Here’s why You Should Read Lincoln in the Bardo
By Giulia Leo / Matthew staff || Edited by Marica Loffreda
When reading for the first time George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, one’s first thought inevitably coincides with Charles Baxter’s response to the book: “I have never read anything like it,” he wrote in his article for The New York Review of Books. Baxter points out that what makes the book truly unique is its capacity to “inhabit two realms,” the historical one and the “Wonderland” one. In other words, Baxter recognizes in the intertwining of fiction and non-fiction one of the most peculiar elements of Saunders’s novel. However, to put it into Maureen Corrigan’s words, “it’s not like Saunders is doing anything new here.” As the critic explains, ever since the advent of Postmodernism, writers have been continuously experimenting with historical narrative, and Lincoln in the Bardo is simply joining in on the trend.
Lincoln in the Bardo is inspired by the true story of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln who died in 1862, aged 11. The novel tells the story of Willie’s arrival in the bardo, a liminal state inhabited by the souls of deceased people who do not realize they are dead. Saunders’ novel doesn’t only tell the story of Lincoln’s grief and acceptance, but it also gives voice to 166 narrators, each of whom is forced to face their deepest fears and ghosts from the past.
Thomas Mallon points out that, in Saunders’s novel, the characters experience a dissolution of interpersonal boundaries, which allows them to quite literally enter each other. Such an action is made possible by the recounting of the experiences of empathy that derive from the phenomenon that Saunders calls co-habitation. Co-habitation is not merely used to explore the president’s thoughts. It is, instead, an attempt to create an empathic collectivity. For instance, to me, the most moving examples of co-habitation were not the ones in which Willie enters his father, but the ones in which other characters all inhabit the body President Lincoln, to reconcile the man with his son.
In their reviews of the novel, both Charles Baxter and John Self allude to the concept of the ineffable, which not only haunts the characters throughout the entire book but is also important to consider in relation to the co-habitation experience. It is, in a way, paradoxical how being a novelist—therefore being, by definition, someone who shapes thoughts and feelings into words—Saunders has the capacity to make his narrators not use words. The simplest dynamic in which the reader notices a certain ineffability is Bevins, a closeted gay man doomed to being constantly exposed to sensorial pleasure, constantly needing the help of his friend Vollman to fully express his own thoughts. However, the entire universe of the novel gravitates around the concept of being unable to put thoughts and ideas into words. All the characters of Lincoln in the Bardo exist because they can neither say nor consequently realize they are dead. Therefore, when the term “death” is used—when thoughts are shaped into words—the Saundersian universe seems to implode and finally collapses, disappearing in the blinding lights of a multitude of matterlightblooming phenomena.
During the co-habitation phenomenon, Litzie Wright, who is unable to speak throughout the entire novel, recuperates her capacity to do so. In this episode, words become tools of connection rather than weapons of destruction. It is, therefore, only through a shared experience of empathy that the ineffable becomes expressible. However, it should be remembered that co-habitation is still an ineffable phenomenon. There is very little exchange of spoken words between the characters, because the experience rather consists of a communion of thought, shared with the reader through Saunders’s innovative use of stream of consciousness. Furthermore, none of the spirits are fully able to describe the phenomenon. The genius of Saunders is to be found in the fact that, although his characters are unable to provide an exact description of what co-habitation is, or what it feels like, the scene is not only extremely easy to picture, but also incredibly moving. Saunders has the ability to move his readers by using words to describe the absence of words.
In his article, Baxter praises Lincoln In The Bardo for being able to “inhabit two realms
–” and Baxter could not have chosen a more appropriate verb to describe the main action that Saunders performs in his novel. But it is not the inhabitation of only two realms that makes Lincoln in the Bardo the masterpiece it is. Rather, it is the act performed by the spirits, to both literally and metaphorically inhabit each other, that gives life to the true peculiarity of the novel: the meta-stream of consciousness