When it comes to literature, the label “postmodern” is tricky business.
Postmodernism certainly allows for a wide range of experimentation and non-traditional techniques, but it has also become a bit of a loaded term. Too often, calling something postmodern is akin to calling it pretentious or even (in some extreme – and unfortunate - cases) essentially unreadable.
But even with the word’s less-than-friendly reputation, there’s still a lot of potential for brilliance in postmodern literature.
And brilliance is precisely what you get with the stunning “Lincoln in the Bardo" (Random House, $28) from George Saunders. Saunders – considered by many to be the preeminent author of American short fiction currently working – has accomplished something truly dazzling with this, his first novel. Telling the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief at the loss of his young son Willie in February of 1862, Saunders blends fiction with the historical record to create an altogether unique narrative that is challenging, powerful and beautifully tragic.
The bardo of the title is a concept pulled from Tibetan Buddhism. Literally translated, it means “intermediate state” – essentially, it’s the plane on which the astral soul exists after death and before rebirth. Here, that notion is blended with a loose take on the Christian idea of purgatory.
The narrative essentially takes place over the course of a single night in the bardo. This is where Willie Lincoln goes after his too-soon demise, only to find himself in the company of a number of fellow spirits. Chief among them are Hans Vollman, Roger Blevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas – three souls whose presence in the bardo is borne of their own specific and sad circumstances. It is largely through these three that the night’s narrative is relayed.
Interspersed with this story are excerpts from the historical record – largely correspondence and memoirs – that piece together the larger context, giving us the chance to look at the world as it was reflected through this lens of loss. It is through these that we connect to the reality of those events and the overwhelming grief suffered by our 16th president at the death of his beloved boy.
And of course, that loss is in turn magnified by the circumstances surrounding Lincoln and the country, as the Civil War threatens to tear that world asunder – and leaving thousands upon thousands of parents left to grieve their own children taken too soon by powers beyond their control.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is one of the most unique pieces of fiction that it has ever been my pleasure to read. It is sweeping and intimate simultaneously, marrying historical fact with narrative invention in a manner unlike anything I’ve seen before. Through these seemingly disparate parts, Saunders has constructed a tale that is jaw-dropping in its inventiveness while still concisely conveying the very quiet and internal nature of grief.
This is a book that actively defies synopsis. That isn’t to say that the story it tells is obtuse or discouragingly complex – quite the opposite. But the narrative in many ways takes a backseat to the structure in which that narrative unfolds. The juxtaposition of staid history and supernatural struggle is simply astonishing – the straightforward nature of reality’s snippets set against the bizarre and banal struggles on the other side results in an utterly unforgettable reading experience.
The idiosyncrasies of Willie’s fellow bardo denizens are evocative and thorough in their strangeness – take Hans, whose spirit is saddled with an enormous phallus thanks to his passing before consummating his marriage, for instance. Or Blevins, a young man whose self-perceived indecent urges – homosexuality – drove him to take his own life (though he changed his mind after doing the deed, but before he actually passed). The myriad souls in the bardo make up a psychedelic cornucopia; no matter how briefly they might appear, each is fully realized in its way.
It all comes back to the genius of Saunders. He has created something here that feels utterly new while somehow keeping one foot in the techniques of the past. His use of language is unfailingly filled with wit and power; the sentences he constructs unspool with vast reserves of humor and heart and hubris. His descriptive gifts paint word-pictures both unexpected and unforgettable; the world that he has developed is rich and vivid and just flat-out amazing.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is definitely unconventional; it might take some a bit more time than usual to adjust to the stylistic vagaries of the piece. But soon enough, readers will be swept up into a story that explores not only the intricacies of the afterlife, but the very grounded, very human realities of grief and loss.
Call it postmodern, call it experimental … call it anything you like. Just know this - you have never read a book like this one. And if you do, you will be so very glad that you did.