Purgatory Is for Real

If heaven, as the Talking Heads lyric puts it, is a place where nothing ever happens, it has nevertheless powered numerous books up American best-seller lists. In the past decade, several titles have ...

If heaven, as the Talking Heads lyric puts it, is a place where nothing ever happens, it has nevertheless powered numerous books up American best-seller lists. In the past decade, several titles have offered eyewitness testimony from people back from the bourne from which supposedly no traveler returns, including Heaven Is for Real (2010), in which a pastor describes his young son’s encounter with Jesus, as well as two different physicians’ accounts of their own heavenly visits. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, 71 percent of those surveyed believe in heaven—fewer than those professing a belief in God (89 percent), but notably more than those who think there is a hell (64 percent).1

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. A third novel, Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, is set in an unremarkable North Carolina town but hints at otherworldly planes of existence after its main character is revived from clinical death.

There are several reasons a purgatorial threshold might appeal to novelists more than the ultimate Good Place itself. The idea of an otherworldly limbo makes for a timely angle of inquiry in an age of biomedical debates about the definition of life and death, neuro-philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness, and transhumanist fantasies of immortality. (In the dystopian premises of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story [2010] and Don DeLillo’s Zero K [2016], some people have given up on a divine afterlife and plan a technologically enabled one instead.) Moreover, if the novel is preeminently a form of open-endedness and speculative amplitude, limbo enables agnostically minded authors to avoid both conventional eschatology and sentimental cliché.

Imagine the story Saunders might have written if he had called his novel Lincoln in Heaven—perhaps featuring an angelic reunion between the assassinated president and his dead son, Willie; an Olympian survey of the Reconstruction era; or a prophetic vision of the 2008 American election. Instead, the ambiguous space of the bardo allows for historical resonance with the present without offering presentist certainties. The word “bardo” itself, mentioned only in the title, evokes the cultural atmosphere of 19th-century Orientalism and Whitmanian mysticism, while its underlying Buddhist idea of earthly attachment explains the predicament of the ghostly residents of the cemetery where the president’s son’s body is temporarily entombed. Refusing to leave the only world they know, they are epitomized by the mother surrounded by three glowing orbs that represent, like spectral cameos, her living daughters. In Saunders’s bardo you can, at least in psychological terms, take it with you.

You can also leave it all behind, and this is the existential pivot that Saunders brilliantly explores. Those who succeed are raptured into another realm, in an explosive phenomenon called “matterlightblooming.” This event vindicates the shell-shocked ghosts in their desire to stay behind, and they regard their missing brethren as unfortunate dupes. 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.

Oneiron envisions an even stranger purgatory, a boundless and weightless tabula rasa that some of its inmates call “the white,” but it too involves spiritual work. Like Saunders’s ghosts, Lindstedt’s characters are not certain that they are dead, and the novel’s title—the Greek word for “dream”—aptly conveys that ontological suspension. The first person to disappear from the space is called a “victim,” but by the end, the rest prepare themselves for a transition into “the dense, bright yellow light of compassion.” If there is an ethical doctrine baked into that phrase, it is more implied than overtly demonstrated. The main purpose of Lindstedt’s limbo seems to be the shared pleasure and pain of listening to autobiographical narrative—of having other people’s lives flash before your eyes.

The idea of an otherworldly limbo makes for a timely angle of inquiry in an age of biomedical debates about the definition of life and death.

A truly expansive conception of the afterlife might encompass other worlds and nonhuman creatures in whatever astral form they take; even in an anthropomorphic and geocentric version, you might be more likely to encounter a host of billions than an intimate delegation of loved ones. For Saunders and Lindstedt, imagining limbo means creating a polyglot assembly of strangers. Defined by the American demographics of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, Saunders’s group encompasses wealthy crypt dwellers and the poor of potter’s field, the free and the enslaved. They speak in sentences of Victorian orotundity and pungent slang. Those in Lindstedt’s limbo, a group of seven women hailing from the United States, Europe, Russia, Brazil, and Senegal, reflect a distinctly 21st-century cosmopolitanism. What ties together these women, who died between 2007 and 2012, is a mystery that the novel raises but never fully resolves.

