Literature has always cautioned the heart against eternal love.
“As once I loved you in my mortal flesh,” one pilgrim says to another in Dante’s “Purgatorio,’’ “without it now I love you still.” For a moment, a splinter of light shines into Dante’s terrifying text. Can an exception be made?
Then Cato of Utica steps forward, urging them along. “What have we here . . . Quick, to the mountain to cast off the slough/that will not let you see God show Himself!”
In other words, Dante reminds readers the only eternal love — if one believes — is God’s love. Everything else — our reputations, and, with such anguish, our loved ones — must fall away before we move on.
In “Lincoln in the Bardo,” George Saunders conjures a tale in which one cannot help but wish there were exemptions. It is the night of Feb. 25 1862; the Civil War rages; and Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, has died.
“Dear boy,” the shattered president says, cradling his son’s corpse in a crypt, “I will come again. That is a promise.”
A trio of ghosts caught in a bardo, a transitional state — no longer alive, but not yet judged — watch this exchange with alarm. Willie has just joined them, bewildered and alone, unready to move on. He believes he can wait for his father.
Thus begins one of the strangest and most remarkable books — shy Rabih Alameddine’s recent “The Angel of History” — about love, loss, and the afterlife.
Narrated in bursts of speech interspersed with real and fictionalized observations of the president across a single, terrible night, “Lincoln in the Bardo” reads less like a novel than the type of tragedy Shakespeare might write if he lived in 21st century America.
Fans of Saunders’s stories — some of the most original work in American history — have craved this book for a long time, and he has not disappointed.
Saunders has disassembled the novel as a form and put it back together in a fascinating shape. Dozens of voices spread out across the page like floating spirits. As in the bard’s work, their feelings are nobly and ignobly expressed.
“I have misgivings about that,” says Hans Vollman, “the watching” — this about the time he and some other spirits witnessed a young couple making love in a graveyard after the ghosts conspired to halt the pair’s plans to split up.
Vollman died in a state of tumescence, having never consummated a late second marriage. And Bevins, the friend to whom he speaks, is Vollman’s cohort for the novel. Bevins committed suicide over a lover and spends purgatory morphed into a hideous creature of many eyes and arms, continually grasping.
They are two of many ghosts who crowd this book to the bursting. The burned, the beheaded, the broke, some former big men. As Lincoln paces back and forth to his dead son’s coffin, a growing throng circle around to kvetch, ogle, and tell their stories.
Saunders veers compellingly between high and low, hideous and heartbreaking. Raped slaves run into the racist generals who fought against their freedom. Two men enraptured by each other’s flattery conjoin in an endless circular back-patting.
Eventually it becomes clear Saunders has stuffed all the contradictions of the sundering American republic into his haunted house of a saga. As always, Saunders’s irony cuts through. For instance, one woman attempts to talk down to a slave she met on the back of a cart carrying out the dead.
Two things which must be revealed. The dead aren’t entirely aware they are dead. And they have the ability to enter the thoughts of Lincoln if they enter his body. These two facts entwine as Saunders meditates on sacrifice and empathy and eventually together create a crucial engine of tension as the novel progresses.
As “Lincoln in the Bardo” skips between historical observation and the grieving president’s thoughts we witness the difference between a human viewed and humanity as lived. In some moments when he seems most wracked by his son’s death, Lincoln is in fact also pondering the union. When he seems ennobled by grief he is in fact lacerating himself with grief: Perhaps, he thinks, he should not have held a party when his son was sick.
In the past two decades, in short stories and essays largely about America, Saunders has often revealed characters in their worst moments and managed to look upon them with love and forgiveness.
“Lincoln in the Bardo,” for all its zooming silliness — there are far more orgies in his purgatory than in Dante’s — manages to do something similar on the level of metaphysics. It finds in reasons grand and grotesque a similarity between our greed to live and our need to die.
“At the core of each lay suffering,” Vollmann says late in the book, “the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.”
In other words, whatever judgment that awaits us — if one believes such a thing — we live as “suffering, limited beings.’’ The only thing that relieves it is death. It was true of Lincoln, Saunders reminds in this dazzling novel, which catches the president as he struggles to a new day and considers how to help an agonized nation do the same. It would take fields of death and grief. If only we remembered this more often.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO
By George Saunders
Random House, 343 pp., $30
John Freeman is editor of Freeman’s and author of “Maps,” a
collection of poems forthcoming in 2017.