The Sentimental Sadist

Ghosts and schmaltz haunt George Saunders’s first novel.

Renaud Vigourt

George Saunders’s new novel—his first, after four collections of short stories and a novella—takes place in the afterlife. Or rather, it takes place in the “bardo,” a term that Saunders has borrowed from Buddhism for what might be called the “justafterlife”—the interval between a ghost’s separation from its body and its departure for whatever comes next. As in The Sixth Sense and other movies and television shows, the ghosts imagined by Saunders linger in our world because they either don’t know they’re dead or aren’t yet resigned to leaving. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” they are told by browbeating angels who visit intermittently, but they refuse to listen.

In form, the novel is a combination of film script and Lincoln-focused scrapbook, alternating dialogue among the ghosts with excerpts from historical accounts of the Civil War era, some genuine and some invented. At the center is the ghost of Willie Lincoln, a young son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and the action takes place shortly after Willie dies of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862, at age 11. The dead boy’s spirit wants to stay for the sake of his father’s visits to the “hospital-yard,” as the ghosts refer to their cemetery. But staying endangers him, because of an ugly twist that Saunders has added to the usual principles of ghostology: Psychic deterioration overtakes some ghosts who loiter too long after death. Saunders has played with this idea before. “Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?” the corpse of a deceased aunt ranted in Pastoralia (2000), despite having been a meek Pollyanna in life. Similarly, at the end of In Persuasion Nation (2006), one ghost warned another that those who tarry can become “trapped here forever, reenacting their deaths night after night, more agitated every year, finally to the point of insanity.”

Random House

Even the sane ghosts in the new novel are disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive, and the disfigurements have a Dantean specificity. One of the more talkative ghosts, for example, is of a printer named Hans Vollman, who appears naked and with a distended member because he died before he was able to consummate his marriage to a teenager. His friend, a ghost named Roger Bevins III, manifests with multiple sets of eyes and hands, which seem to represent the sensuous appetites that, as a closeted gay youth, he failed to fully explore before he committed suicide. No literalized neurosis marks Willie Lincoln’s form when he emerges from his coffin—or rather, “sick-box”—but because Willie is a child, he is vulnerable to a distortion even more extreme. If he’s not vigilant, he will be pinned down by creeping tendrils consisting of damned souls, which will join up to encase him in a carapace that will degrade his consciousness and transform him into a series of violent and repulsive figures.

This is a fairly awful peril—in fact, so cartoonishly awful that as a reader I rebelled. Whatever Willie’s sins may have been, surely death in childhood was punishment enough? Moreover, as perils go, it’s a bit contrived. Hurry, President Lincoln! the book in effect exclaims. Someone has tied Willie to the floor of the mausoleum, and a monster is coming! A crude plot can be effective, and I turned the pages briskly. In the real world, though, tendrils don’t envelop undead children in carapaces, as far as I know, and it’s impossible to ignore that the tying-up in this case has been done by the somewhat heavy-handed author.

It’s awkward, too, that the outcome of the novel hinges on whether Willie can acknowledge in time that he’s dead. A character’s struggle to accept the death of a loved one would be affecting, as would a character’s struggle to face up to his own imminent death. But mercifully, no human being on Earth will ever need to accept that he is dead. And if, on some future cosmic plane, any of us ever do need to make such an acknowledgment, then by virtue of our being able to think about it, death will have lost much of its sting. The book’s crux, in other words, is either impossible or trivial. As if to compensate, the ghosts rush about a great deal, detonating “matterlightblooming” explosions whenever one of them accepts death and shoots off to the great beyond. The pell-mell comes to resemble the final half hour of a superhero movie.

In calm moments between the explosions, a number of ghosts tell their life stories, and the tales of disappointment, infidelity, and loss bring to mind Spoon River Anthology (1915), Edgar Lee Masters’s collection of poems in the voices of a small Illinois town’s dead. Masters wrote in a plain but self-consciously classic style, which Saunders updates to antic pastiche. A soldier addresses his wife through a veil of simulated Civil War–era misspellings (“It was a terrible fite as I believe I rote you”). An alcoholic couple regret in em-dash-obscured cusswords the comedown that forced them to move to a “s—hole by the river.” A plantation owner boasts of “pounding my SHARDS,” using idiolect to refer to his rape of female slaves.

The vignettes are miniatures of the cruel, satirical stories that have won Saunders fans, and several are poignant, but they don’t have much connection to Willie’s story. The characters in question are dead, after all; their stories are over, and not amenable to further development. Saunders bends the rules a little, giving ghosts who sit inside a living person the power to sense the person’s thoughts and transmit ideas to him. But this is anti-novelistic, too. The fun of novels is that people can’t get in one another’s heads except by talking; the impediment multiplies the opportunities to mislead and misunderstand. Saunders does what he can to amp up the naughtiness—three separate ghosts take poops, for example. But a novel is bound to stagnate if characters are incapable of taking decisive action, and it quickly turns maudlin or pious if they have no chance to deceive one another.

