Phil Brown -  journalist . writer . poet

Phil Brown

journalist . writer . poet

articles . books . poems


The Courier-Mail Saturday February 11, 2017

Writer George Saunders enlists ghosts to help tell his story about the US president’s dead son ...

by Phil Brown ...

If you told someone you were writing a book about Abraham Lincoln told mostly by ghosts, you could probably count on garnering some attention. Readers fascinated with all things Lincoln and the American Civil War knew US writer George Saunders' book Lincoln in the Bardo centred on the death of Lincoln's son Willie and featured a cast of spirits, and long before its publication it was creating an expectant buzz. Now the book is out, and it's even stranger than it initially sounded.

Set in a graveyard over a single night, it is the story of the grieving US president with reflections and commentary from a Greek chorus of ghosts and spirits that inhabit the bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist transitional state between life and eternity. But why the bardo?

"I read about the concept of the bardo in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," Saunders says by phone from the US. "It's different from purgatory and I liked the difference. Purgatory is like detention. The bardo is a more transitional state."

The novel explores this state with the appearance of various characters inhabiting it, including 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, who has just died. In the novel, his grieving father is visiting the crypt in Washington DC where the boy's body has been temporarily laid.

"A ghost sequence is like a dream sequence," Saunders says. "The reader realises that, within that domain, anything goes." But Saunders, 68, realised that a simple ghost story might be too flimsy, so he has used research to add depth with facts and references to newspapers and other accounts from the time to back up his flight of fancy.

As wacky and experimental as the book is on the one hand, it is based on a real and tragic event that affected America's most revered president, a figure who resonates in many cultures. Young Willie Lincoln, aged 11, was the apple of Lincoln's eye and his wife Mary's favourite of their four sons. He fell ill in the White House and hovered between life and death in a huge carved rosewood bed, known as the Lincoln Bed. Willie died on February 20, 1862, and Lincoln is reported to have said: "My poor boy, he was too good for this Earth. God has called him home".

It's a heart-rending story, profoundly moving, but not one that Saunders - best known for his collections of short stories - was planning, until 20 years ago when he was driving with his family in Washington DC and they happened to pass the Oak Hill Cemetery.

"My wife's cousin asked if I knew Lincoln's son had been buried up there during the Civil War," Saunders recalls. "I didn't. At that point I don't think I even knew Lincoln had any sons.

"And then she asked if I knew that the newspapers of the time reported that, in the days after Willie's death, Lincoln had gone into the crypt on several occasions to hold Willie's body. That I definitely didn't know.

"Even as she said it, this image came to mind - a sort of a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and Michelangelo's Piet". I found the idea so moving." It percolated in his mind for years after that but Saunders, who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, New York, didn't quite know how to write it. Eventually, however, he found a way and a voice.

Lincoln has been portrayed many times before in many ways, and in 2012 there was even a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. "I didn't see that film and that may be just as well," Saunders says. "He's an iconic figure. You see him in bad car and toilet paper ads here (in the US) and there are all sorts of other (pop cultural) references to him."

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
And now he appears in a novel surrounded by ghosts, including that of his own dead son. It's an interesting time to be reflecting on Lincoln, Saunders says, with a new and controversial president in the White House. Saunders finished writing Lincoln in the Bardo as Donald Trump was in the ascendancy and The New Yorker magazine sent him on the campaign trail to write a piece entitled Who Are All These Trump Supporters? Now he's eager to see what the world thinks about his ghost story, a novel that asks interesting questions about life after death.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Bloomsbury, $30 

Phil Brown - Qweekend magazine in The Courier-Mail Saturday February 11, 2017


Statue of the first American President at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC.


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