The title stories of George Saunders’s first two collections of fiction, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, are both set on the grounds of historical-reenactment parks. As in the recent HBO drama Westworld, the features of the parks are gradually revealed from the perspective of the people working there. But while the employees in Westworld are automatons who begin to act like humans, in Saunders’s stories they are economically or physically disadvantaged humans who are treated like automatons.
In “Pastoralia,” for example, the narrator plays a caveman who is supposed to skin a goat every morning as part of a simulation that sprawls across several historical periods. Apprised of a new “austerity” program by upper management, he reports his partner in the cave, Janet, for her laziness, only to have his plan backfire: Janet is replaced by Linda, whose apparent intent to report him forces him to work harder and longer hours than ever, in a familiar variation on the theme of contemporary capitalism’s dehumanizing fetish for efficiency.
“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” speaks even more directly to our present moment. The narrator is a special assistant to the director (formerly the “Verisimilitude Inspector”) of a Civil War–battlefield park built on the site of a former plantation in the South. After a series of incidents involving gangs of teenagers desecrating park property, the narrator puts Sam, a new hire with a shady combat record in Vietnam, in charge of security. Sam stops the gangs, but he does so mostly by shooting them. Revenues begin to pick up. Then Sam hacks off the arm of a high-schooler caught stealing candy from the gift shop. Then he picks off a group of bird-watchers he mistakes for gang members. Eventually he turns his attention to the park’s other employees, including the special assistant, whom he guts with a hunting knife.
Sharing themes with “Pastoralia” and other Saunders stories, “CivilWarLand” suggests that our tendency to repeat the traumas of the past goes beyond economic necessity. Read as political allegory—or, in this case, as prophecy—“CivilWarLand” is about a group of Southern white men who, having their historical fantasyland threatened by a gang of young gate-crashers, turn to a law-and-order sociopath. But the story also invites more macabre reflections on how we internalize the historical traumas of the past, especially in the scenes featuring the ghosts of the McKinnons, the family who lived on the plantation during the actual Civil War. Whenever the ghosts “wandered too close to their actual death-site,” the special assistant tells us, they were “compelled to act out again and again the last minutes of their lives.” Mr. McKinnon had fought for the Confederacy at Antietam before returning home and murdering his entire family during a PTSD-type flashback. The war, Mrs. McKinnon says, had planted a “horrid violent seed” in him. Sam’s combat record in Vietnam underscores the extent to which this horrid violent seed continues to bear fruit more than a century later.
How to uproot these seeds and stop the reenactments? Saunders’s early work seemed to hover around this question. In an essay published in his 2007 book The Braindead Megaphone, Saunders recounted how his encounters with Kurt Vonnegut’s novels in the 1980s convinced him that fiction writing was about more than accurate or “realistic” representation; it was “a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.” The writer could be more than a glorified verisimilitude inspector, faithfully reconstructing human experience; he or she could help readers break character. “I think this is what all fiction does, really, or tries to do,” Saunders explained in an interview with The White Review last summer. “[It] encourages us to step out of ourselves and into someone else, temporarily. Which, in my view, is de facto a moral experience.”
Saunders has in other essays described this as the experience of “empathy,” and it is the quality that readers and critics have most reliably associated with his short story collections. It should not be surprising, then, that in his first full-length novel, Saunders returns to the subject matter of his earlier fiction: examining both the historical crucible—the Civil War—that he locates at the root of America’s violent past and the kind of empathy he believes would be necessary to release us from it. But the repetition now comes with a difference: The ghosts are no longer just a part of the story—this time, they get to tell it.
The majority of Lincoln in the Bardo is set in a graveyard near the White House in 1862. The year is significant for two reasons: It represents the low point of the war for the Union Army, which absorbed massive losses at Bull Run, Harpers Ferry, Fredericksburg, and Murfreesboro—and, just as important for Saunders’s purposes, it was also the year that Lincoln lost his third son, Willie, to a sudden bout of bilious fever.
By all accounts, Willie had been Lincoln’s favorite, and “long after the burial,” writes the biographer David Herbert Donald, the president “repeatedly shut himself in a room so that he could weep alone.” But the grieving period had consequences that went beyond the personal. His son’s passing also led to what Donald described as Lincoln’s “process of crystallization”; it transformed him. The thesis of Saunders’s book—perhaps insupportable by the historical evidence but nevertheless imaginatively compelling—is that Lincoln’s private crystallization was connected to his public one: only once he’d come to terms with the loss of his son could Lincoln begin to understand what would be necessary to move the nation forward.
