Historical fiction Reviews

Too local to be universal

A mezzotint print of the Lincoln family produced by New York engraver John Chester Buttre in 1873.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

What happens when you take an acclaimed prize-winning writer of short stories-cum-professor of creative writing, widely considered one of the nicest and most influential voices in contemporary American fiction, throw in a pinch of mystic Tibetan Nyingma Buddhism, take a large scoop of perhaps the most tragic event in the life of perhaps the greatest-ever U.S. President, garnish it with exquisitely chopped slices of historical and/ or pseudo-historical accounts of that President’s time and life, squeeze the juiciest bits from the techniques and resources of oral historical narration and, finally, when all that hard work is done, target your creation squarely at the throbbing heart of a generation raised on slasher movies, zombies, vampires and retellings of Gothic tale? Answer: Rave reviews for George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and a general feeling that good ol’ George has done it again, only this time longer, stronger and more feel-good-ishly better than the last (the Folio Prize-winning short-story collection Tenth of December in 2013).

Even if all of the above is true, and the praise wholly warranted, Lincoln in the Bardo is, at the end of its 108-chapter-long display of literary virtuosity, simply too American to appeal to a larger, more global, less local, readership. So many times we see just how the minutely-observed local becomes universally beloved not despite, but precisely because of, its rootedness in its particular here and now (or there and then)—think D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, to name just three local-turned-universal classics.

Family matters

Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, had four sons, of whom only the eldest, Robert Todd Lincoln, survived his parents—the other three died aged four, 11 and 18, respectively. Now, why does Saunders choose to put the third, William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, and his death and stint in bardo (a kind of Tibetan after-death waiting room, where the soul rests between births), at the centre of his display of literary legerdemain? Could it be because Willie’s death, in February 1862, some 10 months after the commencement of the American Civil War, echoed the tragic senselessness and unnecessary loss of young lives? Perhaps because of stories that President Lincoln visited the tomb of his son to mourn the death of his “poor boy” who was “too good for this earth”? Or maybe because the literary artist in Saunders wants to use this as an occasion to meditate on the nature of love, loss and longing, not of the erotic kind, but in and of a relationship that is both more deep and more fraught – that between parent and child? Who knows, someday, perhaps, Mister George will tell us. Or, perhaps not. And, perhaps, we may, or may not, believe him.

Lincoln in the Bardo; George Saunders, Bloomsbury, ₹599.

Lincoln in the Bardo; George Saunders, Bloomsbury, ₹599.  

This lack of certainty, this inability to pinpoint just quite why and how we do what we do and why others do what they do is presented through the disparate chorus of voices belonging to those other souls who share Willie’s bardo-latry, so to speak. These souls (or, if you like, ghosts) are presented matter-of-factly by Saunders, who even appends names, in slightly smaller type and sans capitalisation, after every utterance, thus:

“Why had we not done this before?

hans vollman

So many years I had known this fellow and yet had never really known him at all.

roger bevins iii

It was intensely pleasurable.

hans vollman

But was not helping.

roger bevins iii”

In other places, Saunders quotes from real and made-up sources—Cordelia A.P. Harvey in her A Wisconsin Woman’s Picture of President Lincoln (real), Petersen Wickett’s Our Capital in Time of War (possibly made-up, but I’m not certain), or the Princess Felix Salm-Salm (quite real, despite the strange-sounding name)—to create a contrapuntal portrait of time/s, life/lives (or death/s), place/s people/s, and event/s. The effect, like that of reading this last sentence, can be slightly irritating. One feels like saying, as the March Hare did Alice, “Then you should say what you mean.” But then this wouldn’t be the kind of novel that has drawn the kind of praise it continues to reap in bushels. Nor could it have taken a time (that of the American Civil War) and a person (President Abraham Lincoln) of profound, far-reaching political significance and turned them into pegs on which to hang a touching, slightly soggy with bathos, wholly personal and entirely depoliticised story.

Read it to decide if Lincoln in the Bardo is worth the applause.

Lincoln in the Bardo; George Saunders, Bloomsbury, ₹599.

The writer teaches contemporary literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 9:58:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/too-local-to-be-universal/article17407144.ece

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