The big literary book of the season, it seems, is the much-acclaimed Lincoln on the Bardo, by the much-acclaimed literary SF-nalist George Saunders. In this text, all of the action happens among the dead that accumulate around the cemetery where they are buried. These stubborn ghosts often refuse to acknowledge that they are even dead, referring to their coffins as their “sick-box” and await the time they heal and emerge from their “illness.”
This text has been widely reviewed (including at Tor.com) and the most striking element to me, when I read the text, was this seemingly unique way of approaching the narrative of life through the cemetery, and the ghosts, therein. The dead place resembles a neighborhood, and the ghosts who may not have known each other in life form friendships, talk to each other, tell each other the stories of their lives. The dead are more alive than when they were alive, for they are closer to their sense of self, separated from the realities of the world that bound them up into cages of pain and suffering and injustice. Their madness, if they are truly, deeply unhinged, is able to be more purely present in death than was permitted in life. Their love, if they are truly, deeply loving, is exacerbated by the absence of their beloveds—either friends or family. I was reminded, deeply, of a classic of American poetry, The Spoon River Anthology.
The way cultures imagine death says a great deal about the culture in life. There exists a consistent narrative that pops up in American media of a “little village of the dead” that allows individuals to continue conscious existence inside the walls of their cemetery, unable to impact the world at large directly, but speaking to the truth of their self, honed down to an essence, regardless. This conception has appeared over and over again in our books and stories. Here are just five examples, beginning at the edges of the idea, up to and including the ubiquitous midwestern bardo of the Spoon River.