Lincoln in the Bardo, the gorgeous first novel from acclaimed author George Saunders, is a ghost story. Or, more specifically, it’s a story told mostly by ghosts — the restless occupants of a Georgetown cemetery, trapped in a purgatorial state (the bardo, a term that Saunders borrows from Tibetan Buddhism) by their neurotic refusals to accept their own deaths. These spirits spend their time bickering and reminiscing, firm in their complacent denial of reality — until one night in February 1862, when they find themselves joined by 11-year-old Willie Lincoln.
The death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son is often looked upon as a historical footnote, a small, personal loss overshadowed by the monumental tragedy of the Civil War. But Saunders places Willie’s death — and its devastating effect on the already embattled president — at the forefront of Lincoln in the Bardo, drawing from contemporary reports that Lincoln had returned to his son’s crypt multiple times over the course of one night to cradle the body. The image that Saunders says stuck in his mind — a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture — is a powerful one that, like the novel it inspired, lends a mythic level to our perception of Lincoln’s grief.
Not that Lincoln in the Bardo, which was released on February 14, is an overly portentous book. Saunders doesn’t shy away from the horror of losing a child, but as with the rest of his body of work, the tragedy is deftly balanced with humor and a sense of joyous wonder. When a spirit moves on from the bardo, for example, it does so in what the characters describe as “the matterlightblooming phenomenon” — or, as one puts it, “a small fartlike pop.” To Saunders, even subjects as potentially intimidating as the afterlife should be treated with exuberance and gentle humor.
Bardo is Saunders’ first novel, following a two-decade career as a writer of surreal, keenly felt short fiction. His work has received a wide variety of recognition and acclaim, including four National Magazine Awards for Fiction, the MacArthur Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Folio Prize. In 2013, The New York Times called Saunders’ most recent collection of stories, Tenth of December, “the best book you’ll read this year;” that same year, he was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Saunders’ stories, usually imbued with elements of fantasy or sci-fi, often satirize modern consumer culture. Multiple stories, such as “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” from his 1996 collection of the same name, are set in theme parks that degrade their underpaid workers (that story also featured ghosts, albeit of a more murderous variety than those in the Bardo).
Others, like the 2005 story “In Persuasion Nation,” are even more bizarre; that one focuses on a group of characters who are the butt of television commercials (think the perpetually unsuccessful Trix rabbit, if he was constantly meeting a violent end) who decide to rebel, unsuccessfully, against the system they’re mired in. It’s humorously surreal — the villain is a somehow-sentient corner of a candy bar wrapper — but simmering beneath the story’s surface is a surprisingly potent sense of suffering and injustice.
That empathy for the less-than-fortunate is ultimately what defines Saunders’ body of work, extending from the impoverished characters of his short fiction to those he describes in his nonfiction. His most recent essay, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?”, was published in the New Yorker in July and saw Saunders traveling to Donald Trump rallies across the country in an attempt to understand the grievances of rally attendees, as well as in an attempt to explore the demise of political discourse.
“LeftLand and RightLand are housemates who are no longer on speaking terms,” he wrote in the essay. “And then the house is set on fire. By Donald Trump. Good people from both subnations gape at one another through the smoke.” Saunders’ fascination with our massive American divide — born from inability to empathize, from taking subjective truths as objective ones — is reflected in the Civil War setting of Lincoln in the Bardo and, to an extent, in its characters’ journeys to address their unresolved inner conflicts.
Saunders, who will sign copies of Lincoln in the Bardo at the Alabama Booksmith on Tuesday, February 21, spoke with Weld about his inspirations for the novel, the challenge of writing about Lincoln, and why empathy is ultimately a rational — and essential — pursuit.
Weld: There’s been a fascination with history throughout your work, but you’ve usually explored the past by having characters simulate it. With Lincoln in the Bardo, though, you’re exploring history directly and earnestly. What pulled you in that direction?