But Lincoln is not the narrator of Lincoln in the Bardo; in fact, for long stretches, he disappears from it entirely. The bulk of the novel is narrated instead from the point of view of two initially mysterious figures named hans vollman and roger bevins iii. Their names appear in the lowercase because the two are stuck in what some Buddhists call the “bardo,” a transitional place where one is neither fully alive nor fully dead. In Saunders’s telling, the bardo is a domain of confusion and degradation (hence the lowercase letters), but its inhabitants nevertheless choose to stay there over the alternative of letting go of their previous lives and embracing death.
Trapped by their inability to come to terms with what they’ve lost, hans and roger are much like Lincoln—and soon they have another thing in common. At the end of the first chapter, they are joined by a new arrival: willie lincoln, whose remarkable love for his father seems to keep him stuck in the bardo.
If all this sounds like a strange conceit for a novel about Lincoln’s moral and political transformation in 1862, the form Saunders uses to tell his story is stranger still. The bulk of the novel is narrated as a series of ghostly dialogues between hans, roger, and other denizens of the bardo, and it is written in the vein of a modernist stage play. This dialogue is occasionally broken up by a set of newsreel-like chapters that blend fake and real eyewitness reports of the president’s actions in the days before and after Willie’s death. The depiction of Lincoln’s visit to Willie’s coffin—or “sick-box,” as they call it—during which hans and roger are joined by a third shade, the reverend everly thomas, gives some suggestion of the weirdness and promise of this experiment:
The unkempt gentleman was fussing over the small form now, stroking the hair, patting and rearranging the doll-like hands.
roger bevins iii
As the lad stood nearby, uttering many urgent entreaties for his father to look his way, fuss over and pat him.
the reverend everly thomas
He is going to pick that child up, the Reverend said.
And so he did .
The man lifted the tiny form out of the—
roger bevins iii
The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and, with surprising grace for one so ill-made, sat all at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap.
roger bevins iii
A crowd had gathered outside.
the reverend everly thomas
All were silent.
roger bevins iii
As the man continued to gently rock his child.
the reverend everly thomas
Reading an entire book like this can be annoying—and in a lesser writer’s hands, it would be intolerable. Yet Saunders manages to achieve an undeniable pathos with this spectacle of a deeply private moment being reported on as if by an invisible press pool. The president, holding his dead son’s corpse in his arms, is observed and commented on by a “crowd.” In contrast to his frequent burdens of public exposure, here Lincoln is unaware of his audience and therefore released from the responsibilities of tailoring his actions to satisfy the public. This is what makes his regard for his dead son so moving to the onlookers, who interpret it as a sign that they are also not forgotten by their loved ones. “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community,” hans reports. “We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe,” adds roger.
Buoyed by this newfound confidence, each of the characters we meet in the bardo is, eventually, given his own path to leave it, but the novel draws its main suspense from the question of how willie will be convinced to do so. The boy is so attached to his father that hans and roger realize there is only one way to get him to leave: Lincoln has to make willie feel like it’s OK for him to move on—which also means that Lincoln has to let go of his son. But the trick is to figure out how they can make that happen. One idea provokes some controversy among the shades: By “entering” the body of a living person, hans and roger theorize, they can influence an individual’s thoughts. As Lincoln prepares to leave Willie’s grave site, hans and roger test the theory by orchestrating a “mass cohabitation.” It doesn’t seem to work: Lincoln leaves the cemetery, and the spirit of his son remains, suffering, in the bardo.
But the next day, after Willie’s official funeral, Lincoln chooses to remain in the cemetery chapel. Has he been influenced after all? When willie himself “enters” his father, hoping to listen to his inner monologue, he hears a memory from Lincoln’s past, of a woman who had been walking in a field with her daughter when the girl was struck by lightning. For nights afterward, the woman had been found in the field, searching for the exact spot where she could have pushed her daughter aside and taken the lightning bolt herself. “She could not accept that it had happened,” Lincoln concludes, “but must go over it and over it. Now I understand.”
Lincoln’s ability to temporarily step out of himself and into the woman who’d lost her daughter releases him from his cycle of grief, which in turn also releases willie from his purgatory of confusion. Exiting the chapel, willie announces to the other shades that they are not sick, as they’d deceived themselves into thinking, but rather dead:
Dead! the lad shouted, almost joyfully, strutting into the middle of the room. Dead, dead, dead!
This epiphany precipitates a crisis in the bardo: Several of the spirits immediately succumb to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” and disappear into the sky. “All is Allowed now All is allowed me now,” willie thinks, percussively, as he himself, we are led to assume, follows them up. It is so hard to acknowledge the reality of death, Saunders suggests in this moving scene, that even the dead struggle with it. But for them, as for the living, only such an acknowledgment can grant a release from the compulsion to “go over it and over it.”
