All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. [roger bevins iii]
It was the nature of things. [hans vollman]
Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. [roger bevins iii]
At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. [hans vollman]
We must try to see one another in this way. [roger bevins iii]
I realized Lincoln in the Bardo was going to work for me about a dozen pages in. The first little bit was hard going: who are these people? are they going to prattle and pontificate like this for the whole book? (By the end of the novel, I knew these two well enough to want them to stay, even though by then I also understood that it was better they should go.) Then the voices multiplied, and it was easier, if still disorienting; then we were at the party, and there were flower arrangements and “hives … filled with charlotte russe” and venison steaks; and then there was this:
Yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling hostess and her husband. They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all. [Kunhartdt and Kunhardt, op. cit.]
A lot else goes on in Lincoln in the Bardo besides the illness, death, and interment of 11-year old Willie Lincoln.Saunders takes Lincoln’s mourning for his lost son and his own extraordinary, creative, phantasmagorical vision of the inhabitants in Willie’s new home, at once among and apart from the living, and builds up a powerful story about both historical particulars and human universals. Lincoln enters the Georgetown cemetery a man broken by grief; he is ultimately overtaken by what seems like an entire nation, with all its sins and aspirations and accomplishments and omissions. In the process we too take on a multitude of stories, no less powerful (to my ongoing surprise) for coming to us in fragments. The novel is a swirl of voices, but they are placed and paced so that the narrative accumulates momentum and gains rather than loses power from the juxtaposition of the drama in the cemetery with comments about the Lincolns and their loss from observers and historians.
It’s a bravura display of narrative ingenuity, and especially given how fantastical the premise is, the result could easily have been (and I fully expected it would be) flamboyant gimmickry, clever and original but soulless. It isn’t, though: I think Lincoln in the Bardo is actually one of the most touching and heartfelt novels I’ve read in years. However far it spirals away from reality, and however abstract its political or philosophical or historical implications become, it always comes back to the hardest and most intimate truth of all: nothing we love lasts. “None of it was real,” says roger bevins iii near the end:
nothing was real.
Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.
These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named then, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.
And now must lose them.
This is the reality Lincoln faces as he puts his beloved son in a box in a marble crypt and walks away (“imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way [in ‘Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Isabelle Perkins…]). “The president,” reports Mr. Samuel Pierce in his “private correspondence,”
turned away from the coffin, it appeared by sheer act of will, and it occurred to me how hard it must be for the man to leave his child behind in a place of such gloom and loneliness, which never, when responsible for the living child, he would have done.
“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict”:
When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be? [Milland, op. cit.]
Willie’s death is as much the occasion for Lincoln in the Bardo as its subject, and there are many other sorrows recorded in it–many losses as or even more wrenching, many deaths as arbitrary or worse, and many lives that before those deaths were more deprived, more isolated, than Willie’s, that never had the kind of love that brings his stricken father out into the dark, cold night to sit one last futile time with his son. The world is much bigger, and has much bigger problems, than little Willie. His Presidential father, for one thing, carries the burden of leadership alongside his personal responsibilities and feelings. Lincoln imagines his own grief multiplied by the thousands dying in the Civil War:
He is just one.
And the weight of it about to kill me.
Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I–
How should such personal suffering be weighed against the political and moral causes for which these boys are dying? “Did the thing merit it,” Lincoln wonders. “Merit the killing”:
On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?
Lincoln believes that there is an ideal, an aspiration, worth fighting for: “all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free.” “The thing,” he concludes, “would be won”; he leaves the cemetery with his resolve restored and, significantly, accompanied in spirit by someone whose sadness is a motive not for retreat but for battle:
Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel you are, and as inclined towards 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 deadline, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do. [thomas haven]
They ride “forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen,” their unity a hopeful symbol of common cause, an optimistic invocation of a better, if distant, future.
But Saunders never lets these big ideas overpower the simplicity and finality of death, which is what gives his novel its almost unbearable poignancy. After all, whatever our unfinished business or our unfulfilled promise, no matter the strength of our loves or our hates, one day our wish for “the great mother-gift: Time. More time” will be refused. He does at least offer some consolation in his enumerations of the “things of the world,” things that are no less precious–that are perhaps even more so–for being impermanent:
Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth.
Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease. . . .
Geese above, clover below, the sound of one’s own breath when winded. . . .
Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.