George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo initially struck me as an odd, unclassifiable book. It starts out as a kind of bizarre historical fiction, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son William kicking off a story set in a surreal half way house between life and death. Various individuals, unwilling to move on from their lives, inhabit the bardo, a word sometimes used in Buddhism to describe a transitional state between death and rebirth. The sense of oddness is reinforced by an unusual narrative style, where a myriad of narrators tell the story with credits given in the manner of a history text book.
Within the first twenty pages, however, I started to experience a nagging sense of familiarity. By about half way through, I realised Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t so unidentifiable after all. It was, for all intents and purposes, a zombie story. Even though the Bardo’s inhabitants weren’t portrayed in an overt way as typical zombies, they are the undead, and seemed to have a place in a long tradition, stretching from ancient folklore, through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe, numerous stories by H.P. Lovecraft, and the blind walking dead of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Emerging from all that, the zombie story became a place where writers could explore anxieties related to science, industrialisation, globalisation.
Lincoln in the Bardo is set at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Lincoln in one section thinks of his lost son as an intricate machine, and wonders about the nature of the magical spark which allowed him to live. Other characters populating the precincts of the undead seem trapped in the mechanical patterns of their past lives. A shop keeper appears stuck in the routine of his lost working day, as does a musician, a professor and an overzealous soldier. Former slaves seem to either live out their submission endlessly; or former slaves and former white bigots are condemned to continue their fight endlessly.
The portrayal of three former clubmen, in particular, shows how difficult it is to stop your life settling into an enervating pattern. These jolly bachelors, who lost their lives as a result of silly pranks, appear trapped in their fixed determination never to be tied down to any obligation at all.
We are clearly in zombie story territory here, exploring the complex business of staying alive via a story set amongst characters who are neither alive nor dead. The writing has a very organic quality, ethereal at times in portraying earthly beauty, then plumbing the depths of physical degradation. This is set against that dry sense of quoting each narrator as if they are a reference in a text book. It all makes for an interesting, intellectual twist on the zombie tale. Even intellectual readers need zombies it seems. Perhaps with their quotes, references and essays, the struggle to stay vibrant and alive is especially relevant to the intellectuals. I’m reminded of the literature professor in Educating Rita, who found hairdresser Rita a breath of fresh air, even as Rita herself tried to escape the boredom of her humdrum life and her taste in low brow novels.
Lincoln in the Bardo takes the low brow zombie genre and turns it into a strange, high brow novel. It’s a bit like an unfulfilled Professor Frank Bryant meeting an unfulfilled Rita, the two of them finding mutual benefit.