At first glance, one of the most anticipated books of 2017, Lincoln in the Bardo, appears to be anything but a novel. Scripted like a play, the narrative structure is a bricolage replete with ghostly characters and a rash of historical texts that may or may not be authentic. American short story writer George Saunders, 58, has mounted nothing short of a masterpiece on paper to tell the story of the night young Willie Lincoln, the third son of Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th President, succumbed to typhoid on February 20, 1862. In the midst of a political and personal quandary, Lincoln visits his son’s grave at night. Saunders uses the bardo — a liminal state between life and death — to examine faith, love, grief and death. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
What took you so long to write your first novel?
I think my natural ‘stride’ is one that lends itself to short, brisk work — short stories, in other words. But this Lincoln material has been ‘calling out to me’, for over 20 years. Once I got into it, it just kept growing. I always try to keep my writing honest, but in this case, the material was leading me.
The novel reads like a play and changes the way we engage with the form. What was the seed of the novel and how did you decide on the style and structure?
It was a story I’d heard in 1993 or so — that Lincoln, grief-stricken, had entered his son’s crypt. I wasn’t ready to try it back then — I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to that moment. Finally, around 2012, I thought, ‘Dude, you are 55 years old; if not now, when?’
The form arose naturally out of the difficulties of the material, and my desire to honour the emotional power at the core of the story. I think we arrive at strange artistic solutions in our attempt to avoid doing things the same old way, by trying not to suck. If those innovations are felt to be in direct service to the emotional power of the story, all the better — that feels authentic and earned.
How long did it take you to write it?
Four years. Writing it, I was really struck by how close America had come to ruin, back in the 1860s, and also by how many of the issues tormenting us back then were still with us. I finished the book just as Trump announced his candidacy, and I was sent to his rallies by The New Yorker.
What were your findings at these rallies?
There was so much anger and disappointment at those rallies! His supporters see him as someone who, at least, listens to them, knows they are unhappy. Some of that unhappiness is legitimate and some of it is not. The real tragedy is that one (white) group of suffering people is taking its unhappiness out on other, also vulnerable, groups. Trump swept in to exploit that very-real suffering. These are interesting times, that are completely remaking our politics. Living with Lincoln all those years taught me this: the source of his power was his sadness, his kindness, humility, and innate trust in, and empathy for, other human beings. These things are in short supply in our current government. But I’ve been inspired by the way the country is pushing back against this new wave of banal and xenophobic aggression.
In the novel, you explore the quality of kindness that allows us to navigate through both life and the after-life. What is it about kindness that has moved you as a writer?
I understand kindness to be the most logical and sane response to the situation we find ourselves in here on earth. What we are not: permanent, central, safe from harm, separate from other human beings. What we are: dying, vulnerable, and deluded if we think we can make it without love and community. So, if we understand ‘kindness’ as ‘that which benefits other beings,’ then it is only sensible to be kind. I think kindness can serve as a sort of ‘gateway virtue.’
You once said, ‘death makes everything more interesting’. The bardo seems to be a place to be able to navigate through several kinds of loss.
I once heard a very wise person say, ‘Life is not fixable.’ And I think that’s right. I think a workable moral position has to start with a frank assessment of who and what we are. It has to say, ‘Yes, we are going to die for sure, and likely experience sickness, humiliation and broken hearts along the way. Fine. Now: how might I be happy, positive and productive within that?’ A ‘healthy’ awareness of death is another form of sanity. We should live with our eyes open, looking at death without denial — if we can.
The bardo is a concept from Tibetan Buddhism. When did you begin to engage with Buddhism?
My wife and I started practising about 15 years ago. I feel, when I am practising I am happier and nicer and more interested in things — less neurotic and anxious.
The issue of national identity is colouring the quality of our lives. How do you think that is affecting the kind of literature a country produces?
Literature should and will keep doing what it has always done: expanding and clarifying the question of what it means to be human. Now, what will that look like in literary form? The young artists of the world are working on it as we speak. But I am convinced of the power and essentiality of art.
What has happened in the US can be traced back to the rise of materialism — our over-valuing of money, power and brute strength; and the associated marginalisation of the ambiguous, the curious, the spiritual, the tender. We have lost our humility, and somehow believe that the point of life is to win. Literature, here, has increasingly been treated as a sort of indulgence; something that a few strange people do. But now, we are seeing it for what it is: human thought at its highest, most complex, and most generous. Something that makes the culture more powerful and loving.