They were baffled, mostly. Most of the reviews I read agreed upon the formal boldness and narrative power of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO. Some pointed out the “themepark” quality of the Oak Hill Cemetery where George Saunders’ novel takes place, as, widely observed, President Lincoln goes to visit his beloved son Willie, recently succumbed to Typhoid, and interred.
I guess I could feel the deeper layer of the text operating somewhere, that whisper of allegory one feels without fully understanding. MOBY-DICK, sure, and the more literal PILGRIM’S PROGRESS by John Bunyan (which one of the characters namedrops, can’t remember which one, but it’s in there, winking at us).
It isn’t a God/Jesus allegorical, though: it’s a imperfect Abraham/Isaac allegory. I didn’t realize it until I saw the title of the image on the first-edition hardcover, which describes the illustration as the landscape of Abraham bringing his son Isaac up to the altar, where the Old Testament God has called upon Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac (who, let it be known, was a long-time coming because of the infertility treatment Abraham and Sarah had to undergo). Bible scholars may point to the prefiguring of God = Abraham, Isaac = Jesus, the foreshadowing of Christ’s death. In LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, the allegorical is a bit more nuanced and complex. Still it can’t be ignored: Abraham = Abraham. And Willie, here, is taken by God and killed (differing from Genesis where the ram appears in the thicket).
And from Abraham’s sacrifice, Saunders give us some of his interior monologue about summoning his ambition and his strength, to make Willie’s death mean something more, as if sublimating his death into the energy Lincoln would need to continue leading the country. Much of the novel’s description of the Civil War comes near the end of the book, after Lincoln has had his “closure” with Willie, and it is then that Lincoln observes how many other parents have experienced his pain, because of the war. That was profound, to me, that because of his own son’s death, Lincoln now empathizes with the fathers and mothers of all the dead American soldiers, as if he hadn’t fully understood their pain before, and how could he have? It’s a compelling suggestion, that because of Willie’s death, Lincoln now aligns himself emotionally with the nations’ fathers who keep asking him: why? And because of that, per Saunders, he finds the strength to continue. Really interesting, powerful stuff. Great book, a weird book, and further evidence of Saunders strange, unmistakable genius. At Powell’s.