The gonzo humor of Saunders’s early stories was more lively and unpredictable, though his cast of characters was limited to brutes and sad sacks, and the openness of the sadism could be a little hard to take. In his debut collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), for example, the longest tale features a mutant, with claws instead of toes, who leaves a steady job in a historical-reenactment theme park in order to rescue a sister who has been sold into what he fears is sex slavery. I lost patience when the narrator of the story wrote, of a neighbor who killed and ate the family dog, “Who could forget him, satiated and contrite, offering Mom a shank?” The curlicue of the word shank seems to invite the reader to admire not only the cleverness but also the heartlessness of the diction. The character seems to be boasting of having mocked his own emotional attachments before anyone else could.

I sympathized with the rage that I suspected was driving the sadism, however. Several decades ago, corporate America began to demand that employees take part in goal setting, trust games, and other manipulative protocols that would commit their voices, if not their hearts and minds, to the corporation. Saunders has written about how alienated he felt in the job he held as a white-collar technical writer when his fiction career was getting off the ground. By setting many of his early stories in demented theme parks, where the disparity between corporate culture’s false cheeriness and the underlying conditions of labor is grotesque, he was able to satirize the psychic encroachment rather brutally. In the title story of Pastoralia, the hero’s job is to impersonate a prehistoric caveman. He’s expected to utter nothing but grunts all day, but the joke is that he hasn’t yet sunk as low as he can go: The human-resources department is about to pressure him to rat out his cave mate. The joke, in other words, ends up being as much on him as on his behalf. The note of complicity in the degradation left me a little uncomfortable, but comfortable probably isn’t how rage is supposed to make a reader feel.

Thanks to his willingness to be cruel, Saunders has been able to probe painful questions about socioeconomic class. “Do you think you have to be rich to be nice?” a father in “Pastoralia” asks his son. The character intends the question to be rhetorical, but the son answers, “I guess so,” and in Saunders’s universe, the son is right: Some people’s lives are so financially precarious that humanity, as traditionally understood, feels like a luxury they can’t afford. Tolerance, for example, often seems out of their price range. Saunders’s early stories contain ethnic slurs and off-color jokes about male prostitution and gay sex, as if to signal that Saunders considered himself to be writing about the disaffected working-class whites that one now thinks of as Donald Trump’s constituents. Indeed, a nonfiction account by Saunders of Trump’s rallygoers, published in The New Yorker last summer, was exceptionally insightful and clear-eyed. Saunders the reporter had to respect the law that his new novel breaks: He revealed his subjects’ motives through observation and talk.

Over the past decade, Saunders has progressed from theme parks to other varieties of capitalist falseness, including sitcoms, advertising, product-testing focus groups, and the exploitation of immigrant labor. He has also extended his range of characters to include more-fortunate types who, as we now conceive our divided country, might be supporters of Obama and Clinton. The two classes meet and misunderstand each other in “Puppy,” a story in Tenth of December (2013), in which an upper-middle-class mother, who has steeled herself to “adopt a white-trash dog,” catches sight of a developmentally disabled boy harnessed and leashed to a tree in the dog owner’s backyard, and recoils. Saunders has no patience for the woman’s condescension and squeamishness, and it’s the mother of the “white trash” family who gets to deliver the story’s moral, which Saunders has her repeat, in italics: “Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get even better.” This is a bit treacly, unfortunately. The cost, for Saunders, of moving beyond the stylized violence of his early stories seems to be the transmutation of a portion of his violence into schmaltz. Only a portion, though: He remains unflinching enough to let the reader know that the puppy will now be left to starve in a cornfield.

There’s quite a bit of schmaltz in Lincoln in the Bardo. In some of the historical eyewitness testimony that Saunders has fabricated, he rivals the Victorians at death kitsch—no mean achievement. Next to genuine eulogies about Willie Lincoln’s innocence and gentleness, for example, he sets invented ones that praise the boy as “a sweet little muffin of a fellow.” In a concocted “Essay Upon the Loss of a Child,” he rhapsodizes over “the feel of the tiny hand in yours—and then the little one is gone!” As with “Puppy,” however, sadism does persist. The decisive epiphany for Willie the ghost—that he is dead—comes through sharing, in ghoulish detail, his father’s memory of the boy’s death and his corpse’s embalmment.

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Sadism and sentimentality preside over the novel hand in hand. Saunders’s Lincoln comes to realize that “we must try to see one another … as suffering, limited beings,” with the corollary that as president he must strive, in waging the Civil War, to “kill more efficiently.” When ghosts of blacks appear, one, who prides himself on his self-education, is caught in an endless loop of brawling with the ghost of the bigoted white plantation owner. Another melds his mind with Lincoln’s and decides to try to induce the president “to do something for us,” as if the secret cause of emancipation was a personal emotion of Lincoln’s.

In one of Saunders’s early stories, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” the narrator, who works in a run-down historical theme park as a yes-man and fixer, says of the authentic 19th-century ghosts who happen to haunt the park, “They don’t realize we’re chronologically slumming.” The park’s visitors pay for the privilege of not having to realize it, either. The reader, however, knows the score. The story’s ironic edge depends on Saunders’s awareness, which he invites the reader to share, that a touristic longing for the pathos of another era is readily subject to manipulation and exploitation. Lincoln in the Bardo is CivilWarLand under new management, sleek and professional. The sets are brightly painted; the period detail is well curated; the reenactors have had top-notch dialect coaches. The ghosts, formerly dupes, are now heroes, and if you like a salty-sweet mix of cruelty and sappiness, you’ll enjoy your visit. But you can’t see backstage anymore. The new administration has much tighter message discipline.