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It begins, like so many simpler books before it, with a party. And with a death.
But this is no simple party. It is a state dinner at the White House, hosted by Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln — a lavish, decadent state dinner thrown in 1862, as the meat grinder of the Civil War is just beginning to churn.
And it's no simple death, because it is the death of the Lincolns' beloved young son Willie, of typhoid fever, at age 11. He lay sick upstairs while below, the party went on until dawn. It was thought, in that moment, on that night, that the boy would recover. His mother saved him candies from the elaborate dessert display — a chocolate fish plucked from a pond of spun sugar, a bee made from honey — and told him she would keep them until he was feeling better. Knowing what comes, what history has already told us will happen (must happen), it is the first of a hundred or a thousand small heartbreaks in George Saunders' long-awaited first novel, Lincoln In The Bardo.
And then Willie dies. There is a funeral (glossed over) and an interment in a borrowed crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. Willie Lincoln's body goes into its box and the box goes into its hole in the wall.
At which point the story begins in earnest.
"Bardo" means limbo, a liminal place, between worlds, between lives. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the bodiless state that exists in the lag between one incarnation and the next, full of unquiet spirits tethered by ... guilt? By rage? By unfinished business, traditionally, or a simple unwillingness to move on.
And Saunders' novel is full of ghosts. Soldiers and children, rapists and virgins, slaves and fools and drunks and a hundred others, including Willie Lincoln, stuck in the bardo and surrounded by a chorus of spirits all urging him to move on or to stay; all giving conflicting, contradictory advice because "These young ones are not meant to tarry," according to one regretful suicide, even though some do — the why of it always a small story, crafted here by a master of small stories.
Lincoln In The Bardo is not an easy book, but it gets easier with the reading. At the start, it jags, loops, interrupts itself a thousand times. Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent. But there are moments that are almost transcendently beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep. And it is told in beautifully realized voices, rolling out with precision or with stream-of-consciousness drawl, in the form of dialog attributed in a playwright's style or historical abstracts cited with academic formality, pulled from sources invented or real, to speak about the party, about Lincoln, about grief or the war.
So for one night in 1862, Saunders uses his ghosts and his historians to build a tapestry of grief. While his sources cite the weeping in the Lincolns' residence, the fury of a nation divided and the petrifying misery which Willie's death provoked in Abraham Lincoln, his ghosts have a worm's-eye view of death and the beyond. In them lives all the pettiness of life (a debt owed, a love unstated) umbrella'd over by the inconceivable horrors of war. While Lincoln has lost one son, he exists in a world overspilling now with lost sons, and soon to be choked with them. While he slips down to the cemetery in the middle of the story's single night to open Willie's casket and hold his boy's body — to mourn in private and feel the weight of his son one more time in his lap — he stands also at the threshold of a war which will snuff hundreds of thousands of lives.
"No one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly," says one of Saunders' ghosts.
"Ever," says another.
"Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the casualty lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted," Saunders quotes, from the Journal of American History, then, "More than a thousand troops on both sides were killed and three times that number wounded," from Doris Kearns Goodwin.
And so these two events, one small, one large, become forever linked. Lincoln's grief, as witnessed by the ghosts, as experienced by Willie, is enormous. The pain of it radiant as the President languishes in his own private bardo. In comparison to the grief of America at war, it is infinitesimal, but at the same time, no less potent or real. And in the friction between these two true things, Saunders finds his terrible, brutal truth: That all lives end too soon. That no one leaves complete. That letting go is the best, hardest thing anyone — even the dead — can do.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
Correction: March 31, 2017 12:00 am — A previous version of this review misidentified Doris Kearns Goodwin as Dolores Kearns Goodwin.