Bobok in the Bardo

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

Bloomsbury, 368pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781408871775

reviewed by Leonid Bilmes

The bardo, according to Buddhist teaching, is a kind of limbo state for the soul after the body reaches its corporeal date of expiry. Souls of the departed linger in the bardo before they are ready to move on to whatever happens next (either reincarnation or nirvana), but in the fictional world of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo – winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize – this liminal space functions a little more like purgatory. The souls of the departed come to inhabit their post-mortem waiting game in the guise of their earthly passions. Essentially, whatever you think most about the moment you die is writ all the larger in the bardo. As Saunders himself explains: ‘If you took snapshots of ourselves throughout the day, the way that our mind is twisting and turning, then at the moment of death, the mind would be twisting and turning in the same way. But the Buddhists say it’s super-sized because there’s no bodily damper on it.’

Lincoln in the Bardo has three chief narrators who are all victims of this ‘super-sized’ mind-cum-body fusion: Hans Vollman, middle-aged, printer, recently married to a young bride and killed by a falling beam in his workshop before physically consummating his marriage; Roger Bevins III: a young homosexual man, a sensualist and pleasure seeker, prone to garrulousness and flights of fanciful discourse, who committed suicide after being wronged by his lover; and the Reverent Everly Thomas: elderly Protestant preacher, conscientious and a little priggish, but kind-hearted. Each of these souls, like all the others sojourning in the cemetery where the story is set, is made to wear the mark of his most ardent wish on or even as his new spiritual body. Hans, not unreasonably, has a permanent enormous erection and is stark in his rotund nudity; Roger has several pairs of eyes and hands and noses, pairs which multiply crazily whenever he gets over-excited; and the reverend has a permanent expression of fright – think Munch’s Scream – frozen into his features.

The ‘Lincoln’ of the title refers to two Lincolns, both of whom narrate portions of the story: Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, who died of typhoid fever at the age of eleven, and the sixteenth president himself, who visited his son’s tomb several times after the boy’s funeral (a fact attested by historical witnesses and conveyed to the reader through Saunders’s seamless blend of history and fiction).

So what’s ‘bobok,’ and what’s it doing in the bardo? ‘Bobok’ (pronounced bo-BOK) is a Russian word that means ‘small bean’ and it is the title of a peculiar short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, first published in 1873. After attending a funeral, protagonist Ivan Ivanovitch lingers in the cemetery for some quiet reflection and suddenly begins to hear voices. ‘Bobok’, the first word he hears spoken, denotes noise and confused shouting. After some moments, this hubbub becomes intelligible, and Ivanovitch realises the muffled voices reaching his ears are issuing from the bodies of the deceased.

In Dostoevsky’s satirical version of the afterlife, the soul maintains its subsistence after death quite literally through speaking – the gift of the gab is the sole thread preventing one’s snap into non-existence. The soul who mutters ‘bobok’, we learn, is the oldest among the cemetery’s residents, but the fact that he is still able to mutter this nonsense word every six weeks is proof that ‘an imperceptible speck of life is still warm within him.’

The spirits populating Saunders’s bardo similarly spend their time talking, only too glad of new arrivals, who break the monotony of exhausted conversation. Saunders’s novel shares Dostoevsky’s story’s invocation of the vocal immediacy of theatre: reading the narrative, you are addressed by these voices as you would be in a stage monologue (although just as in a dramatic monologue, such speech is as much addressed to the one speaking as it is to the audience). In this sense, Saunders’s spirits narrate themselves into continued existence in the bardo, babbling themselves into being. Another parallel with Dostoevsky’s story: the more ancient souls have grown transparent, barely subsisting, because with the passage of time they have become tired of speaking and, not speaking, are slowly disappearing.

