Last night I finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize for literature this year. I can’t remember when I’ve felt so moved by a novel. First, by Saunders’ daring to bring so many different elements into the book, but more deeply by the struggle and generosity of his characters.
The story takes place right after Abraham Lincoln loses his 12 year-old son Willie, in the middle of the American Civil War. The nation is already reeling from countless deaths (with many more to come) and its leader, the President, is full of doubts and misgivings. Is it right to fight on? Is he a peacemaker or a warmonger? What must he do? What does he call on? And in the middle of all that, his own little boy dies. He’s interred in a crypt close to Washington but his father can’t let go, so he visits the crypt at night to hold his son close one more time.
That’s the historic framework. Saunders has peopled that one-night scene with long-time inhabitants of the Bardo, people who died but don’t know they’re dead. Stuck between life and death, they’re no longer flesh-and-blood but are still attached to the things of flesh-and-blood, the lives they left, the men and women they loved, the violence they endured, the things they never had but wanted passionately, craftsmen, business owners, soldiers, slaves, mothers, fathers, housewives, unable to let go or move on, stuck for eternity in the web of desires and regrets.
Onto that stage enters the 12 year-old Willie, followed by his father the President. Lincoln has his grief and despair, the father who loses his second child, the leader who can barely face himself in the abyss of uncertainty, even as so many depend on him.
Everyone is hooked, everyone is stuck. And still there is movement; there is courage and friendship, surprise, a call and response, stirrings of deep generosity that brought tears into my eyes. How is all this goodness possible from beings whose time here is finished, who’ve reached a dead end, and who can never return to reap the blessings or results of what they did? And still, though they can’t touch, they are touched. Feelings are still there (for some), a humaneness that seems to have nothing to do with flesh-and-blood.
Buddhism is rife with names of spirits or supernatural beings that attend the Buddha, invisible to our own eye. I’ve never taken that very seriously, only now I wonder how else can I explain a sudden burst of clarity, love, or generosity when just 10 minutes ago all I wanted to do was go to bed? What possessed me? What goes on right here in my room, spirit and energies coalescing or coming apart, following their own threads of karma and evolution?
Even the worst of times have mercy and small acts of transformation. Saunders wrote a novel about a time of terrible brutality, when we encountered the worse wounds in this country’s history, and how beings both white and black, caught in the web of their own desires and unfinished lives, could somehow give courage and renewed determination to a man drowning in sorrow and help him fulfill his destiny. The goodness comes invisibly out of the page and nestles in my own heart now, towards the end of 2017, reminding me that one is never alone. Never.