Almost all of the characters in George Saunders's first novel are ghosts who haunt Oak Hill cemetery, where their bodies are buried, and the book is told almost wholly in their competing voices. It's like a play in that it is mostly dialogue, but the novel's idiosyncratic spelling and typography make the ghosts' lines seem less like speech than something written or transcribed: a pair of drunken guttersnipes talk mostly in deleted expletives ("st," etc.), a simpleton's dialogue is misspelled evocatively ("not to menshun. . . a grate many"). The rules of this version of the afterlife are revealed gradually, but I can tell you most of them here without spoiling anything. The ghosts, as per ghost SOP, are stuck in their liminal state because they have unfinished business in the material realm. They can manifest in different forms, which they are sometimes unable to control. They are invisible to living beings and cannot influence the living world except immediately after their deaths, or as a team, and with great effort. With one exception, they are willfully unaware that they are dead—they consider themselves sick, or trapped in a dream during a surgery, or waiting to be discovered on the kitchen floor after attempting suicide. A coffin is a "sick-box." Their increasingly decrepit bodies, which they must rest in during the day, are their "sick-forms." When they wake at sundown, they are free to roam, "walk-skimming" anywhere in the cemetery they like, but must stop at its fences. If they linger too long, their ghostly forms deteriorate badly, especially if they died young. Occasionally one of them accepts his death and moves on to whatever's next; this event is always accompanied by a "firesound" and a "matterlightbloom." Also, it's 1862, and the latest addition to their ranks is Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie, who has arrived after a bout with typhoid fever. When his father comes to visit his grave, he lifts the corpse up from its coffin—sorry, "sick-box"—and whispers in its ear; this unusual event soon becomes the talk of Oak Hill, and disrupts life-after-death there permanently.
In anyone else's hands, this premise would be too ridiculous to generate pathos, but Saunders has long excelled at creating alternate realities, starting with the near-future dystopia presented in his now-classic CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Many of his stories have a deeply empathetic eye for characters who are trapped—in grim jobs, in mournfulness, in compromises required by end-time conditions. Though Bardo is a novel, in many ways Saunders continues to capitalize on his skills as a miniaturist. The individual ghosts' monologues function as short stories unto themselves, sometimes freestanding, sometimes doled out in increments and interspersed with other characters' speeches. Saunders churns out ghost after ghost with virtuosic brio, endowing each with a unique voice and reason for being trapped in limbo.
The most prominent ghost characters are a group of Oak Hill old-timers who have become friends postmortem and are determined to persuade Willie to leave (matterlightbloom, etc.) before he becomes trapped in the in-between place. One, Hans Vollman, is a middle-aged typesetter whose friendzone marriage to a much younger woman was just about to turn sexual when he got whapped upside the head by a falling beam; he manifests in the nude with a comically outsize boner. Another, Roger Bevins III, is an emo teen who committed suicide after being rebuffed by a man he'd been secretly fooling around with. He longs for the world's sensual, material pleasures, which he describes beautifully and at length every time he speaks to the reader; he appears as a many-eyed, many-nosed, many-handed version of himself with slashes on all his wrists.
These images start out vivid but then somehow turn vague. It is hard, even for Saunders, to maintain his typical level of absurdity, his stylistic comfort zone, over the course of an entire novel. The ghosts don't often describe themselves or one another and are tricky to keep in the mind's eye as one reads. Saunders struggles with some of the more unwieldy aspects of supernatural-world building. As the rules of ghost realm pile up, some conflict with each other, and others raise questions that never get answered. Why are some ghosts serving out Dante-style sentences, like the hunter who has to hold and apologize to a giant pile of carcasses, while others are free to just walk-skim around chatting? There is something amorphous and ephemeral, too, about the question that animates the book, which is whether Willie will leave this place (and whether these other guys will, too). We know that they probably will, but even if they don't, does it matter? They are, after all, already dead.
Photo of an "atmospheric apparition" from the book Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler. Courtesy Tony Oursler.
