Fact, fiction … and truth

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

History, it seemed, disagreed about the sky.

‘Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening,’ Chapter Five of Lincoln in the Bardo begins.

‘There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds,’ it says later.

‘The guests began to depart as the full yellow moon hung among the morning stars,’ it also says.

This chapter of George Saunders’ novel is made up of bits of texts from 1862. Other parts of it are told by ghosts. In all, the novel—which is built around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie—is told by 166 different voices.

Given all of that, you’d expect this Man Booker Prize winner to be difficult, right? And maybe, given the subject matter (Lincoln, death, grief), off-puttingly earnest.

But it’s not. I mean, it’s kind of great.

There’s a lot to say about this book. It’s a brilliant, sideways take on Lincoln and his legacy; it’s a novel about finding connection, and letting go; it’s a reckoning with America’s past (the Civil War and slavery). But what I particularly liked about it, and what I think is worth thinking about, is the way Lincoln in the Bardo disagrees with itself.

Why is that interesting? For a start, it’s funny. Saunders’ ghosts often disagree, which is amusing and life-like (apart from the fact that they’re dead and in the ‘bardo’, the state between death and rebirth in the Tibetan tradition). As we read, those disagreements make the story—especially the ghost parts—seem more real. And we’re not too troubled by the contradictions in the historical sections. We know that historians disagree about stuff now and then. But here’s the clever thing: it seems none of the quarreling sources in Chapter Five exist. I did some unscientific sniffing and couldn’t find any record of them online (in the Library of Congress database). A couple of them were listed as unpublished sources, so it’s possible they’re real. But most likely, Saunders made them up.

Does that matter? As a reader, I’m with novelist Colson Whitehead when he says: ‘Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later.’ (Which I did, and had some nerdy fun doing it). And Bardo is a novel, after all. The fact-fiction mix (some of the works cited elsewhere in the book are real, and permissions are noted in the copyright page) doesn’t hurt the narrative. Saunders did what he needed to pin the story together.

On another level, it does matter. In a good way. Saunders has said that during research, he noticed that historical texts about Lincoln didn’t agree. But not only that: the memories of Lincoln ‘seemed to evolve in response with the mythology about him’. So in a sense, the facts of Lincoln—what kind of man he was, how he looked, how he moved—changed over time. And likewise, whether the moon was out on the night of the Lincolns’ party maybe depended on whether you knew there was a sick boy inside. Or realized that he had later died.

But listen. Don’t worry. I’m not about to mount some postmodern/post-structuralist/fancy argument about the end of truth and the impossibility of knowledge. (I don’t understand that stuff well enough anyway). What I am saying is that truth isn’t simple. That it’s interesting. And worth thinking about.

At an event in Newton, MA, recently, Saunders talked a bit about the notion of absolute versus relative truth (a Buddhist idea, he said). He gave this scenario: a bear is chasing a person. If you’re the person, your relative truth is that the bear is trying to eat you. So you’d better run. The bear’s relative truth is that it’s hungry, and needs to eat. The absolute truth is just that the bear is a hunter, and the human is prey. In that situation, the person might know the absolute truth—that none of this is personal—but it’s the relative truth (run!) that counts.

The point is, you need both kinds of truth to even begin to have a go at understanding stuff. And that means allowing for lots of different perspectives.

Which you get, in this book. One hundred and sixty six of them, to be exact. But that’s not even close to enough. Every person looks out at the world from inside their own personal skull. When you think about it like that, the miracle is that we get along at all. That roads exist, and schools, and hospitals. Yay for us.

And now, just to confuse things further, I’m going to point out that when you read Bardo you don’t really get 166 voices. You get one: Saunders, telling you a story. In order to do that, he’s stretched his imagination in lots of different directions. He’s gone into Lincoln’s head, conjured up a 19th century graveyard, and skipped even further back in time to imagine his cast of ghosts (landowners, former slaves, alcoholic parents, children … the list goes on). He even shows us an afterlife/gateway thing (a gutsy move).

For all their differences, though, there’s one thing that all Saunders’ characters have in common. They have to accept reality and let go. This means, first, recognizing their need for connection and love. Then, they must embrace the fact that everything (even the people they most loved in the world) is ‘passing temporariness’.

As any human knows, that’s hard to do.

See what Saunders did there? It’s all made up, but it’s kind of true.