Big Year for Buddhist Author George Saunders

As many of you may know, in October George Saunders’ first novel Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel (New York, NY: Random House, 2017) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. Saunders is generally considered one of America’s best short story writers. His 2014 story collection “Tenth of December” won the inaugural Folio Prize and his first novel, long anticipated, has spent months at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.

Saunders is also a practising Buddhist, and his religious orientation is put to use right from the title of the novel – Lincoln in the Bardo – concerning the Tibetan term for a liminal state of being experienced between death and rebirth. This state is discussed in Theravada suttas (Pali, antarabhava) and Mahayana sutras (Chinese, zhongyou), but it is best known in the west as bardo due to Evans-Wentz’s early 20th-century translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Tibetan, bar do thos grol chen mo).

Use of the term bardo in Saunder’s novel refers to the experience of Willie Lincoln, beloved son of 19th century President Lincoln, who passed away from typhoid. The story is based on this real historical event. Saunders imagines Willie’s experience after death, his confusion about the event, and his clinging to his former life, in part due to the grief of his father who visits his corpse.

While Lincoln in the Bardo is based on many historical facts, it is not really a work of historical fiction so much as an historical imaging that produces a metanarrative which complicates and explores the western concept of time. Saunders does this through the narration of the story and also through intertextuality.

Willie’s story unfolds in two main streams: historically and dialogically. Historically, some chapters are clips and quotations of various contemporaneous sources of Lincoln, such as personal papers, books written by historians, newspaper articles, etc. Not all of these sources are real; Saunders adroitly combines authentic pieces of history with fictional creations to convey the flow of events to his reader.

The other form of narrative employed by Saunders is dialogue, pulled together from a whole chorus of spirits who are also in the bardo with Willie. Even the syntax that Saunders uses to portray Willie-in-dialogue denotes a liminal state and lacks important punctuation, notably periods that mark sentence endings.

Saunders’ depiction of an intermediate afterlife state is intertextual and combines aspects of the Tibetan bardo with aspects of Catholic purgatory and a healthy Protestant fear of hell. Many of the spirit characters in this bardo take on the “physical” characteristics of their clinging to life, reminiscent of beings depicted in the Buddhist Wheel of Life or in Dante’s Divine Comedy. So while the bardo in this novel is not the traditional Tibetan bardo that Buddhist Studies scholars would recognize, it can be read as reflective of the transmission of Buddhism to the west.

This is a novel I will have to read more than once in order to fully appreciate the Buddhist elements, but it is written in such an engaging way that I will happily read it again, and again. For now, I appreciate that Saunders’ work is highlighting Buddhism as it intersects with fiction.

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