Still living, though, is Abraham Lincoln. You don't have to do a ton of work to make readers invest their sympathies in a man whom they're likely already familiar with, especially since here they're meeting him at a moment when the Civil War is raging and his third-born son has just died. Saunders's Lincoln is, as we expect, good, kind, wise, just, and broken—but not quite completely shattered—by the burden of bearing his country's collective grief as well as his own. The interior monologues that we overhear as Lincoln caresses his dead son's face and hands are almost unbearably sad. His struggles are all the more affecting in contrast with the ghosts' stories. Theirs, while perpetually replayed, are over. His suffering, his chances, and the consequences of his choices are still all works in progress. One looming choice in particular stands out. Along with the horror and shock of Willie's death comes a new awareness of the ongoing war's consequences—Lincoln is sending other people's sons to fight and die by the tens of thousands. But there is no way to end the war without continuing it, and without causing more and more death. These thoughts are reported via the ghosts who flit through his mind eavesdropping on them:
"He must (we must, we felt), do all we could, in light of the many soldiers lying dead and wounded, in open fields, all across the land, weeds violating their torsos, eyeballs pecked out or dissolving, lips hideously retracted . . ."
"We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and—"
"Kill more efficiently."
"Hold nothing back."
"Make the blood flow."
"Bleed and bleed the enemy until his good sense be reborn."
A late-breaking set of new additions to the cast of ghost characters arises at this point from an unmarked mass grave on the other side of the fence; in death, as in life, they have been kept segregated. One, too, witnesses Lincoln's thoughts, and sees an opportunity to inhabit him. This, we're meant to understand, will enable Lincoln to empathize with enslaved people in a way that will inform his actions for the rest of his life.
Saunders takes a delightfully playful, salad-bar approach to various versions of limbo previously depicted in fiction, religious texts, and the movie Beetlejuice. Limbo, as a trope, is rich in part because it is familiar, and vice versa. The idea of being stuck in an eternal waiting room is horrifying indeed but also inevitably a bit funny. There is something inherently pathetic about ghosts, and Saunders capitalizes on the reader's sense of superiority to them; we are given ample opportunity to experience what might be called living-being privilege. He also adds original touches, like the gelid shape-shifting carapace that enfolds the ghostly young.
But what comes after the matterlightbloom? Only one of the ghosts, a Reverend Everly Thomas, has ventured into that realm and come back to tell the tale, though not to his fellows, because he doesn't want to disturb them; they, after all, won't even acknowledge that they're dead. The situation is the book's most memorable set piece, as convincing and funny and terrifying a description of the Last Judgment as any I've encountered in literature. In one version, singing angels examine brain and heart before ushering a man into a silk tent where he will sit beside Christ on a chair "upholstered with gold, if gold were spun of light and each particle of that light exuded joy and the sound of joy," while in the other version, vomiting angels banish another man into a tent made of flesh, where eternal flaying at the hands of a sulfur-robed beast awaits. This latter version, it's made clear, is the fate that awaits the Reverend. "Is it possible," the Reverend wonders, "that what I saw was only a figment of my mind, my beliefs, my hopes, my secret fears?" This, of course, is what the reader wants to believe, too. But no, he tells us, it was real. Worse, it's unclear what in the Reverend's life on Earth could have caused him to be damned, and now all he can do, he thinks, is stall. Unless, of course, he can become instrumental in saving young Willie from that carapace thing. Saunders seems to be saying, with this story line, that making a decision—at least trying to escape—is the important thing, even if nothing better awaits you. Lincoln's decision to bleed his country until it changes is the result of a similar damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation. Inaction, in this value system, is the worst possible sin.
It was poignant and bizarre to read this book in the week following the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, but not for the reasons I'd initially thought it might be. The brand of absurdist dystopia that was once synonymous with "George Saunders story" has been rendered obsolete: Stories about a corporatized world full of near-slave workers ruled by murderous idiots are now impossible to read as satire, and are becoming tougher to distinguish from realist fiction. Soon they will be impossible to distinguish from reportage. It's lucky, then, that Saunders has turned his gifts toward historical fiction, giving us a glimpse of an imagined past when our country was divided yet eventually reunited. Reading it, though, I often sympathized uncomfortably with poor Roger Bevins III, realizing the preciousness of life—"how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure"—while bleeding out his last on the kitchen floor. This long meditation on the importance of having someone wise and thoughtful and deeply sad at the helm of our democracy seems to be arriving just a moment too late.
Emily Gould is the author of Friendship (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).