Christopher R. Miller, “Purgatory Is for Real” (Review of G. Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo)

“The afterlife has also been having a cultural moment in recent fiction, but typically in the form of something other than heaven—call it, for lack of a better word, purgatory. In the popular television series The Good Place, the vaguely named realm of the title turns out to be something else entirely, and its characters find they have their ethical work cut out for them. Two recent novels have also set their action in a postmortem limbo, with similar narrative implications: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) and the Finnish author Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron (just published in an English translation by Owen F. Witesman) imagine versions of the bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist transitional state between death and rebirth.

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“From the perspective of the petal-scented heaven that Saunders intimates, the ghosts are the myopic schlemiels, but their fear of ‘leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world’ takes on a touchingly quixotic grandeur. Writ large, their sense of peril, uncertainty, and loss has obvious allegorical resonance, suggesting both the president’s interminable state of mourning and the nation’s passage through war and precarious rebirth. In this, Saunders’s bardo is not unlike Dante’s purgatory—a place of unfinished business, nostalgic longing, imaginative engagement with the living, and above all, therapeutic forms of work.”   — Christopher R. Miller, “Purgatory Is for Real,” Public Books, May 23, 2018