a lucid example of how artists might contribute to our political self-understanding.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a wondrous book. It tells the story of an evening in a Georgetown cemetery after Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has died from typhoid fever at the age of 11. Willie’s spirit arrives in the cemetery, and lingers among a group of eccentric ghosts who have not gotten over their deaths. Indeed, they seem incapable of even saying the word “dead.” They understand their corpses as inhabiting what they call “sick-boxes,” and they remain stubbornly attached to their former lives. These spirits inhabit a cartoonish, comic version of the bardo, the Buddhist transition zone between life and reincarnation.
Lincoln’s greatness is his capacity both to embody and to live out the terrible consequences of these ghost-given insights. His talent is not unlike Saunders’s own.
Saunders imagines the bardo as a physical space, a haunted layer of reality superimposed atop our own, filled with antic spirits capable of bizarre transformations. Nothing much happens there. The ghosts shapeshift, degenerate, argue amongst themselves, and remember former lives. Occasionally, there is a reaping of spirits in the form of a frightful “matterlightblooming phenomenon”—an army of angels, disembodied voices, and shapeshifting glowing lights—which draws lingering ghosts into their next incarnation, commanding them to squarely face their deaths, trying to convince them to begin the process of reincarnation.
In what passes for the novel’s plot, Abraham Lincoln, grief stricken, almost wild with suffering, visits his son’s corpse, and the feverish ghosts plot together how to convince young Willie to commune with his father. They hope that the young ghost can, by inhabiting his father’s body, be convinced to move on to the next life. The effort to bring the living Lincoln and dead Willie together is the emotional motor of the novel. The book is incredibly sad.
What makes the novel a masterpiece, however, is its form. The book is entirely comprising, for want of a better term, epigraphs, which are arrayed together into a supernatural commonplace book. Some extracts represent the quoted speech of the novel’s large cast of ghosts, in which they tell delightful, depressing, hilarious stories and have strange and confused dialogues with one another.
A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk. And so our plan must be deferred, while I recovered. Per the advice of my physician, I took to my —
A sort of sick-box was judged — was judged to be —
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Efficacious, yes. Thank you friend.
Always a pleasure.
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At other times, the ghosts act as the novel’s manifold narrators, speaking of one another in the third person, reporting dialogue, setting scenes, recounting actions.
We embraced the boy at the door of his white stone home.
He gave us a shy smile, not untouched by trepidation at what was to come.
the reverend everly thomas
Go on, Mr. Bevins said gently. It is for the best.
Off you go, Mr. Vollman said. Nothing left for you here.
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Goodbye then, the lad said.
Nothing scary about it, Mr. Bevins said. Perfectly natural.
There are also textual fragments (historical documents, memoirs, diaries) contextualizing Lincoln’s situation in February 1862, describing the circumstances of his son’s death, and discussing the status of the Civil War. Some of these fragments are quotations from real sources. Saunders cites Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt Jr.’s Twenty Days, A Narrative in Text and Pictures of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington: 1860–1865, Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House, and many others. Other sources are ingenious fabrications. As far as I can tell, Margaret Garrett’s All This Did I See: Memories of a Terrible Time and Jo Brunt’s The Union Citadel: Memories and Impressions are invented by Saunders, who combines real and invented sources without distinguishing between them.
[The Lincolns’] party had been savagely attacked, but all the important people had come to it.
A clear sightline could not be obtained for the crush; one moved dazed through a veritable bazaar of scents, colognes, perfumes, fans, hairpieces, hats, grimacing faces, mouths held open in sudden shrieks, whether joyful or terrified it was difficult to say.
In “All This Did I See: Memories of a Terrible Time,” by Mrs. Margaret Garrett.
Exotic flowers from the presidential greenhouse were in vases every few yards.
Kunhardt and Kunhardt, ibid.
The diplomatic corps made a brilliant group—Lord Lyons, M. Mercier, M. Stoeckl, M. von Limburg, Senor Tassara, Count Piper, Chevalier Vertinatti, and the rest.
Multitiered chandeliers illuminated the East Room, above carpets of sea-foam green.
In “Rise to Greatness,” by David Von Drehle.
A patter of languages sounded in the Blue Room, where General McDowell, conversing in perfect French, was made much of by the Europeans.
Every nation, race, rank, age, height, breadth, voice-pitch, hairstyle, posture, and fragrance seemed represented: a rainbow come to life, calling out in manifold accents.
Explaining the effect on the reader of these narrative shifts and changes in register is difficult, even with lengthy quotations at hand. One experiences many scenes as if through a kaleidoscope, leaping from voice to voice, sometimes very quickly. The best description of the novel’s form may be Saunders’s own. In an interview with New York magazine, he says moving from writing short stories to writing novels was like moving from “building custom yurts” to building a “mansion” comprised of “a series of interconnected yurts.” At first, the effect of moving from yurt to yurt, voice to voice, is jarring, but one quickly adjusts to the layout of Saunders’s peculiar mansion.