George Saunders: I had a big moment in my trajectory where I realized that, for me anyway, the only way to write something is if I’m really interested in it for reasons I can’t quite articulate. What that really means is that when I start to do something, it’s fun. There’s an inexplicable pull into the material, and there’s lots of material, and the jokes are there, and the power is there.
When I was a younger writer, I thought you had to sort of decide what you were quote-unquote interested in. I wrote a lot of stuff on that basis that never really caught fire, basically. And then at some point I said, “I’m just going to try and write what’s enjoyable to me and write in a mode where I’m confident and having fun.” So really, since then — that was the first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline — I’ve been just doing the same thing. When I have a big idea, I try not to pay attention to it, just to sort of see, “Is there any fun in this?” That’s really the reason.
The historical stuff, just — I don’t know why. I just get excited about it. I suppose probably it’s the idea that there were other people here before us. There’s a whole world of other people who are now gone, as we’re going to be. And something about that is cool, you know, and it tends to take what might be a banal story and give it broader shoulders, because you’re seeing it in the long sweep of history or something like that.
But the real answer is that Flannery O’Connor quote: “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” That kind of thing, you know?
Weld: While most of the novel is narrated by the ghosts, some chapters are compilations of excerpts from historical documents (some of which you made up). An early chapter is made up of entirely conflicting reports of what the moon looked like on a particular night, which really serves to highlight the unreliability of historical memory. Why was that so important to establish so early on in the novel?
Saunders: There are a couple of reasons. One, it’s one of the deeper truths that I discover as I get older, that there really isn’t such a thing as objective reality. We really do make our reality with our minds. That is interesting to me as a kind of metaphysical idea, which is also in the book, [the ghosts are in the bardo] is because their minds are too powerful for them. Their neuroses and their fixations are too powerful, and they can’t do what, in the world of the book, is needed, which is to leave themselves behind and join whatever’s next.
I like that idea, that this experience that we have on earth, at first we think it’s just real, you know? “That guy doesn’t like us. Philadelphia is wonderful.” But what I’m finding as I get older, and kind of beautifully so, is that it’s all being generated from within yourself. The world itself has no meaning, no beauty, no ugliness. It’s just a bunch of molecules, and then our consciousness makes meaning. That’s one level.
On a more banal level, when I was doing the research for this, I would find that, for example, there are so many versions of who Lincoln was. There is no solid Lincoln; there’s just a bunch of people throwing light on him. And usually, they’re throwing light on him based on their own pre-existing ideas — what they need him to be, what they want him to be, what they’re afraid he is. So that’s interesting.
If I was going to look back at, say, that one night — there’s a very small amount of data about it, and it doesn’t really add up to an objective part. I just loved that notion, that when we look back, certainly that far in the past, we can’t really figure out what happened. But even, truthfully, when you look back a day in the past, all you’ve got are subjective accounts.
I just like the feeling of it, the way that introduces an element of subjectivity to the whole project.
Weld: The book ends on a sort of sense of hope, that things might get better. But Lincoln, as we know, will be assassinated just a few years later. It’s not going to get better for him. Was that inevitable tragedy something that informed the way you shaped this story?
Saunders: Yeah. I mean, that one’s hard, the fact that he’s only got another three years to live. All his grief about Willie, he’s got three years to worry about it, and then they’re going to be together.
I was scared to write this book, because who wants to write about Lincoln? It’s so hard. It’s like writing a novel about Jesus or something. But one of the things that made it easier was to say, “Okay, wait a minute. You’re not writing a life story of Lincoln. You’re writing about Lincoln on one night of his life. And I know the date. And I know what he did the day before, and I know what he did the day after, and I know I can reconstruct where he was vis-a-vis the slavery issue, how many months away the emancipation proclamation was.”
In a way, it made it — not easy, but easier, because I knew just where he was in his trajectory as president. That’s why, in the world of the book, he hasn’t quite become the Lincoln we know in terms of his understanding of race and slavery. He’s getting there.
The thing that was fun was to say, “Okay, I don’t have to worry about writing about Abe Lincoln,” but I can say, “He’s a guy on one night, he’s a father — and not only that, but now he’s a guy at 11:35 that night, and he’s 15 feet away from the crypt. What is he thinking?” You break it down into those moments and it becomes a little less intimidating.
