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.”
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.