Abraham Lincoln, rigid with sadness, walks into a cemetery. It’s nighttime, and the president makes his way to the tomb where his young son Willie, who has died of typhoid fever, was buried the previous afternoon. Lincoln slides his son’s casket from a wall of the tomb, opens the lid, sets the boy’s body on his lap and begins to sob.
Observing what should be a private act of grief is a band of nosy, talkative ghosts who, save one, don’t know that they’re dead, that they’re in a graveyard or that the “exceedingly tall and unkempt fellow” cradling his son is the 16th president of the United States. Willie, unaware of his own postmortem status, attempts to hug his father back. Is this weird?
“I guess it depends on how the word ‘weird’ falls on you,” George Saunders says of his new novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which springs from historical reports that Lincoln visited his son’s corpse in February 1862 in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. “I thought it was as weird as it had to be to do justice to the material. … People say it’s weird, and I think it is, but I hope not prohibitively so or gratuitously so. I worked really hard to make it less weird.”
While “Lincoln in the Bardo” is Saunders’ first novel, odd stories are nothing new for him. Beginning with the 1996 story collection “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and continuing in books such as “Pastoralia” and “Tenth of December,” Saunders’ big-hearted satire has questioned, celebrated and mourned the way we live now (foolishly) and the way we’re bound to live in the future (still foolishly, but with even scarier and more intrusive technology).
In 2006, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Saunders its prestigious fellowship known as the genius grant, recognizing him for having “a keen eye for absurdity, a precise ear for vernacular dialogue and a distinctively deadpan narrative voice.” Saunders, the foundation said, is “a short-story writer whose mordantly hilarious tales retain, at their core, deep sympathy and compassion for the lives he depicts.”
This is certainly true of his treatment of Lincoln. The president never directly addresses the reader in “Lincoln in the Bardo,” but through others’ eyes we come to see a man struggling not only to reunite his country but also to keep himself from falling apart. As he moves through the cemetery — “stiffly, all elbows and knees,” one ghost observes — Lincoln the bereaved father questions himself as well as God, cursing the “horrible trap” that is a life in which “some last day must arrive” and acknowledging that his actions as a wartime commander in chief have left thousands of other fathers weeping at their sons’ graves.
Saunders’ depiction of a shattered Lincoln will be familiar to anyone with so much as a passing interest in the president. The writer acknowledges this, and says fear of Lincoln fatigue kept him from pursuing the story when he first conceived it 20 years ago.
“One reason I think I delayed writing this book for so long was because I thought, ‘Oh, God, Lincoln. Who needs the 60,001st book about Lincoln?’ ” says Saunders, who will appear Feb. 19 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. “But then, that actually can give you kind of an aesthetic guide. In other words, you know what’s been written about him. You kind of know what the state of the world’s knowledge is about him. So knowing that it’s a potential buzz kill, you can try to find a way to avoid that, which is basically what innovation or formal decisions are based on: You try not to suck.”
Saunders, who lives in Northern California when he’s not teaching creative writing at Syracuse University in New York, says his initial attempts to write “Lincoln in the Bardo” using straightforward third-person narration and as a “more conventional, theatrical play” went nowhere. Then, he started hearing and seeing ghosts. These ghosts would talk at and over one another, each competing to relate the story and consequences of Lincoln’s visit to Oak Hill. “There was something about that that was really intriguing to me,” Saunders says.
The resulting novel features 166 distinct voices, some of which are provided by excerpts from real-life news reports and texts of Lincolnalia, including some vicious criticisms of the president’s physical appearance that prove 140-character insults existed long before the advent of Twitter. “One thing I found out researching this [book] is that they swore pretty much the way that we do,” Saunders says. “There were trolls back then.”
Three ghosts serve as the principal tellers of the evening’s events: Roger Bevins III, a gay man who committed suicide via butcher knife and whose spectral appearance boasts multiple eyes and appendages; Hans Vollman, who wears a grotesquely swollen phallus and a head dented by the roof beam that killed him; and the Rev. Everly Thomas, who, in the novel’s most terrifying and comic scene, escapes eternal damnation by hightailing it away from the doors of hell at the moment of his judgment.
Although Saunders says he studied the vernacular of Americans in the 1800s, he admits he “didn’t really care that much that there be verisimilitude in the voices, but rather you would be subtly reminded throughout that these were not contemporary speakers.” And while real people may have inspired these characters, their wry observations, tragic ignorance of their station and casual acceptance of the bizarre make them recognizable creations of the author.
Still, wrangling so many voices presented a fresh challenge for Saunders. “I knew I couldn’t do all 166 voices, really, so then it became a little bit of a stretch for me,” he says, “because what you do need is a quieting down of everybody. As opposed to my short stories, I’m saying, ‘You guys have to be a little bit more mannered.’ ”
The attendant audiobook solves this problem by having 166 famous actors and everyday people, including Saunders’ parents and sisters, voice the characters. The diverse cast also includes Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and Don Cheadle. Saunders plays the Rev. Thomas. “It was so much fun,” he says of the recording. “It was kind of like an unexpected plum at the end of this.”
Early last year, not long after completing “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Saunders accepted an assignment from the New Yorker to cover rallies for then presidential candidate Donald Trump in an attempt to understand why the reality TV star’s campaign was resonating with so many people. When the article was published in July, its headline asked, “Who are all these Trump supporters?” Saunders found the answer disturbing.
“When I finished this book, the big thing going on, at least in my news world, was all the killings of black men that were going on at the time,” Saunders says. “And that really struck me — that this thing that we think got solved never got solved because Reconstruction was botched. That Faulkner quote, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ really seemed alive to me. I’d go to the Trump rallies with this sort of Mr. Empathy hat on, like, ‘I’m sure I can talk to anybody and convince them.’ But I’d go to those rallies and see that I’m not convincing anybody, and they weren’t convincing me, and everybody was talking past everybody else. It got me a little panicked at how far that partisan divide had gone when I wasn’t aware of it. I went out to this rally in Arizona and thought, ‘What is this all about? Did this just start?’ And then, you realize this thing had been simmering for many, many years. It has a momentum of its own, and it’s way ahead of my understanding of it.”
Of course, Saunders can’t help but think how Lincoln would address that divide.
“I keep coming back to Lincoln and thinking, ‘Well, our sort of grade-school understanding of him is nice,’ ” he says. “But when you think of the fact that he was a guy who was leading the country at a time like this one but much worse, where these divisions were leaving tens of thousands of people dead a day, I keep thinking about the way — who knows how he did it — he was able to keep his eye on the ball. Even when he was being criticized. Even when he was being drastically, terribly wrong about things and causing lots of deaths. Even when his kid died. Even when his family life was out of control. That’s courage. My level of defensiveness is so high, and I’m crushed so easily and thrown off my game at nothing. And you look at this guy. How in the world did he keep his eye on whatever polestar he had it on all those years? It’s pretty amazing.”
George Saunders will appear 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.