So much of history is linked to the novels that have defined us. They are “timely,” they speak to the issues of an era, they seize on the “zeitgeist.” Novels reflect our faults, wreck our preconceptions and urge us to be better in our time, right now. Simply put, we need them.
I don’t need to tell you that 2017 was a painful year. Violence, aggression, natural disasters—we are hurting, as individuals and as a nation. “Lincoln in the Bardo” meets us there, in that pain, with a real story of real loss.
Speaking of “right now,” I can think of no more timely book for 2017 than George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It may be strange—when online streaming platforms dominate media and 26% of adults won’t read a book this year—to suggest that a novel is timely. But “Lincoln in the Bardo” is no ordinary novel. It is weird, wonderful, heartbreaking, hilarious, inventive and wholly original. It is award-winning, critically acclaimed and most importantly, oh so relevant to you and me today.
Here’s the premise: in February of 1862, with the Civil War barely a year old, Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, dies of a fever and is buried in a Georgetown cemetery. Upon his burial, though, Willie enters a supernatural realm, “the bardo,” the liminal space between life and death. Here, he meets all the other ghosts of the cemetery who have refused to move on to the next life. See? Told you it was weird. But allow me to make my case for why a novel about nineteenth-century ghosts is what America needs today.
To start with, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is about dealing with loss. I don’t need to tell you that 2017 was a painful year. Violence, aggression, natural disasters—we are hurting, as individuals and as a nation. “Lincoln in the Bardo” meets us there, in that pain, with a real story of real loss. We see a man carrying the weight of a divided nation on his shoulders and reeling from the death of his beloved son.
We see Lincoln at his lowest, kneeling in the crypt, calling to his son and saying, “You were a joy… Please know that.” The scenes with Lincoln at the cemetery are heart-wrenching and yet so palpable, so relatable.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” does not shy away from showing authentic grief. Instead, it plumbs the depths of loss, and reflects the grief in all its timeliness and timelessness. We need that.
Secondly, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is about a multitude of voices. In our globalized, social media-determined world, it is possible to hear everyone’s story, or just the story we want to hear. However, “Lincoln in the Bardo” insists that we listen to the multitude. The novel isn’t structured like any novel you’ve ever read; no, it’s written in the first person, from the perspective of more than a dozen characters who are all telling the same story… and they each have their own version, own prejudices, own personal narratives… yeah, I know. It sounds chaotic. But what Saunders accomplishes is complete and utter “polyphony”—that is, a number of distinct voices coalescing into something magnificent. Rather than being chaotic, we see what is possible when every voice is treated with dignity. We need that, too.
Finally, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is about knowing one another. Like Lincoln, we live in a divided time, where neighbor doesn’t understand neighbor and factions bump against each other ceaselessly. The novel recognizes this reality, but it also presents us with a powerful alternative: empathy.
In our globalized, social media-determined world, it is possible to hear everyone’s story, or just the story we want to hear. However, “Lincoln in the Bardo” insists that we listen to the multitude.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the book, but the ghosts have this way of commingling in which they suddenly understand each other. They experience another individual’s story, fully and with compassion. As one ghost states, “So many years I had known the fellow and yet had never really known him at all.” This is the heart of the book: it is harder to hate someone when you know their story. We need that more than ever.
In his acceptance speech for the Man Booker Prize, Saunders sums up the central question of his novel:
“Do we respond to fear with exclusion, and negative projection and violence, or do we take that ancient, great leap of faith, and do our best to respond with love, and with faith in the idea that what seems Other is actually not Other at all, but just Us, on a different day?”
This is the question that “Lincoln in the Bardo” asks, and this is the question we need to ask in 2018. Is the Other really the Other? “Lincoln in the Bardo” meets us right where we’re at, with beauty, with pain, with wit and with empathy.
I guess novels can still be timely after all.