Dostoevsky’s short story helps us appreciate both the perdurance of a quintessential aspect of novelistic form in the history of the genre, and the formal inventiveness of Saunders’s narrative. I am referring specifically to what Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described as the novel’s inherent heteroglossia. This rather awkward neologism (at least in its English translation, as the Russian raznorechie is much more eloquent to a native speaker’s ear) etymologically spells out ‘many-voicedness.’ For Bakhtin, the essential feature of the novel as distinct genre of discourse – distinct from, say, a philosophical dialogue or a lyric poem – is precisely its constitutive inclusion of and reliance upon many voices, many speech types. These voices and speech types can come from all classes of society, all professions, potentially all races, countries and all walks of life – culminating in a kind of ideal space of artfully handled vocal carnival that epitomises the novel genre. Bakhtin’s related, but slightly different, concept is polyphony, which he argued characterises only certain kinds of novels, where each of the many character voices in the story has equal importance to the author’s own voice or point of view (as, according to Bakhtin, we find to be the case in Dostoevsky’s fiction). In this regard, one formally innovative aspect of Saunders’s novel is precisely his seamless blending of voices of fact and voices of fiction, resulting in this masterfully orchestrated polyphonic verbal score where each succeeding voice continually responds to and is responsive of the other, and where each character’s narration remains singular and un-influenced by the author’s own point of view.

We all, of course, know that it is the author ultimately pulling all the strings and issuing all the stage directions. But surely artfulness (or at least a certain kind of artfulness) lies in an artist’s ability to conceal this fact, to make it seem as though the work of art just happened to find itself through his or her ‘passive’ mediation. Zadie Smith gestures at something similar in a recent conversation with Saunders for Interview Magazine, where she articulates a sense of something special emerging from her encounter with this novel: ‘I’m finding it very hard to verbalize. Good luck, reviewers! … It is a work that re-creates within you the emotional and mental processes it describes. It is not a “reading about x,” it is a going-through.’

This sense of ‘a going-through’ is an alert reader’s recognition of, strange as it may sound, the artist’s intent to expunge all hints of intent, even to make the reader forget all about the ‘figure of the author’ (in the same way that we do not forget this figure when reading a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, for instance). Saunders himself confessed, in his characteristically forthright – he would say ‘no bullshit’ – manner, in a piece for The Guardian, that after hours of revision and redrafts, his writing in Lincoln in the Bardo began to follow its own course, with certain unexpected contours emerging like the lines of newly formed river banks after a big flood of inspiration.

‘Something like this had happened in stories before, but never on this scale, and never so unrelated to my intention. It was a beautiful, mysterious experience and I find myself craving it while, at the same time, flinching at the thousands of hours of work it will take to set such a machine in motion again.’

As you begin to read this novel, you may find yourself asking just what it is you are reading, which is always a question about form, about structure. When confronted by a singularity in our encounter with otherness, adjustments need to be made to our current systems of calibration and measure; caught out by a singular work, the mind needs time to accommodate to these novel surroundings. As Saunders tells Smith: ‘The beginning is strange, and I did a lot of work calibrating that so that a reader with a certain level of patience would get through it and in the nick of time start to figure out what was going on.’ And this is indeed what happens, as you soon find yourself acclimatising to the fast pace of the narrative – the novel consists of 108 chapters, many of which are only a couple of pages long – and the fast switching of narrative voices, both fictional and historical. This polyphonic orchestration of multiple narrating voices lets you rediscover the novel genre as if for the first time, so that after the initial sense of estrangement, you soon sit back and soak up the ease of it all.

Guillermo del Toro once said ‘History is ultimately an inventory of ghosts.’ And ghosts, having no more agency left in this world, are left only their voices, whether we hear these voices when reading historical accounts or conjure them up in and through fiction-making. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders performs this ‘inventory of ghosts’ in both of these senses, as some chapters in the novel are narrated by the fictional characters (mainly by the three souls listed above), while others are told by actual witnesses of Abraham Lincoln’s immense grief. As we read these meticulously researched first-hand recollections from memoirs, correspondence and diaries alongside the restlessly switching voices of the spirit-narrators, a strange thing happens: instead of historical accounts serving to ‘prop up’ this novel’s realism, it is the fictional voices of the spirits that start to lend greater veracity and immediacy to the historical record. That is to say, it is precisely when we realise that we are listening to the testimony of ghosts, to the dead speaking to us in both cases, that all these voices begin to reach us most affectively.

