Lincoln in the Bardo is short story master George Saunders’ first novel, and its impact has been as earthshaking as its storytelling mode is avidly imagined and downright surreal. Awarded the Man Booker Prize, this tragic and comic historical improvisation is also a Carnegie finalist for fiction.
SEAMAN: Your uniquely structured novel, a chorus of voices and collage of sources, brings to mind both Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. What inspired you to unite these two worlds?
SAUNDERS: It was really just hearing that Lincoln had entered his beloved son’s crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body, the power and weirdness and sadness of that image. What I loved about this project was the way that a pretty simple desire—to do justice to the emotional power of that moment—led to some strange solutions. My hope was that the book would teach the reader to read it, so that, by the end, she would be reading along in a new and expanded mode that lets more beauty in.
SEAMAN: Are there real-life origins for any of the narrators-from-beyond? Hans Vollman? Roger Bevins III? Reverend Everly Thomas?
SAUNDERS: Well, perhaps embarrassingly: no. They are “all me,” so to speak. This is what I love about writing fiction—the embedded assumption that anyone is imaginable to anyone who tries hard enough; that we are all essentially on a consciousness continuum, and so no one of us is unknowable to another.
SEAMAN: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War loom large in America’s national psyche, and the horrors of that time still rattle and shadow us. Did you feel that by confronting that as well as the eternal mystery of death in such a vital, unconventional manner, you could cast new light on both the past and present?
SAUNDERS: Well, I would love to think so and am happy to take credit for having done all of that, but the truth is, I have to keep those big thoughts out of the way when I’m working. The main thing, for me, is to keep focused on and in the fictive reality. Where is so-and-so standing? What’s the weather like? I know from past experience that any aspirations to the moral-ethical or the political or the spiritual (any aspirations to offer comfort or help a reader make sense of the world) will only be satisfied by my intense immersion in the technical aspects of the book. These desires are like delicate little forest creatures that don’t like you to look directly at them. But keep your attention elsewhere, and you find they are very eager to come out and be seen.
Having said that, once you’re done with a book, you get some sense of what you’ve done. In this case, I think it’s safe to say that the Civil War never ended. We botched the Reconstruction and, as beautifully detailed in Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, continued to withhold true liberty and any hope of economic independence from the freed people, and to enact white supremacy. So I think there’s a sense in the book of the horror of this, especially weighed against the briefness of our time here on Earth and the uncertainty of what lies ahead for us after death. And in this bardo state, it is clear that the superficial differences between us are trivial, and any hatred generated by these differences even more catastrophic and inexcusable.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.