Why don’t I like Lincoln in the Bardo more?

I reread Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders last week, hoping that this time it would hit me a bit harder.

I want to love this book as much as I love the rest of Saunders’ work. Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation are favorites of mine, and Civilwarland in Bad Decline is also up there. His essays are often tremendous; Saunders is one of my favorite writers.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story; it’s a lot of ghost stories. Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie (spoilers) dies while Lincoln is in his first term. He is buried in a chapel plot and then becomes a ghost. He converses with many other ghosts, all dallying for their various reasons. Lincoln himself dallies, shocking the many spirits of the graveyard by returning to mourn his son the night after the burial.

Saunders is so big-hearted a writer, his portrait of Lincoln’s grief so raw, it touches me deeply. His ghosts are grotesque but also kindly drawn, and their sorrows often left me moved. Saunders is above all a moralistic writer in the best sense, and I’m a sucker for stories about people struggling to do the right thing when the stakes are the highest, and this is that kind of story.

The moral picture, as far as I understood it, is that his sort of ghosts are precisely a certain type of human. Lovers of freedom and independence, they have to fight to remain as they are – ghosts, that is, though the ghosts are in denial about who they really are. They are, of course, dead creatures. We, the living, in contrast are dying creatures, also pushing away thoughts of our mortality for the sake of getting through the day.

The greatest cause of the spirit’s life in this book – the only cause – is survival. It takes constant internal work to resist the urge to move on. This requires a focus on freedom and survival and a systematic refusal to let others into one’s heart. This, Saunders argues, is bad. I guess I have to agree.

The thing that drives me nuts about the book is that I don’t get why this is a story about Lincoln, and I don’t get the way he tells that part of the story. Yes, there are parallels drawn between the personal and the political in the novel. Saunders draws a line between the South’s insistence on freedom and autonomy and the selfish egoism of the ghosts. In a pretty cool scene, all the ghosts in the graveyard literally embody Lincoln, and it’s strongly implied that our ability to embody the station of others is at the heart of the moral impulse – Lincoln performs this for the nation at the political level.

But the historical aspects of the story are told in a fragmented way, with faux-historical sources excerpted one at a time, commenting on the Lincoln family and Willie’s death. Frequently, the historical sources contradict each other. This is the same fragmented way that the ghosts speak in. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what Saunders is trying to do with all of that. Is his point simply that we remember stuff differently? Why would he be making that point. It’s such a showy way of telling the story, and I have no idea why he does it.

I felt a lot of things while hanging out with those ghosts but very few things while trudging through the historical bits. He seems to be suggesting that those memoirs and those ghosts have the same manner of speech, but I still can’t see what he makes of that.

Anyway, I like the book but I feel as if I should like it more.

Leave a Reply