Limbo state between death and the next life

In his first full-length novel, American short story maestro George Saunders turns his mind to what comes after one dies

George Saunders' Lincoln In The Bardo is the result of his fascination with death when he was a child.
George Saunders' Lincoln In The Bardo is the result of his fascination with death when he was a child. PHOTO: CHLOE AFTEL

It is an image surreal enough to begin with: United States President Abraham Lincoln entering a crypt late at night to cradle the corpse of his young son.

Add to this the fact that the graveyard is full of ghosts, who make up most of the novel's 166 narrators, cutting across the social strata of Civil War America. There are reverends, society wives, soldiers and slaves, and they bicker and grope about in a state of limbo that harks back to the Tibetan Book Of The Dead.

This is American short story maestro George Saunders' first full- length novel Lincoln In The Bardo - the bardo being, in Tibetan Buddhism, a liminal state between death and the next life.

Saunders, 58, says in an e-mail interview that he was drawn to the bardo because "it was such a vivid and logical - and terrifying - notion of what happens to us after we die - this idea that the moment of our death will likely not be much different from this moment, right now."

His fascination with death dates back to when he was a child and worried about it happening to his grandparents.

Death, he says, is "the most interesting thing", because of how an awareness of life's fragility infuses everything with beauty.

"If we went to a party that we knew had to end at midnight, could it still be a fun party? I think so. But it would make sense, at 10pm, for us to at least turn our minds to what was coming."

Saunders, who is married with two daughters, has made a long career out of short fiction, with six short story collections and novellas to his name.

His bestselling 2013 collection Tenth Of December bagged him numerous awards, including the inaugural international Folio Prize.

His beginnings were far from literary.

He graduated from Colorado School of Mines with a degree in geophysical engineering in the 1980s and went to work with an oil exploration crew in Sumatra.

When they were not drilling in the jungle, he would spend his down time in Singapore, where he stayed in an old hotel on Devonshire Road off Orchard Road.

He recalls: "It was the first time I'd lived out of the (United States) and the people were so good to me, and the city so beautiful."

The idea for his first novel had been coagulating in his mind for 20 years, since he visited Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. and heard about how Lincoln, after losing his 11-year-old son Willie to a sudden illness, had gone repeatedly into the crypt to hold the body.

The book eschews conventional narration for a chorus of voices, jumbled up with fragments of historical records and verbatim accounts.

Saunders found that to write 166 voices, one had to keep them "fairly calm and not indulge in too much excess".

He did enjoy going "a bit wild", however, with characters such as Elson Farwell, a former slave who goes from trying to play nice with his masters to full-blown posthumous anger when he realises he would never have been granted anything like equality with them, alive or dead.

Saunders, who read hundreds of books on Lincoln and the Civil War for research, says the war may have ended in the 19th century, but it is in a sense still being fought today.

"It was supposed to be a war that, once and for all, established equality among all Americans," he says, "but that didn't happen perfectly and so we are still working on it."

He finished his novel right before the US presidential elections, during which he, a liberal, covered Mr Donald Trump's campaign for The New Yorker magazine.

"I brought to my reporting this carried-over sense of America as this big, brawling, messy country, fiercely divided, torn apart by divisions so deep that the two sides had essentially stopped communicating," he says.

"The one perennial American question I see in the past and the present goes something like this: Are we really serious when we say that all beings are created equal?

"It takes a lot of courage and love to live with freedom and equality, and that is all being tested right now."

His novel is already transcending the printed page, having been adapted into an audiobook, as well as a 10-minute virtual-reality (VR) film directed by Graham Sack for The New York Times.

Saunders, watching it for the first time with VR goggles, was so moved he teared up.

He had initially intended to record the audiobook himself, but could not work out how to do so many voices without sounding monotonous.

He and producer Kelly Gildea ended up corralling a motley cast of 166 - from stars such as Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore and Nick Offerman, to Saunders himself and some of his relatives - into a seven-hour recording which is now up for the Guinness World Record for the most individuals' voices on a single audiobook.

Saunders, who is now writing a television show for Amazon Prime Video based on his short story Sea Oak, believes in expanding the audience for literary fiction by any means necessary.

The kind of art he loves, he says, is about "trying to understand what it means that we are here and what we should do about it - how to live in such a complicated and sometimes harsh world, with love."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline Limbo state between death and the next life. Subscribe