Among the theories floated is the Swedenborgian doctrine that spirits in the afterlife join in orderly affinity groups. “Hadn’t they all been hurt somehow?” one character proposes. The answer is self-evident, but beneath the weakly universalizing sentiment is an unmistakable feminist subtext. In the stories that emerge, hurt takes recognizable form in the characters’ experiences as women—pregnancy, motherhood, marital infidelity, anorexia, joyless or predatory sexual encounters, and rape. If there is no single factor beyond biological gender that unites them, their commonality might be discovered in the bonds of sympathy that arise in the course of their afterlife sojourn.

That connection takes astonishingly physical form in the first narrated event of the novel, when the current inhabitants give Ulrike, the newest arrival, an experience of erotic gratification before her capacity for arousal vanishes altogether. On earth, all seven women lived putatively heterosexual lives, but it seems fitting that their new existence would be sexually as well as spatiotemporally queer.

Lindstedt’s limbo is driven by no recognizable eschatology, but it implies various narrative frameworks. Somewhat like Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims or Boccaccio’s bored Florentines, the inhabitants tell their life histories to pass the time, such as it is. Using the cancer patient’s red chemotherapy wig as a virtual hearth to gather around, the women hark back to the most ancient forms of storytelling. In contemporary terms, the situation of seven strangers thrown together sounds like any number of television reality shows; one character speculates that “something,” whether demonic or divine, has forced them “to struggle in a small society.”

In the sheer diversity of her characters, Lindstedt might be responding to other modern realities: genetic interconnections revealed by DNA tests; global migration and interdependence; the random array of newspaper obituaries that follow a terrorist attack; and the boundary-breaking and community-building properties of social media, two years before the rise of the #MeToo movement.


Digital Lies, Real Ghosts

By Rae Greiner

The discarnate suspension of Lindstedt’s afterlife might indeed suggest the virtual nature of digital existence, but like social media platforms, it turns out to be no utopia, and death is not entirely a leveler. Though these women are liberated from bodily functions, pains, and cravings, they are still acutely aware of their various shapes, clothing, and scars. The middle-aged Russian envies two younger counterparts for their beauty, lamenting, “Even death hasn’t made them equal.” This is also true with respect to linguistic hegemony: Lindstedt’s inmates are compelled to converse in English, the native tongue of the American Shlomith, the first occupant and self-appointed leader.

Though not all can express themselves with equal fluency in the lingua franca, Lindstedt’s protean third-person narrative makes up for the limitations of face-to-face dialogue. Its mimetic register is tailored to each character’s experience: Rosa Imaculada’s story is scripted as scenes in the style of the telenovelas she loves to watch; bookish Polina’s narrative includes a lecture on Swedenborgian mysticism. Toward the end of the novel, this perspectival mobility is echoed in the telepathic communication that the women spontaneously achieve, in what they come to see as a kind of “sisterhood.”

The purgatorial work accomplished in Oneiron takes several forms—varied acts of cooperation, empathy, mnemonic reconstruction, and narrative entertainment. A resemblance to group therapy is made more explicit when the Russian character begins by announcing, “Well, I’m Polina … and I’m an alcoholic.” From the perspective of eternity, however, this is a confession without guilt or redemption, an unabashedly nostalgic recollection of the intertwined pleasures of reading and drinking, or what Polina calls her “wondrous secret window” into other worlds. For all the limbo dwellers, the arrival of Ulrike chiefly means a new story to hear (“What is your last memory?” they hungrily ask) and a new audience for their own retellings.

The ultimate form of work in Lindstedt’s limbo seems to involve the act of accepting one’s own death by revisiting the fatal scene; as one character puts it, “You just spread your arms and fall into yourself,” after which you simply disappear. This catharsis makes a kind of neuro-psychological sense in the case of the cancer patient, the heart-transplant recipient, and the comatose mother, all of whom sink gradually toward their earthly end; but it is harder to accept in the case of those who die by sudden violence or accident. As the women hover over the earthly form of the Senegalese Maimuna while kidnappers hold her at gunpoint, they look like avenging furies or recording angels—but they can offer only moral support, not intervention or retribution. Perhaps this is the point: the scene mirrors the kind of therapy in which the patient retells her experience under more benign conditions as a way to blunt the force of the original trauma. In limbo, however, the endpoint is not psychic healing but an unfathomable vanishing.

