When Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman translated the text commonly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he began by changing its title. The Tibetan appellation — bardo thos grol — lost its meaning in Americanization, he claimed. A direct translation would yield no references to a “book” or indeed even “the dead.” The bardo is something other than death; it is an intermediate state. In Buddhist cosmology, it is most commonly understood as the period of transmigration, between death and new life, when the consciousness is waiting on the platform for the proverbial next train. To reject the common misnomer and restore the sense of the bardo that his forebears had misconstrued, Thurman was descriptive in naming his new translation. The full title of his 1994 publication: The Tibetan Book of the Dead as Popularly Known in the West, Known in Tibet as The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. The keywords, in case you missed them: in the between.
The bardo is a karmic gauntlet. The deceased, untethered, experiences a succession of phenomena both terrific and terrible, proceeding eventually to the next life-form. The passenger is besieged by an overwhelming weakness like melting. Her vision becomes “a mirage of water down a highway.” She feels a thickening of the tongue. The sky is “full of orange sunlight,” and then, suddenly, “full of bright dark-light, or pure darkness.” The bardo is experienced differently by each individual in a manner determined by her actions over the course of a lifetime, or several. Was the passenger ruled by hate, frustration, and ignorance? Or, on the other hand, did she practice generosity, sensitivity, and tolerance? To spend one’s life preparing for this time — by reading bardo thos grol, for starters — can mean the difference between passage to a higher life-form or a sojourn in one of several hells, each unique in its particular hellishness. The passenger who understands the between is the one who might have influence over its machinations and the verdict delivered at its outcome. Her liberation is for the taking.
With Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders — like Thurman — elevates the in-between to titular status and therein joins a tradition of American poets and prose stylists whose work signals tutelage in Tibetan Buddhism. He’s in good company; such heavy-hitters as the Transcendentalists and the Beats also availed themselves of the Buddhist texts available to them in their respective epochs. The title also announces his induction to a second healthy club; the life and times of Honest Abe are a Pierian spring.
The bardo — though named nowhere in the text other than in the title itself — is the stuff of both setting and plot. The narrative takes place within a graveyard, a cage where ghosts endure the shape-shifting, sense-confounding phenomena described in bardo thos grol. The residents of this graveyard are subject to physical transformations that reflect, in thrilling Saundersian dream-logic, their particular karmic burden. The novel features three primary narrators: Reverend Everly Thomas is frozen in likeness to The Scream; Hans Vollmann is impaired by an unwieldy erection; Roger Bevins III can’t finish a story without spiraling out on Whitmanesque rants — unbidden catalogues of the senses — while his features multiply until he is a kaleidoscopic vision of too many mouths, eyes, and hands.
The narrative concerns the struggle of those who, in Thurman’s words, have not developed “the ability to die lucidly, to remain self-aware…during these transitional experiences.” Saunders dramatizes their ineptitude by casting a familiar funerary world in the vocabulary of those who would deny the reality of their death during its progress. As the ghosts would tell it, they are not dead; they are just ill. Coffins are “sick-boxes” in which to wait out an interminable recovery period. Ghosts look upon their decaying bodies with passing curiosity. The mechanics of their phantom world — the ability to glide across surfaces without the customary steps, to slip through walls, to occupy someone else’s body and assume their thoughts — amount to the symptoms of an as-yet undiscovered illness.
The story begins when the president’s young son, Willie Lincoln, joins this cast of revisionist ghosts. Willie died of fever toward the beginning of the Civil War. A long procession saw him to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. In Saunders’s telling, Willie is not ready to be cut loose. He waits in the bardo for his mother and father to collect him. Against the advice of other ghosts, who warn Willie of the particular grievances that befall children in the bardo, he sticks around because he is so in love with the world he knows that he is not ready to leave it. Be warned, reader — when young Willie narrates, Saunders most often foregoes the period:
It is soon to be spring The Christmas toys barely played with I have a glass soldier whose head can turn The epaulettes interchangeable Soon flowers will bloom Lawrence from the garden shed will give us each a cup of seeds I am to wait I said
In this nostalgic stance Willie is no different from the others in the bardo. All of them are besotted with longing for their own equivalent Christmas toys and cup of seeds. They wait for relatives, they wait for vengeance, they wait to amend their regrets. They wait — for weeks, or decades — for return. They are ruled by their own stories, thrust by disorientation toward self-absorption and magical thinking. These are stubborn ghosts, holdouts; they have rejected multiple opportunities to move on. All of them, Willie included, are trapped by their tireless belief in an eventual homecoming. Willie becomes exceptional, however, when the object of his longing actually shows up. Into the crypt walks a tall, unkempt man of flesh and blood, quietly sobbing: enter Lincoln, in the bardo.