Weld: On the opposite end of that spectrum in terms of scale, though, is the setting of the bardo. It’s a massive concept that you throw readers into without a lot of explanation. You’ve said you took the term “bardo” from Tibetan Buddhism, but how much of the rules or the setting of the book’s bardo was drawn from that tradition, and how much did you add to it to distance it from that tradition?
Saunders: Early on, I decided not to try to be too literal, because then, basically, you’re not writing a novel anymore, you’re writing an homage. For example, in my understanding of Tibetan Buddhism — which is pretty limited — most of us just go flying through the bardo like a water slide, because we’re not spiritually adept enough to actually inhabit it. The idea that I love from Tibetan literature is that, when you’re alive, you’ve got this combination of mind and body. Mind is very, very powerful, but in this life, it’s damped down by the body. So as wonderful and terrible as life can be, it’s actually muted compared to what happens after death, because in death, the body goes away and the mind is totally free.
The idea would be something like, whatever your habits of thought are now, the minute you die, it’s like a horse being let off a tether. Your mind goes crazy. If you have good habits and positive thoughts and a correct understanding of the world, then that’s good. But if you have a neurotic, guilty, deranged mind, then that’s what gets let off the tether. That’s what’s happening to those characters. In life, let’s say Hans Vollman [a ghostly main character who helps Willie Lincoln navigate the afterlife] — when he died, he was very much in a state of arousal. [Laughs] So when he dies, that’s where he is. [Vollman’s spectral appearance is described throughout the novel as being cartoonishly tumescent.]
That was not at all faithful to what the actual teachings say, but I used those as a starting place. One of the things I tried to do was use the word “bardo” as opposed to “purgatory,” partly to help the reader not to bring too many preconceptions to it. Whatever death is, we don’t know what it is, so in a book about the afterlife, it’s good to destabilize all of the existing beliefs as much as you can.
When I drop dead, my guess is that the next thing is going to be extremely surprising to me, if I’m still there at all. So some kind of low-level attempt to simulate that is in the book where, it sometimes seems like a Christian afterlife, sometimes Tibetan — there’s also some Egyptian things in there. The idea was just to kind of make you go, “Oh yeah, death, huh. I don’t know what’ll happen, actually.”
Weld: One theme that’s not as present in this novel as it is in your earlier work is the idea of people who don’t really have a chance, who are usually victims of capitalism or consumerism — whatever you’d call it. “In Persuasion Nation” makes the case that the system we live in cannot really exist without someone being harmed. Why has this been a theme that you’ve chosen to explore over and over?
Saunders: It probably isn’t even a choice except maybe physiologically. My life has been, up until very recently, circumscribed by the demands of having enough money. So I guess I would say that, as I’ve gotten better at working, better at revising my work, and better at writing, there was a more direct conduit between what was actually bugging me in real life and what was bugging me in my artistic life. Instead of saying, “Oh, I’ll write about fishing in Spain,” or something, which I don’t know [expletive] about, just automatically, the things that were on my mind would come into my work.
I suppose a lot of what you’re trying to do with fiction is generate fellow feeling between [yourself], the reader, and the character. You’re trying to make a mind-meld of those three people. I always think the highest aim is some kind of sympathy, like compassion or pity. When I look around our country, I think that’s where the most pain is. It’s on the fact that capitalism steps on people. And our particular version of capitalism at this moment does that.
If you had a big spike growing out of the top of your head, you might start writing about unicorns. It’s not really a choice. Even in this book, what I found the most compelling were the moments of human suffering. The ghosts had their moments of suffering; Lincoln certainly has his. In some ways, I see this book as a broadening-out of that same idea. In other words, why do we have to be suffering in this life? What’s the force of it? How much of it is fixable?
