In February 1862, Willie Lincoln, the eleven-year-old son of Abraham and Mary, died of typhoid. His parents were, by every account, shattered, and in the following days the president reportedly made solitary nighttime visits to the crypt in which his son’s corpse had been interred.
George Saunders, already esteemed for his short stories and essays, takes one such visit as the premise of his first novel, which is among the less likely and more moving works of fiction I have read.
It is also among the hardest to explain. The “bardo” of its title comes from Tibetan Buddhism and refers, among other things, to the period between death and rebirth. Lincoln in the Bardo’s multiple narrators, Willie Lincoln among them, find themselves in this state without quite realizing it; they know something odd has happened but believe themselves to be convalescing and long to go home. By day, each must enter his “sick-form” in its “sick-box” six feet under. By night, their immaterial selves “walk-skim” about the graveyard — conversing, remembering, forgetting, and desperately trying to stay put.
Where they might go instead, none is sure. Periodically, the frozen cemetery is transformed into a blooming garden and each among the dead has visions of the people he left behind. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” they say, and invite the dead to follow them to another life or realm. But it’s not quite believable. “Mother came,” Willie tells us. “About ten of her But none smelled the least like Mother Say, what is that trick To send a lonesome fellow ten false mothers.” (Willie prefers extra spaces to periods.) Despite the lack of verisimilitude, great force of will is required to resist their call. “To stay,” another narrator explains, “one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.”
So fixated are they on their reasons for staying that their immaterial forms express the fixations. One narrator, killed by a falling beam on the day he would have consummated his marriage, appears naked and encumbered by his “tremendous member.” A young man who has committed suicide after being jilted by his lover rhapsodizes about the small quotidian beauties of life and appears with many eyes, ears, noses, mouths, as if desperate to take in everything he no longer can. These and other voices alternate with chapters composed of quotations from books and historical records, which set the broader scene. Included are a few imaginary sources that the reader might not recognize as such, making it slightly difficult to know what is history and what is fiction: my only complaint.
Readers of the Bardo Thodol, usually but inaccurately presented in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, will recognize some of its imagery in Saunders’s descriptions, as well as themes and images common in Buddhist sutras. But Saunders has avoided structuring his plot as an exact analogue of the Tibetan text, and were it not for the novel’s title, one might read it without knowing that it has anything to do with Buddhism at all.
A few Buddhist ideas will nonetheless help make sense of it. The first comes not from Tibet but from the second- or third-century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, who held that the fundamental nature of all things is shunyata, a Sanskrit term usually translated as “emptiness” or “voidness.” Neither translation, with its nihilistic overtones, is adequate. The idea is rather that things lack any inherent, unchanging nature or fixed existence: Shunyata can be understood as a rejection of the essentialism that has dominated so much Western thinking, in favor of something like the ever-changing flux of Heraclitus. This doctrine eventually came to dominate all Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism (that is, most of Buddhism). In the monasteries of Tibet, its development reached a pitch of intellectual complexity comparable to that of medieval Western Scholasticism, and at about the same time.
The concept of shunyata provides an insight into Tibetans’ attitude toward their vast pantheon of buddhas and deities. It’s not that these beings are thought to represent mere aspects of one’s own psychology, as is sometimes claimed, nor are they regarded as more real and ultimate than human beings, like the Judeo-Christian God. They are instead considered to be exactly as real as we are, part of the flux along with everything else. Or, as one of Saunders’s narrators puts it with more poetry and paradox: “None of it was real; nothing was real. Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely clear.” Held to be one with the flux — not somehow “beneath” or “behind” or “beyond” it — is the primordial nature of mind. What this is I cannot clearly explain; it is said to be knowable only through meditative experience. But the literature describes it as luminous, clear, full of compassion, and transcending the duality of subject and object.
The Bardo Thodol describes a series of visions that the dead will have, first of peaceful and then of wrathful buddhas. In order to escape the cycle of birth and death and become a buddha oneself, what is required is simply to recognize these visions as one’s own “projections” and see them as inseparable from the primordial nature of mind. And that is a second interpretive key to Lincoln in the Bardo. Without it, readers will likely mistake one of the novel’s most vivid and disturbing scenes for the final judgment and think that a thoroughly admirable character, a minister, has been damned. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, he is just seeing his own fear of hell. (Which is not to deny that, also according to Buddhism, cruel deeds will bring upon those who commit them an intense if non-ultimate kind of suffering.)
A third interpretive key is the ethical notion that by seeing one’s lack of fixity — by letting go of rigid self-definition and experiencing the tremendous relief that comes with this — one will naturally become more compassionate. Saunders’s deceased narrators undergo this loosening of self in a dramatic way: They are able both to merge with one another and to enter the bodies of the living, thereby experiencing the minds and thoughts of others. “My God, what a thing!” exclaims one. “To find oneself thus expanded!”
The expansion is not always pleasant. Suffering might be the thing to bring it about, and Saunders imagines that Willie Lincoln’s death had something like this effect on his father. Abraham has been “made less rigidly himself through this loss,” comments a narrator who has experienced his thoughts. “Therefore quite powerful,” adds another.
This Lincoln is characteristically philosophical, and we hear at length his imagined reflections on both the moral significance of the Civil War and the mysteries of life and death. Far from presenting these as unrelated topics, Saunders convincingly weaves together the historical and the personal, the political and the existential, in Lincoln’s powerful, brooding mind. The result is a kind of epiphany: “His sympathy extended to all, . . . blundering, in its strict logic, across all divides.” The dead experience similar insights, and the three main narrators respond by making personal sacrifices in Willie’s behalf. (Saunders’s bardo is particularly hard on children who tarry there, perhaps symbolizing the way in which patterns of egotism and injustice harm the most innocent among us.)
This novel is often funny, but sad, sad, sad. Most of its narrators introduce themselves with a brief summary of their lives and sorrows, and to read these is to be made viscerally aware of the universality and variety of human suffering, from that of the beautiful slave who spent her whole life being raped to that of the lonely old spinster, dull and plain. But the sadness is without bleakness and contains no hint of despair. As I read Lincoln in the Bardo, I thought more than once of the final stanza of Matthew Arnold’s depressing poem “Dover Beach”:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
I think that if I consistently believed everything after that exclamation point, I would be unable to rise from bed, let alone heed Arnold’s injunction. Lincoln in the Bardo’s land of dreams is, in a way, the opposite. Armies clash, but not ignorantly, and one of them for a great and just and noble cause. As one of the narrators prepares to exit the bardo, he “thr[ows himself] down on the good and blessed earth,” regarding it no less for its transience and woes. And if Saunders’s Lincoln is lacerated by grief and far from certain where Willie has gone, he at least has the comfort of not needing to aspire to love, but instead, holding his son’s lifeless body, can think, “Love, love, I know what you are.”