The depiction of Lincoln’s emergence from mourning is an ambitious task for a novel, though not one that’s fundamentally distinct from what Saunders attempted in his earlier fiction: Like the reenactment parks in his stories, the bardo, and the president’s grief, threaten to freeze their subjects in the midst of their past traumas. But Lincoln in the Bardo aspires to go further: It attempts to link its protagonist’s emergence from his paralyzed condition to his embrace of a specific political project. At the time of his son’s funeral, Lincoln had not yet written his Emancipation Proclamation, had not yet delivered his Gettysburg Address. Could Lincoln’s private transformation be related to his political one?
The pivot to politics in the final movement of Lincoln in the Bardo begins with Lincoln, still in the chapel after his son’s funeral, reflecting on the universality of sorrow. His “sympathy,” Saunders writes, “extended to all in this instant, blundering, in its strict logic, across all divides.” What Lincoln calls (appropriately, for his time) “sympathy” is indistinguishable from Saunders’s “empathy,” although the difference in vocabulary marks today’s common-sense understanding that there’s a difference between merely feeling bad for somebody and making the mental and emotional effort to see the world from their point of view. Saunders isn’t the only person to imply that this effort lies at the intersection of great fiction and a humane and inclusive politics. Barack Obama has attributed his capacity for empathy to reading novels, and he has also insisted that “empathy is a quality…that can change the world.”
Yet in Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders seems to recognize that, while empathy may be critical to our politics, it cannot represent its culmination. The Civil War looms in the background for most of the novel, but it comes to the forefront as a political reality only as Lincoln realizes that, although his sympathy may cross all divides, it could not change the fact that “he was in a fight.” “Those he fought were also suffering, limited beings,” but he would nevertheless have to “kill them and deny them their livelihood and force them back into the fold.”
At this climactic juncture in Lincoln’s moral transformation, hans, roger, and the rest of the bardo’s ghosts—who report on his thoughts—merge into a “we” that expresses Lincoln’s commitment to follow through on the path they’ve all chosen, despite its costs:
He must (we must, we felt) do all we could…. Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.
But their statement of conviction leads inexorably to the question of how they can justify those costs:
Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live?
Saunders’s endeavor to trace the line of Lincoln’s thoughts, from his sorrow over his son’s death to his consideration of how men should live and fight for their commitments, is one of the high points of the novel, and it’s also the place where one can best appreciate the conventionality of Saunders’s view of politics. Lincoln answers his question about how men should live with another reverie from his past—a flashback to how “the peachfields and haystacks and young girls and ancient wild meadows drove him nearly mad with their beauty”—which convinces him that the bounty of the world is “for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put there to teach a man to be free.” The reverie is meant to describe a transformation in Lincoln’s thinking, but it fails to do the work that Saunders wants it to on the reader, and not just because it comes across as sentimental. The experience that Lincoln describes from his childhood, like his experience of sorrow, is one that is available to everyone, and yet not everyone who shares it will come to the same conclusions about human freedom and equality. If political beliefs could be derived and defended in such a way, then there’d be no need to fight wars over them.
So why do we fight wars—or, for that matter, engage in viciously divisive presidential elections? In a justly praised essay that he wrote for The New Yorker last summer, Saunders, a former “Ayn Rand acolyte,” described a series of Trump rallies that he attended on a cross-country road trip as well as his attempts to empathize with the people he met there. But, ultimately, his interactions with various members of the often bigoted and angry crowds convinced him of a stark dichotomy: “From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.” It is the “first mind,” Saunders continues, that “has always held violence nearby” and that “sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.”
It is the first mind that Saunders believes is responsible for the obsessive reenactments of violence and degradation that fill his short stories, and which seem to extend, in his first novel, even into the afterlife. But by focusing on Lincoln’s internal reckoning in 1862, Saunders acknowledges, as he did in his essay, that there are times when empathy is not sufficient to change the world. In other words, it is not only the first mind that has sometimes “held violence nearby.” In some moments of history, such as the Civil War, the mind that claims “all are created equal” has had to resort to violence as well.
It is convenient for the “we” of Lincoln’s audience—not to mention Saunders’s—to envision the first mind as a product mainly of economic desperation, or fear of change, or Mrs. McKinnon’s “horrid violent seed” of a traumatic history. Less palatable is the notion that there exists a second audience of ghosts, another “we” whose claims about how men should live—although we may find them disturbing, even deplorable—are justified according to principles also derived from experience, and which cannot be transcended merely through acts of empathy.
This “we”—call it the “we” of the Confederacy—could be said to haunt Lincoln in the Bardo in a way that goes unacknowledged not only by its characters but by its author as well. Likewise, the descendants of this “we” could be said to haunt many of our present-day political conversations, even in the wake of an election that provides ample evidence they are anything but ghosts. To confront them in their full reality may require a return to an idea familiar to Lincoln’s time, if not to Saunders’s depiction of it: that of politics as a theater of conflicting values, beliefs, and interests—as opposed to a morality play.