I think ultimately, there is suffering in this world that we can’t really fix, and that’s interesting. I think it’s a continuum of trying to write about more and more general-case suffering as opposed to something specific. The stuff about advertising and all that is true, and I’m just trying to go up this staircase. I see this suffering caused by a downturn in the economy. Okay, that’s interesting. Is there any suffering in a country where the economy is great? Well, yeah, there is. There’s still people who are on the [expletive] end of the stick. Alright, well what if the country was so wealthy that even the [expletive] end of the stick was fantastic? Would there still be suffering? And so far, my answer is, “Yeah.” It’s built into the game. That’s the Buddhist thing, that life is suffering.
Weld: Another recurring element of your writing — and it seems like you blame this at least partially on consumer culture as well — is characters’ use of insincere language that seems informed by advertising — which is hilarious but also deeply sad, because their ability to communicate with each other has been damaged. Is that degradation of language something that worries you?
Saunders: Yeah, and mostly because it seems to me to be a general condition. When is language not sufficient? Well, always. Sometimes it’s better than others. Why is it insufficient? I would say, at the beginning level, it’s insufficient when I’m trying to bull[expletive] you. Like, if I’m trying to sell you something or lie to you, I’m going to have to enact linguistic forms that are false. I just have to. If I’m selling you a car that doesn’t run, I have to say, “This car, in terms of aesthetic appeal, that overrides everything else about it,” or something like that. I think as you work your way up the ladder, again, language always fails us. It’s a conceptual tool and our existence is not conceptual. Our existence is actual.
That all sounds pretty highfalutin. But the truth is, it’s funny, and I can do it. Now, why can I do it? I suspect it’s because I’ve got some basic dishonesty in myself that all my life I’ve been trying to hide. I’m kind of a natural salesman, so I can spout euphemisms very naturally all the time. Now, why that is, I should probably go to therapy for. [Laughs]
But one of the things we do as writers — this is kind of the gut-check moment that all writers have to go through. You have to ask yourself, “What do I really have to offer?” Like, you might think you want to be the next Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, but when you start writing, you figure out that you just can’t do what they do. Then you’ve got to look around and say, “What can I actually do in the most powerful way?” The pisser is, it’s often the thing you’ve been trying to avoid doing your whole life.
In my case, it was to be funny. I always thought being funny was a little low. I thought it was maybe kind of a working-class thing. It’s what I always used, but I always thought it was a little bit not-literary. My moment of truth was to go, “No, dummy. If that’s who you are, you have to [do it].” …
Every writer goes through it. Hemingway went through it. If you’re inclined to write, you’re probably pretty good at voice. You’re good at imitating. So what you do is — it’s like Goldilocks. You go in and try on different clothing to see if it fits or doesn’t fit. It’s a process of burning through those influences. As you get older, you’re like, “[Expletive], I’ve lived this many years. I’ve had heartbreak, I’ve had joy. Why do I have to use somebody else’s language?” It’s really that frustration that drives you to find your own thing, you know. That’s kind of a noble process, really.
Weld: Empathy is really at the root of everything you’ve written — not just between the writer and the characters, or the audience and the characters, but between the characters themselves. For a lot of your work, the characters’ outcomes are based around whether they reach that point of empathy or fall short of it — and the most victorious characters are arguably the ones that commit radical self-sacrifice for others. What draws you to that concept — of empathy to the point of giving up your own identity?
Saunders: Well, I think of it as the softening of the border between you and somebody else. This sort of goes back to where we started, the Buddhist ideas that — and again, I’m probably just messing them up — when we’re born, this consciousness kicks in. And consciousness seems to have some kind of Darwinian purpose of saying, “You’re important, you’re central, you are eternal, you’re never going to die, you know best.” That’s kind of what our minds do all the time — they’re constantly saying, in negative or positive form, “You’re special. This whole thing is happening for your benefit. It’s a big movie that God is making with you as the star.”
But you can just look and go, “Well, obviously that’s not true, because you die.” Also, if you could just go into someone else’s head, you could see that actually, they’re the star of their own movie. I think a lot of what we are doing here, actually, whether we know it or not or like it or not, is trying to get into some sort of accommodation between those two conflicting ideas: the one that comes from inside us that says we’re the star, and the one that comes from outside of us that says just like everybody else, we’re going to end up in a box or cremated.
