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George Saunders is the most humane American writer working today. He need not ask, as Sheila Heti did in the title of her novel, how a person should be. He knows. A person should be courageous and hopeful, generous and kind. A person should sacrifice herself for the good of those who are more vulnerable. A person should live in the knowledge that life is suffering, and that the most, or least, she can do is attempt to ameliorate the suffering of others. And — this is where it gets interesting — a story should be as compassionate as a person. “A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer,” Saunders noted in an essay called “My Writing Education.” “A story should be honest, direct, loving, restrained.”

Abraham Lincoln, June 3, 1860, by Alexander Hesler. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln, June 3, 1860, by Alexander Hesler. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In the wrong hands this would be a recipe for treacle. But over four story collections, two novellas, and a children’s book, Saunders has shown that a moral approach to the writing of fiction needn’t preclude aesthetic panache. Now — finally, the Brobdingnagians will say — he has published a novel. It is a good one. LINCOLN IN THE BARDO (Random House, $28) is the story of a single night in 1862, when the homely, grieving, long-legged sixteenth president of the United States visits Oak Hill Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., to commune with Willie, his deceased eleven-year-old son. In some sections, sentences culled from sources real and imaginary explain the political scene; in others, characters speak in short bursts. The collaged, choral form allows Saunders to preserve his usual clipped rhythms, frank pronouncements, and pregnant silences while managing the large cast and wartime context.

Most of the people we meet are ghosts — unchained consciousnesses clinging to the limbo of the graveyard, delaying the judgment that will determine their final resting place. (In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is the state between physical death and rebirth.) They spend their days inside their decaying, wormy carcasses and their nights flying free. Like living skeptics convinced that they are the dreams of an evil demon, these dead souls do not know, or refuse to believe, that they are dead.

In summary, it sounds pretty crazy, but ghosts, zombies, the supernatural — and the Civil War, for that matter — are long-standing features of Saunders’s work. This time our guides are Roger Bevins III, whose predilection for other boys led him, as a youth, to slash his own wrists, and Hans Vollman, a heavyset printer with a “body like a dumpling” and an outsized sexual organ who can’t stomach the thought of his much younger wife remarrying. (Something about the bardo makes bodies mutate: Bevins has a surfeit of eyes and noses.)

Crescent Moon over the East End Cemetery, by Elizabeth Fraser. Courtesy the artist. Bottom

Crescent Moon over the East End Cemetery, by Elizabeth Fraser. Courtesy the artist. Bottom

Most children pass through this limbo state in a matter of minutes, but Willie is detained — first by his father’s visit, then by a whirl of demons. They wrap him in tendrils and form a carapace of “thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting minuscule faces up at us.” It is a powerful image, suggestively akin to a scene in the recent television series Stranger Things, in which a little boy is held captive in a parallel dimension by alien vines. Our notion of child endangerment must be wrapped up in this idea of a dangerous embrace, a fatal womb — love turned to smothering. It is fitting that Willie’s fate hinges on his, and his father’s, ability to let go of each other, which in turn depends on recognizing the truth of what has transpired. “Absent that spark,” Abe finally admits, “this, lying here, is merely . . . meat.

Oak Hill is a chattering place, a society of cliques and gossip and wretched solipsism that mirrors the world of the living. The visual artist Nick Cave recently asked if there is racism in heaven; I don’t know, but there sure is racism in Saunders’s bardo. When the African-American ghosts emerge from a common grave to tell their stories, they are driven back by a violent white patrol. Before they go, we meet a traumatized young slave whose life on earth was hell; she was repeatedly raped, things “done to her as if no one else were there, only him, the man doing it, she nothing more than a (warm, silent) wax figure.” Another slave, named Thomas Haden, recalls a gentler arrangement. He was never beaten, and was allowed to live with his wife and children:

I had my moments. My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments.

Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me most.

The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.

Over the course of the novel, Saunders’s ghosts discover an ability to enter into one another’s minds — and into Abe’s as well. From inside, they can listen to the guilt-stricken father’s thoughts, think and feel with him as he tries to reconcile his sorrow with the sorrow of the parents of the fallen soldiers he has sent into battle. At times, the empathy plot is heavy-handed, as when Haden’s ghost enters Lincoln, which seems to suggest that only such a psychological identification could explain the president’s future embrace of the abolitionist cause. But this being Saunders, sentimentality is leavened with squalid sensuality — a crouched, defecating body here; a casual orgy among friends there; and a simple dick joke. As Abe sits on the ground near the tomb of one dear departed “Bellingwether, Husband, Father, Shipwright,” Hans Vollman enters his body:

The two now comprised one sitting man, Mr. Vollman’s greater girth somewhat overflowing the gentleman, his massive member existing wholly outside the gentleman, pointing up at the moon.

In “My Writing Education,” Saunders said that writing was about “finding and accessing and honing one’s particular charms.” This image of Mr. Vollman’s oddly corporeal spirit “overflowing” the unknowing Lincoln is charming in all of Saunders’s particular ways — dirty, and comforting, and sad.

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