My husband is a novelist. When we met, he was not a Buddhist. I told myself, for a long time, that it had never been my intention to convert my husband to Buddhism, but then, a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that it was most certainly my intention, and that—while I never preached to him, I had suggested, weeks after we met, that we go on a monthlong pilgrimage in India, followed by several weeks of empowerments in the Pin Valley.
My point in all this is that my husband has friends from before we met, most of whom are happy for us to keep quiet about the Buddha. One is a famous writer. He is maybe the most famous writer in America. I’ll call him Famous Writer. We went to dinner with him once, and he got a little drunk (Famous Writer did) and finally turned to my husband and said, “You’re Tibetan Buddhist now.”
Famous Writer didn’t say, “You burn incense, wear scarves, get down on the floor in front of Asian men, and believe that when you die, you’ll turn into a dog.” But then, he didn’t have to. We got it.
This type of attitude might be why George Saunders—a famous writer, although not the one I referred to up there—seemed to keep his religion on the down low for so long. Born in 1958, he barely graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in geophysical engineering, then spent a year and a half working as a field geophysicist in Sumatra before coming back to America, where he worked as a doorman, a roofer, a convenience store clerk, and a knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse, which he says gave him some insight into capitalism’s hidden dark side. In 1986, at a wild party, he picked up a copy of People magazine and read interviews with Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney. It was the first time he’d heard of an MFA in creative writing. He applied to the MFA program at Syracuse, got in, and after more rough work—technical writing now—he published his first story in The New Yorker. Four years later, in 1996, he published his first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and ever since then, it’s fair to say that he’s been one of America’s major league writers. His list of honors is long: MacArthur Fellowship, The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” Guggenheim Fellowship, and so on. But more than a résumé, he has a reputation, among literary types, for being unusually kind.
George Saunders is a Tibetan Buddhist. He can’t have kept this totally secret, because Buddhists knew he was a Buddhist. I knew he was a Buddhist, and my friend the writer Noa Jones knew. But you never saw it mentioned in the media, and other literary people seemed to be in the dark about it. More, Saunders’s writing, however compassionate it might have been toward its characters, avoided the subject. I never asked him why. For some reason, though, I always had the impression that it wasn’t because he was being a secret yogi. I had the impression that he didn’t want to have to discuss Tibetan Buddhism with people like Famous Writer. There are many Famous Writers. And Editors. And so on.
Now George Saunders has come out of the closet with a flamingly Buddhist book, Lincoln in the Bardo, which is also his first novel.
Lincoln in the Bardo opens on a party at Abraham Lincoln’s White House, on the night of his son Willie’s death from typhoid, which Saunders recreates from actual historical sources. The novel really begins after Willie Lincoln’s death, when Willie awakens in a tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery, in the bardo. He is dead, though he doesn’t know that. I remember vaguely a Buddhist teacher of mine talking about the bardo one time, about 25 years ago. He said you might not know you were dead. You might look at your hand and see the hand of a crow, and you might sort of be okay with that. That’s how it is for Willie, and for the other beings in the bardo. As though it is a dream, everything is strange, everything is in motion, and they don’t really notice it. The bardo beings—all 166 of them— take over the telling.
The ghosts at Oak Ridge are all stuck in the bardo because they are stuck on the stories of their past lives. Our main narrators are Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and Reverend Everly Thomas. Bevins and Vollman are both in denial; they don’t know that they are dead. Vollman died a middle-aged printer married to a woman less than half his age. He never consummated his marriage, and in the bardo, thinking of the night that never happened, he has a tremendous hard-on, the size of a diving board. Bevins is there because he can’t stop thinking of his gay lover. He thinks (wrongly) that his lover left him to pass for straight. And the Reverend Thomas is there because after a life spent warning his parishioners about the wrath of God, he is afraid to face it himself. But many others are stuck for less compelling reasons. One man who has been there longer than anyone else can remember, asks continually, “Do you know who I am, sir? They hold me a table at Binlay’s. I wear the Legion of the Eagle.”
It is important that Willie leave the bardo, because he is a child. Children in the bardo, for reasons that are not clear, do not do well. They become colonized by a hell realm of demonic beings trapped in inanimate objects, like one young woman at Oak Ridge who, stuck on the cemetery fence, manifests constantly as different strange things, including “a horrid blackened furnace,” “a terrible hag gorging on black cake,” and “a scaled-down smoking wreck of a rail car, several dozen charred and expiring individuals trapped within her barking out the most obscene demands.”
Our three main narrators—Bevins, Vollman, and Thomas—try to convince Willie to move on. When he won’t agree, they take larger steps. They try to convince Abraham Lincoln to come back to the cemetery. Of course, Lincoln is alive and they are dead, and so they can’t speak to him directly. They enter his body and attempt to communicate their impressions telepathically.
The emotional heart of the novel is Lincoln himself, and Saunders writes beautifully of the president’s desolation. During the plot to rescue Willie from the bardo, our three main characters have to enter Lincoln’s body several times. When they do so, they see and feel him. At one point, Lincoln sits in the chapel beside the cemetery, and Vollman enters the president’s body. “And Lord the fellow was low. He was attempting to formulate a goodbye, in some sort of positive spirit, not wishing to enact that final departure in gloom, in case it might be felt, somehow, by the lad . . . but all within him was sadness, guilt, and regret, and he could find little else. . . . Low, colder than before, and sadder, and when he directed his mind outward, seeking the comfort of his life out there, and the encouragement of his future prospects, and the high regard in which he was held, no comfort was forthcoming, but on the contrary: he was not, it seemed, well thought of, or succeeding in much of anything at all.”
Saunders portrays Lincoln’s desolation as the end of self-deception, or the beginning of truth. From it, the president recognizes the desolation of those around him. He is “made less rigidly himself through this loss. Therefore quite powerful. Reduced, ruined, remade.” This is, of course, a Buddhist understanding of suffering, and how it can lead to genuine—and potent—compassion.
Lincoln in the Bardo has many remarkable qualities: humor and imagination; mischief; Saunders’s ability to articulate and enliven Buddhist concepts like dukkha, or the universality of suffering. But one of my favorite things about it was the way Saunders described ego: as the stubborn retelling, the cherishing, of a stupid story; or as a sad story, a story that hardly makes sense. Basically, in the novel, the ghosts are always telling each other their stories: stories that are kind of pathetic and clearly don’t matter.
Set in the bardo, about a man who has lost hope, told by a narrator who forces himself at all times to exchange himself with others: This is a magnificently Buddhist novel.
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