When asked what inspired him to write a novel, Saunders cited the generative power of this image. Lincoln’s storied nighttime visits to the graveyard called for a longer form — a “mansion,” as Saunders himself has put it, instead of the “tiny custom yurts” that he is wont to build. His objective wasn’t to write his first novel. It was to “discharge the idea” of Lincoln, commander-in-chief, taking leave from his post at the helm of the most deadly crisis in American history to pay clandestine visit to the corpse of his eleven-year-old. “At some point,” said Saunders, “just from the accretion of pages, it was clear that the arc of the story was going to be… longer.”
Saunders is as qualified to build mansions as he is to build yurts. His virtuosic range of narrative voice — previously on display in his several short story collections — finds expression in this novel thanks to an inventive formal arrangement that allows for literally dozens of narrators. Though the first two pages are formatted as one might expect a novel to be, the narrative is soon interrupted by a curiously-formatted name, and then another. These names are attributions that follow each utterance; in some senses, this novel reads more like a play. Though initially the cast is composed solely of ghosts, Lincoln’s entry into the bardo (and thus into the narrative) multiplies the number of voices that Saunders must call on to tell this story. The author includes entire chapters of primary- and secondary-source material “curated,” in his terminology, to give his readers necessary historical context. The number of voices proliferates further because, in the fictional world of the bardo, the event of Lincoln’s visit brings forth ghosts that had hitherto been silent or silenced. Each “line” is attributed to one member in a vast symphony of narrators counting among its members historians both real and fabricated, a motley crew of phantoms, and the living graveyard watchman. The bardo is no place for omniscient narration.
Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is thus, itself, its own kind of bardo. If anything, its formal qualities condition its readers to develop a palate for the bardo’s active ingredients: dynamism, plurality, impermanence. Consider, for example, this account of the sky on a night shortly preceding Willie’s death. This comes from a chapter that, at first glance, weighs heavily historical on the historical-fiction axis, in which Saunders cites witnesses and scholars qualified to weigh in on a party that the Lincolns threw while their son was gravely ill. Whether the source material is real or not is irrelevant — what matters is that the reader can ground this fantastic plot in a context with which she is familiar. As the accounts accrue, however, the bedrock of historical fact begins to shake loose and sensation takes over. Reading it, I am reminded of the changing sky so vividly described in bardo thos grol:
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds.
Wickett, op. cit.
A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly.
In “My Life,” by Dolores P. Leventrop.
The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire.
As I moved about the room I would encounter that silver wedge of a moon in this window or that, like some old beggar who wished to be invited in.
Carter, op. cit.
By the time dinner was served, the moon shone high and small and blue above, still bright, albeit somewhat diminished.
In “A Time Departed” (unpublished memoir), by I.B. Brigg III.
The night continued dark and moonless; a storm was moving in.
In “Those Most Joyful Years,” by Albert Trundle.
Keep reading and realize that Saunders’ bardo signifies more than that one transitional state when the tongue grows huge and the world begins to look like a hot desert highway. Saunders elevates the status of the in-between; the in-between is everything.
In the process of grieving his dead son, Lincoln is made to acknowledge that impermanence is the only constant. Reflecting on Willie’s life, he remembers a baby, a toddler, a boy. Lincoln realizes “he was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst…he had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.” Lincoln thus describes the bond between him and his son as such: “Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another.” This moment could be read as Sauders’s contribution to a growing corpus of American translations of bardo thos grol. In Thurman’s rendition: “All moments of existence are ‘between’ moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience.” Where the bardo begins and ends, no one can know.
While Lincoln was inside the crypt ostensibly having this realization, the country beyond the graveyard was in the grip of a fearsome between of his own command. The outcome of the war was uncertain, and it was only just beginning to dawn on many what kind of mess the country had gotten itself into. In 1863, Lincoln would deliver the Gettysburg Address and the tides would turn against the Confederacy. In ‘62, however, the president’s legacy was far from assured.
This reality bears heavily on fictional-Lincoln’s realizations in the bardo. One might think that a dawning sense of total temporariness could threaten the president’s resolve. Why fight for for capital-D Democracy, for the capital-U Union, if any potential outcome (and every step along the way) is just a transition to a next transitional state in an infinite sequence of assured, unpredictable transitions?
I don’t want to give away the ending by telling you whether Abe escaped nihilism, but we all know how the Civil War resolved. According to Saunders, the president’s time in the bardo conditioned in him a reverence for fluidity and the resolve to act rightly because (not in spite) of it. The bardo — for its ghostly inhabitants, for the reader, for Abe and Willie Lincoln — is a training in the hard work of choosing generosity, sensitivity, and tolerance over hate, frustration, and ignorance; needless to say, this makes Lincoln in the Bardo a timely read. Saunders suggests that Lincoln’s time in the bardo gave him the perspective he needed to lead the country through its own transition as the bardo thos grol would have it: lucidly.