Yet one should not take these reflections about the novel’s structure to imply that it is all bits and pieces stuck together, as would seem to be the case when one is dealing with short quotations from historical testimony and the obvious limits this imposes on narrative structure and coherence. Saunders’s genius here is to have discovered a way to make the voices sound harmoniously together, echoing one another’s observations, and even contradicting each other without dissonance, being true to their guiding emotional tonality. (An experiment for the idle with minimal musical literacy is to assign a musical key to each of the chapters consisting of archival quotations: C major modulating into C minor for recollections of the opening reception at the Lincolns’, a reception soon made pensive by Willie’s worsening illness; D minor for recollections of the president after the funeral, etc.)

One reviewer has described this novel as standing ‘head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction.’ I prefer a less shampoo-y formulation: Saunders’s novel doesn’t stand above contemporary writing so much as it stands to the side of it, offering a different vantage point of the possibilities for fiction today. What most distinguishes Saunders’s fiction is its earnestness (hardly fashionable nowadays), its courage to be perceived as naïve and sentimental (it is sentimental without being mawkish, a distinction often assumed not to exist), and, most crucially, the absence of an attitude of ‘knowingness’ (of that sly and increasingly tiring wink by author to reader in between the lines of the prose – one of postmodernism’s less pleasing legacies and one which still causes many writers to be held in thrall to the always flattering reflection cast by the mirror of self-reference, self-reference which is also always self-protection). Saunders does justice to the fiction of his fictional-world and, in his own words, ‘to the process of trying to make the living and the dead feel real.’

Aside from the sustained sense of surprise that accompanies reading this novel, there are also revealing insights here into the fickleness of memory, how narrating memory very often shapes, without the teller’s awareness, what is remembered to match the kind of the story one wishes to tell about the past. For example, Chapter V is a chronicle of the memories, from various guests who attended the Lincolns’ reception at their home during Willie’s illness, of the evidently fickle moon that night: it is described by turn as ‘beautiful,’ ‘golden,’ ‘fat green,’ ‘yellow-red,’ ‘silver,’ ‘small and blue,’ ‘full yellow,’ absent, covered over by clouds. In a later chapter, the same comical misremembering is evident in the differing recollections of the colour of the president’s eyes. You may also want to hear what Nathaniel Hawthorne had to say about (his memory of) Abraham Lincoln’s appearance.

For Saunders’s fans, the trademark humour (or SaundersComedy©) and his gift for story are all well-preserved in this debut venture into the novel genre. You will want to discover what happens to Willie in the bardo (and why children should not tarry there); to witness the profane hilarity of the conversations between Eddie and Betsy Baron; and of course to find out what and whose words sound last in Saunders’s world of speech handled well.

Saunders’s artful arrangement of dialogue bespeaks the communal nature of all of our talking and in a sense serves to illustrate the impossibility of solipsism for those who belong to a language – for to speak, even to oneself in one’s solitary skull, is already to address. We are all invited to listen to the dead talk, like Ivan Ivanovitch. Unlike that story, however, Saunders’s picture of post-mortem speech is less bitter, more open to the possibility of community being formed, of kinship being established, all things being made equal in death. The words of Isabelle Perkins, who witnessed the Lincolns’ funeral procession from her window across the street from the cemetery, might serve well as an ending:

'Quiet tonight, & even the Creek seems to murmur along more quietly than usual, dear Brother. The moon came out just now & lit the stones in the cemetery—for an instant it appeared the grounds had been overrun with angels of various shapes and sizes: fat angels, dog-sized angels, angels upon horseback, etc.

I have grown comfortable having these Dead for company, and find them agreeable companions, over there in their Soil & cold stone Houses.'

Indeed, theirs is a garrulous company you will want to revisit.