Consider Mr. Papers.
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Essentially a cringing gray supine line.
Of whom one would only become aware once one had stumbled over him.
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Cannery anyhelpmate? Come. To. Heap me? Cannery help? Can any wonder? Help. Conneg ayone heap? Unclog? May?
l. b. papers
We had no idea what Mr. Papers might previously have been.
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There being so little of him remaining.
Go on Move along Else receive an unglad message in your bentover I’ll come right up under and ventilate your undertenting.
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Bevins, I’ll piss a line of toxic in yr wretched twin wristcuts Gropping you by yr clubdick, Vollman, I’ll slang you into the blackfence.
I, for one, was afraid of him.
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The novel’s plural, contradictory array of voices is an analogue to American democracy. Lincoln is, for Saunders, the nation’s redeemer, the figure in whose symbolic body the diverse nation unites. Attempting to convince Lincoln to linger in the cemetery so that Willie can commune with him, various ghosts literally cram themselves into the president’s body, hoping that together they can communicate with, perhaps even influence, the nation’s chief executive. We’re led to believe that their efforts are misguided—Lincoln can’t really hear their pleas—but the process of joining together within the president’s body arouses enormous joy: “What a pleasure. What a pleasure it was, being in there. Together. United in common purpose. In there together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another’s minds, and glimpses, also, of Mr. Lincoln’s mind. How good it felt, doing this together!”
Though Lincoln cannot hear the ghostly community during its “serendipitous mass co-habitation” of his body, the ghosts gain access to the insight that “though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true.” They arrive at the realization that “at the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.”
Lincoln’s greatness is his capacity both to embody and to live out the terrible consequences of these ghost-given insights. His talent, not unlike Saunders’s own, is a capacity to feel a universal sympathy for his fellow man, a sympathy that “extended to all in this instant, blundering, in its strict logic, across all divides.” This capacity allows Lincoln to reject the view that “the rabble cannot manage itself,” and to commit himself to “lead[ing] the rabble in managing.” Saunders imagines that American unity requires a generalization of Lincoln’s universal sympathy. On this view, Lincoln is the nicest guy in our history.
But Saunders’s portrait of Lincoln is, at the same time, under enormous internal strain, especially when the novel addresses slavery. These are the book’s least sure-footed moments. Near the end of Lincoln in the Bardo, the ghost of a former slave, Thomas Havens, who had formerly rationalized his enslavement as “living an exaggerated version of any man’s life,” enters Lincoln’s body and beseeches him:
Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel that you are, and as inclined toward us as you seem to be, endeavor to do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves. We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadly, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do.
Here, the contradiction at the heart of Saunders’s liberal hope becomes clearest. Havens’s appeal to Lincoln’s sentiment is fused with the recognition that what makes Lincoln worth addressing isn’t his kindness but his power. Saunders struggles to imagine a way to reconcile the absolute need to destroy the institution of slavery with a politics of gentleness. Not quite able to think of Lincoln as a political actor who uses his power to achieve factional ends, Lincoln in the Bardo finally lands on the moral-philosophical conclusion that mercilessness may, at times, be the greatest mercy. Saunders’s Lincoln concludes that sometimes one must “end suffering by causing more suffering,” and that “the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest.” Lincoln imagines that it’s his fundamental decency that requires him to unsentimentally destroy his enemies.
The problem Saunders arrives on the edge of addressing openly is easy to state: a sentimental politics that celebrates kindness and scorns ungentleness is not nearly up to the task of overcoming domination and exploitation. No program of kindness will reconcile those who wish to preserve slavery and those who wish to destroy it. In light of this failure, Lincoln in the Bardo should be viewed less as a novel of the new Trump era than of the preceding Obama years, during which the gentle ideology of post-partisanship confronted the ungentle intransigence of a relentless political foe. Once upon a time, way back in 2010, liberals imagined that the American republic could be healed if, as Jon Stewart had it, we would simply “Restore Sanity” to our public discourse.
Liberalism’s opponents are not insane; instead, they have radically different aims and values. Just as the ghosts of the bardo cannot say the word “death,” Saunders’s Lincoln cannot face the idea that our common suffering doesn’t obviate the need to choose a side and to defeat one’s political enemies. And yet he must choose, and does.
The gift Saunders’s wonderful novel may give its readers is a renewed awareness that even the gentlest among us cannot avoid taking responsibility for how the American experiment unfolds. Whether or not that experiment finally fails, Lincoln in the Bardo will be remembered as one of our most perspicuous artistic visions of the contradictions facing the Republic at this moment of decision, as we stand together on the threshold separating our prior state of existence and the next.