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In His Debut Novel, George Saunders Portrays Lincoln as a Man Haunted by Tragedy

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As the country steels itself for Donald J. Trump’s next temper tantrum, it also welcomes a new work from the writer George Saunders that considers a president whose grace and composure under pressure were, by most accounts, unrivaled in the history of American leadership. That would be Abraham Lincoln, of course. And in his highly anticipated first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, out this week from Random House, Saunders — one of the country’s most celebrated writers of short fiction — takes us back to an oft-overlooked time in our nation’s history: the winter of 1862, when the president was struggling not only with the bloody advent of the Civil War a year prior but also, more personally, with the death of his third son, Willie, who succumbed to typhoid fever at the age of eleven.

It’s a heavy story to take on, and Saunders acknowledges the audacity of such a project, which took him about four years to complete. But the idea was gestating for, he estimates, nearly two decades, dating back to the day when a friend mentioned to him, as they drove past Washington, D.C.’s Oak Hill Cemetery, that Lincoln’s son had been buried there. Newspaper accounts of Willie’s death, the friend said, reported that Lincoln had gone back to the crypt to be with his son and hold his body.

“At the time, I thought, ‘I can’t write that; that’s beyond my talent,’ ” says Saunders, 58. But after decades of writing short stories, while also winning awards for his magazine reporting, he decided he had little to lose. “You get to this point in your career and you say, ‘Well, I don’t have ninety million books left,’ ” adds Saunders, who is now at work on a TV adaption of his short story “Sea Oak,” from the 2000 collection Pastoralia. “I felt I’d had enough good luck that it wouldn’t kill me to try something that would fail.”

The book succeeds on many counts. It isn’t lugubrious or overly sentimental — no mean feat, given the somber subject matter. Saunders shields himself from sinking too deep into darkness by fashioning a ghost story (though he doesn’t use the word ghost in the novel) around Lincoln’s visit to the cemetery on the night of his son’s death.

For the most part, the story revolves around a couple of long-dead souls (both fictional) lingering in the graveyard: Roger Bevins III (a closeted gay man who took his own life) and Hans Vollman (a printer who died when a beam struck him in the skull). They don’t know they’re dead and come upon the young Willie after he arrives in his “sick-box,” as they call it, encountering Lincoln sporadically throughout the book as a kind of spectral force. They’re in, as the title suggests, the “bardo,” a Tibetan Buddhist term for the liminal period after a person has died but before he’s moved on to the afterlife. (Saunders and his wife are both practicing Buddhists.)

The older ghosts have basically been frozen in time, so they have characteristics that supply a bit of shocking comic relief to Lincoln’s depressing interior monologues. Take Vollman’s impressive erection, which has remained swollen in place since he perished before he and his young wife were able to consummate their marriage. “If we die,” Saunders reasons, “it would be weird if it was like something we’d heard about before.”

In terms of length and structure, Lincoln in the Bardo is a departure from Saunders’s previous works. At nearly 350 pages, it’s the longest story he’s written, and it has new stylistic quirks. For instance, the book is interwoven with chapters containing real-life texts, such as letters and journal entries recalling events of the time, along with modern-day retellings of the Civil War period from historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin that are cut and pasted in, blurring the border between fact and fiction and questioning the reliability of historical memory. Some accounts, it turns out, are made up, though even they might go unnoticed by a verisimilitude inspector, to use a term from a previous Saunders story.

Because he set his book in the 1800s, Saunders resolved at the outset that he would stay away from contemporary diction, which meant that he couldn’t include the kind of stilted modern language and corporate jargon he has used to lacerating effect in his previous stories. But he’s found work-arounds: The memorable “run-skim,” which Saunders uses to describe ghostly movement, is the kind of term you’d imagine finding in one of Saunders’s short stories. “It was sort of like a rock band where you have to play accordions,” Saunders jokes of process of finding new language. “It makes you kind of find out what underlies your usual approach.”

The book still contains several Saunders trademarks, and long-time readers will find he has well balanced the macabre, the absurd, and the compassionate, as he did to great effect in the title story of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), which details the plight of a historical amusement park haunted by ghosts who died gruesomely more than a century earlier.

Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Saunders has returned to a point in time that nearly split our nation in two as its populace becomes increasingly divided along red and blue lines, haunted by past ghosts. But he isn’t so high-minded as to believe that we should draw any historical conclusions from his novel. Lincoln in the Bardo, he says, opened him up to new emotional territory, and maybe that’s enough. “I’ve got a pretty limited talent,” says Saunders, taking a characteristically self-deprecating turn. “You’re on that ledge, trying to work it till you’re dead, so anything you can do to give yourself access to new frequencies is pretty good.”

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