The main purpose of Lindstedt’s limbo seems to be the shared pleasure and pain of autobiographical narrative—of having other people’s lives flash before your eyes.

The everyman narrator of The Afterlives dwells in a different kind of posthumous limbo. After surviving a massive cardiac arrest at the Christlike age of 33, Jim Byrd emerges with a heightened appreciation of life but a lingering disappointment that he has not had the kind of tunnel-of-light experience described in best sellers. This makes him a perfect sounding board for other people’s beliefs and theories—the religious and the scientific, the metaphorical and the literal. In the pluralistic spirit of its title, the novel considers multiple forms of afterlife—medical miracles, reincarnation, life extension, digital simulacra, space-time warps, historical archives, and a restaurant located in a known haunted house with the apt name of Su Casa Siempre.

That open-endedness is epitomized in the “Church of Search” that Jim begins attending, where meetings are described as “TED Talks but with a Jesus bent.” Its pastor asserts, with Silicon Valley optimism, that “people don’t die anymore, they just fail to find the right cure”; but in the hope of communicating with those who haven’t been so lucky, he hosts a lecture by a theoretical physicist about contacting the dead through a subatomic portal called a “daisy hole.” There is nothing more uncanny than wave-particle duality and the esoterica of string theory, and although Pierce does not apply such concepts in a coherent way, he allows their implications to pervade the novel—the sense that we are both here and not here, that everything that will happen has always already happened, that there is not a single, knowable world but what Jim comes to see as “layers of reality.”

The sci-fi premise has a payoff in the novel’s denouement, when Jim and his wife, Annie, make a pilgrimage to the physicist for the privilege of using the Reunion Machine, a device that enables contact with the dead. Suffice it to say that something big happens for both of them, but for the reader the climax proves a bit of a letdown—perhaps by design.

The Reunion Machine is a concrete cylinder located in a room that is a black box, both literally and metaphorically, but the novel offers more compelling technological variations on the theme of the afterlife. Lifelike holograms begin appearing in Jim’s town (advertising local businesses, greeting people at a bank branch). Inspired, the pastor dreams of creating an AI-driven “Jesus-based personality”; in his techno-theological reasoning, Jesus was himself a hologram projected by God.

In less exalted terms, the hologram technology enables ordinary people to create their own digital ghosts. The holographic selfie recorded by Jim’s father takes on special poignancy after he suddenly drops dead: he performs an awkward little soft-shoe dance and signs off with, “Well … that’s it, I guess.” Of course, low-tech souvenirs work just as well. For Annie, a wine stain left by her dead first husband is a potent enough memento. “It’s not like he’s haunting that chair,” she insists. “It’s more like I am. I’m haunting him into it.”


How Spiritualism Spread

By James P. Stanley

Perhaps the spookiest invention in the novel is the most mundane—a defibrillating implant called a HeartNet that Jim receives after his clinical death. Its name refers to both the synthetic mesh that encloses the organ and the network that monitors and controls it, but the aura of security it provides is shattered by the news that a hacker has broken into the server and exploded someone’s heart. Even before that incident, the HeartNet is an unnerving reminder of vulnerability—of the internet of things and the human bodies they are designed to serve. Every time the implant saves Jim from catastrophe, no angel gets its wings, but a smartphone app does chime—leading him to reflect, over and over, that he is wasting his life. Talk about a push notification.

Like a modern Don Quixote, Jim wonders, “If I’m only a character in a story, then will I still exist after the story ends?” There may be some reassurance in believing that a person’s story continues in their earthly legacy, or in an eternal hereafter; but the question of character is something else entirely. W. H. Auden articulated the distinction in his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “The death of the poet was kept from his poems. / But for him it was his last afternoon as himself.” The limbo dwellers of Lincoln in the Bardo and Oneiron must, as the saying goes, get over themselves, but all three novels suggest, in their various ways, that this is easier said than done.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. Frank Newport, “Most Americans Still Believe in God,” Gallup, June 29, 2016.
Featured image: Long Exposure, Lausanne, Switzerland (2015). Photograph by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash