Gravestones at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Gravestones at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Credit: Library of Congress / Carol M. Highsmith

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, by George Saunders. Random House, 343 pp., $28.

You may have heard that George Saunders’ first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” is about President Abraham Lincoln’s grief over his son Willie, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 11 during the first year of the Civil War. Well, it is — but that description won’t prepare you for what you’ll encounter in this strange, profound, melancholy and often silly book. (On the other hand, if you’re familiar with “Tenth of December” or Saunders’ five earlier story collections, that particular combination of qualities is one you’ve seen before.)

From the outset, “Lincoln in the Bardo” reads more like a play than a novel, composed entirely of spoken dialogue and collages of historical quotations. Its action takes place over the course of one night in a Washington, D.C., cemetery, and it opens with a ghost named Hans Vollman explaining the manner of his death to his friend, Roger Bevins III, also a ghost. Listening in on the conversation is the new arrival — “our silent young friend.”

As he tells it, Vollman was fatally smacked in the head by a falling beam before he managed to consummate his marriage with his pretty wife; hence he suffers perpetual arousal in the afterlife. Bevins, on the other hand, slit his wrists over a homosexual crush. He realized too late that he loved the world too much to leave it behind. Now he has ever-multiplying sets of eyes, noses, and hands.

These two characters act as our guides through the night in question, during which Lincoln returns twice to Willie’s crypt. That part really happened. In Saunders’ version, these visits occur in the “bardo” — the Tibetan name for the place people end up after death if they haven’t let go of life on earth. While he was at it, Saunders populated this realm with sundry other inhabitants — a reverend, a slave, a rapist, a rape victim and some very bad parents. All have unfinished business; some don’t even believe they are dead.

Interspersed with the scenes in the graveyard are chapters consisting of quotes from historical sources on a particular theme. The first few of these cover a major party given at the White House during Willie’s illness. “Costly wines and liquors flowed freely, and the immense Japanese punch bowl was filled with ten gallons of champagne punch,” reported Margaret Leech, in a book called “Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865.” “A piggish and excessive display in times of war,” wrote Albert Sloane in his private letters. “Yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling hostess and her husband. They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all,” read an account published in 1965 by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Phillip B. Kunhardt Jr.

Other chapters collect quotes about the moon on the night in question, about the character of Willie Lincoln (“the sort of child people imagine their children will be, before they have children,” wrote Ruth Painter Randall) or the color of Lincoln’s eyes, his character and appearance, his wife’s reaction to Willie’s death, Willie’s funeral, the terrible toll of the war and Lincoln’s handling of it. “The Presdt is an idiot,” wrote General George McLellan. Are all these quotations real? Everything I Googled checked out, and I learned a few fun facts in the process — such as the fact that Dorothy Kunhardt, quoted above, was also the author of the children’s classic “Pat the Bunny.” On the other hand, some sections, such as quoted excerpts from the night watchman’s logbook, seem to be invented, and Saunders isn’t saying either way.

In the final scenes of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the realities of death and loss are faced head on. Not just by the father and son, but by all spirits in the bardo, who have been clinging so desperately to the last shreds of their mortal existence. How can the dead bear to let go of life? How can the living bear to let go of the dead?

Only George Saunders would think of such a bizarre and elaborate conceit to address those questions, and wrest from it so much feeling, so much humor and sorrow. Historical fiction will never be the same.

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