‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ a dazzling, supernatural tour de force

George Saunders’ first novel bends genres

It’s been 25 years since George Saunders published “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a dark and hilarious tale of fatherly anxiety and restless ghosts trapped in a cycle of violence.

Now, eight books and countless awards later, “the best short-story writer in English” (per Time magazine) circles back to similar themes in his long-awaited first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

Like his stories, the ambitious genre-bender ramps up the supernatural strangeness tenfold, along with the author’s signature absurdity and bawdy wit. This may not sound like the ideal ingredients for emotional gravitas, or even coherency, yet Saunders somehow concocts a curiously profound reflection on grief and human suffering.

In February 1862, the shadow of war dampens the merry-making at an over-the-top White House reception. The bacchanal is made all the more garish by news that the president keeps slipping upstairs to check on his feverish 11-year-old son, Willie, “the child in whom Lincoln had invested his fondest hopes, a small mirror of himself.” The boy soon succumbs to typhoid.

At Oak Hill Cemetery, a trio of spirits take a protective interest in Willie’s ghost. Hans is a lusty, aged printer who never had a chance to consummate his new marriage. Forlorn Roger slit his wrists after spotting his secret lover flirting up a new gentleman. And the always startled Rev. Everly Thomas may have insights into the afterlife that he dares not share with his phantom cohorts.

None of them realize that the “exceedingly tall and unkempt fellow” sobbing over the boy’s coffin is the president, “Mr. L himself.” The graveyard houses an unruly horde of spooks each fighting their own war between states — of existence.

“The bardo,” a term from Tibetan Buddhism, describes the liminal space between death and rebirth. But the earthbound souls of Oak Hill don’t know that they’re dead. They refer to their former lives as “the previous place” while carrying on the same old backbiting and bellyaching. “None were content,” Willie observes. “All had been wronged. Neglected. Overlooked.”

Saunders supplies voices and intriguing back stories to dozens of the departed, giving the novel an eerie breadth reminiscent of “Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters or Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

We meet stately Mrs. Ellis, plagued by “three gelatinous orbs floating about her person, each containing a likeness of one of her daughters. At times these orbs grew to extreme size, and would bear down upon her, and crush out her blood and other fluids.”

Then there’s the foul-mouthed Barons, Eddie and Betsy, who’d been “drunk and insensate, lying in the road, run over by the same carriage.” Elsewhere, cartoonish accounts of mouths frozen “in a perfect O of terror” and apparitions with extra eyes, noses and hands bring to mind “Beetlejuice.”

Novices to the author’s style should be warned: The macabre slapstick and crude running jokes might be an acquired taste. Another potential barrier to entry is the unconventional structure. Chapters unfold via a patchwork of clippings from historical documents (some fictional) and first-person reports. It’s a bold stylistic device that can be daunting in the opening chapters, but sorting out the many voices and plot threads proves well worth the effort.

Saunders says he first got the idea for the novel more than 20 years ago when he heard an account of Lincoln visiting Willie’s grave. An abandoned effort to write it as a play may shed light on the book’s experimental format.

Just when we start to grasp the basic rules of the afterlife, the cemetery explodes in aromatic flowers and star-shaped fruit falling from winter trees. What follows is a mind-blowing and uneasy visitation from supernatural beings who may or may not be angels who try to lure reluctant ghosts to the next astral plane. Later in the book, a sinister wave of demonic beings and a startling glimpse of heavenly judgment raise major questions about destiny and forgiveness.

The nugatory narrative adds another layer of complications once spirits start “occupying” the bodies of the living. Characters share thoughts and memories in a dazzling stream-of-consciousness mash-up. When two ghosts enter the bereaved Lincoln at once, they compare notes on their impressions. “There was a touch of prairie about the fellow,” one observes, “like stepping into a summer barn late at night.” The other replies, “Or a musty plains office, where some bright candle still burns. … Spacious. Curious. Doom-minded. Ambitious.”

As the novel progresses, Lincoln’s grief grows into an urgent concern, which Saunders handles with sincerity. The tormented president finds himself trapped in an in-between space of sorts, weighing his private devastation against reports of a Union victory in which more than 1,000 soldiers perished. Lincoln wonders if he has the heart to keep the war effort going. “Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. … Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.”

A similar blossoming of compassion occurs among Willie’s ghost protectors, who work to ensure that the boy can move on to a higher plane and not be stuck in the graveyard. “All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be,” Roger observes. “Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true.”

His shared epiphany with Hans arguably has consequences for the tormented president, who leaves the graveyard with a renewed spirit — literally and figuratively. “Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.”

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