That means that, even in our interpersonal relationships, my challenge is to make myself believe that you’re just as real as I am. That’s it. So in the stories, that’s what happens from character to character — or doesn’t. But I think it also happens, maybe more importantly, between me and you, the writer and the reader. The way that plays out is — and this, for me is the principle of revision — I’m trying to keep you in mind as my equal, or more than my equal, when I’m revising. On one level, that means eliminating repetition and dumb ideas and untruthful ideas, so that when you’re reading, you’re like, “Wow, that guy really thinks I’m smart. He’s giving me credit for all this experience in the world.” Everywhere you look, it’s kind of an exercise in thinking very highly of the other person.
Weld: That seems to be at the root of your “Who Are These Trump Supporters?” article for the New Yorker, which looked to find empathy with these people who aren’t always viewed with that level of empathy in liberal circles. [Editor’s note: This interview took place before Trump was elected president.]
Saunders: In a certain way, it’s kind of a new-age cliche, but if you look at a country, where 40 percent of the people are Trump supporters, you can say, “Oh, they’re idiots!” But that means your country is 40 percent idiots, which isn’t true. We know by living in this country that most people are really pretty kind, and we’re a really high-functioning country. So then, I felt like the onus of that was on me to refrain from saying derogatory things about the supporters, as much as I could, and really try and understand, “What is it? Why do [these people] support Trump?” … There must be some good reason that is clear to them and not so clear to you.
[These people] are real and wonderful and loving, three-dimensional, so then the part of the artist or the writer is to say, “Ah, I’m in a bubble! Of course I am, everyone’s in a bubble. My bubble is somehow making it impossible for me to understand that person. That’s my bubble’s problem.” Now, the problem with that way of thinking, and it’s particularly underscored in the time right now, is that there’s going to be a time where your understanding just can’t get there. As I think it’s the case with the Trump movement, it’s a harmful movement. That’s not a neutral movement. That movement is actually trying to disempower certain groups of people and humiliate them. That’s where it gets tricky.
I’m kind of like this new-age guy, like, somebody drives a spike through my head and I’m like, “Oh, thanks, I’ll hang my coat on it.” So there’s a sort of a sucker quality in that, too. And I think if you’re trying to persuade somebody on the other side, that sort of head-tilted empathetic look isn’t always helpful. Sometimes you’ve got to be firm. Sometimes you’ve got to respond with facts. But I think, in most occasions, we’re much better served by a sympathetic, gentle feeling toward other people.
Weld: It’s not a perfect analogy, but your novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil focuses on a demagogue’s takeover of a small nation, and it reaches a point where the divisiveness is so white-hot that God, or some God-like figure, has to interfere. That’s not exactly hopeful toward the notion that we can heal that divide ourselves. But you seem to feel differently in reality.
Saunders: Even if you just think of those Trump rallies, I hated the way I felt. I was so agitated, and my mental monologue was so aggressive and defensive at the same time. In a certain way, one of the reasons people can move toward empathetic positions is that it’s just more pleasurable. It’s more expansive. And again, the reason is — and this sounds corny, but as I approach 60, I feel like I’m entitled — I really think that our job here is to become less self and more love. There are these moments in your life when you lurch in that direction, and you go, “Oh yeah, that feels like home, to be fully loving.”
That seems like a really wise thing to do, just in terms of health. I think it’s erratic, but human beings can do it in general. There kind of is a move toward that. And what’s ultimately hopeful is that we move toward that because it’s rational. It’s like I said at the beginning, consciousness is not actually correct. Our consciousness of ourselves as separate and permanent and important is actually delusional. So as we try to undercut that, we’re actually moving in the direction of prudence, of logic.
George Saunders will be signing copies of Lincoln in the Bardo at the Alabama Booksmith (2626 19th Pl. S. in Homewood) on Tuesday, February 21, starting at 5 p.m. For more information, visit alabamabooksmith.com.