Lincoln in the Bardo By George Saunders, $28.
Mr. Burton? Tim Burton? Hi, just give me a minute, I promise. Think “Honest Abe meets Beetlejuice.” Only the ghosts aren’t trying to get Abe Lincoln out of the White House, because he’s already gone out. He’s at their cemetery, because he’s just buried his boy, Willie, and besides being all torn up about it, he’s got the Civil War on his back, and he’s not sure what to do about it.
It’s all in this great new book, Lincoln in the Bardo—the Bardo, it’s this Tibetan between-life-and-the-beyond state, like Purgatory, sort of. Anyway, it’s by George Saunders—can we get him onboard? Short story writer, Tenth of December a couple of years back; this is his first novel.
Anyway, these ghosts in the cemetery, Mr. Burton, you’ll be all over them: middle-aged guy who died before he can consummate his marriage, so he’s naked with a big, uh, appendage—surely you can work that out; also a young, gay guy who slit his wrists and now has countless eyes and arms; and this preacher who can’t figure out why he’s not in heaven. They have unresolved issues, lives unfinished. Even slaves, struggling to process life’s pain and indignity. All of them were taken before they were ready, and they don’t understand they’re dead. They think they’re just sick and don’t want to let go.
But we open at a big White House ball, food, candies, dancing, Marine Band—only Willie’s upstairs dying of typhoid fever. And later everyone has imperfect memories of the evening, and they blame Lincoln for partying while his son’s sick, living it up while the country’s at war—this is the tough part, because it’s all fragments of documents in the book, interspersed with the cemetery scenes. But the cemetery scenes read like dialogue, just in florid, 19th-century diction.
So, Lincoln’s at the cemetery. The ghosts are excited, because they think it means something for them. And they can actually inhabit Lincoln, read his thoughts. Then there are these thousands of tiny demon creatures who try to entwine Willie with vines to keep him for themselves and the other ghosts try to stop them—are you seeing this? Parts of it are hilarious, but some of it is wistful and, well, deep. About how we trap ourselves in our regrets. Then there’s a Buddhist element, about accepting sorrow, and resolving to act for greater good. Seriously, Mr. Burton, it’s all so you.