The IAAS W. A. Emmerson Lecture 2019

Both Juan Rulfo and George Saunders evoke the power of a literary text to challenge received narratives of the past and articulate new and empowering perspectives on the present, arguing strongly for the role literary texts can play in creating spaces within which previously marginalized or voiceless communities can have their stories heard. [1] They do so primarily by immersing the reader in the liminal space of the cemetery, where traditional certainties such as time and space are suspended and new models of human interaction can thus be formulated. This essay will examine the use of liminality in the novels as a vehicle for social critique, paying particular attention to the ways in which liminal spaces facilitate the construction of alternative perspectives. A central concern of the essay is the role literary texts can play in challenging the intransigence that characterizes much of what passes for political debate in contemporary societies.

Pedro Páramo, published in 1955, was written by Juan Rulfo, a Mexican writer, screenwriter, and photographer. The latter details are significant as the book evokes the dreamlike atmosphere of an avant garde movie, with its lack of a central narrator and strong visual sense. The novel begins when the narrator Juan Preciado fulfils his mother’s dying wish that he travel to her home town of Comala to seek out his father Pedro Páramo. Right from the opening sentence, Preciado’s narrative introduces an unsettling air into the text: “I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him” (1). These seemingly simple sentences suggest a range of potential meanings in their complex mixture of verb tenses, the final sentence a particularly interesting blend of past perfect, future and conditional tenses. Although the reader does not notice on first reading, this shift in tenses introduces the novel’s central conceit: our narrator is speaking to us from his grave and all earthly markers of chronology are meaningless in the post-temporal world he now inhabits.

The Comala of his mother’s memory is a lush, vibrant town filled with life and commerce, in stark contrast to the arid and seemingly deserted ghost town Preciado sees around him. So strong are his mother’s memories, however, that they soon overwrite what he sees before him, with the result that “I was seeing things through her eyes, as she had seen them. She had given me her eyes to see” (2). Preciado attempts to retain his grasp on reality by seeking a logical explanation for the insubstantial townspeople he meets—“I wondered if she were crazy” (10)—but his attempt to rationalize is in vain. The townspeople in Comala are spirits and Preciado himself is beginning to lose his connection to the land of the living. This transition is initially described in physical terms: “My body, which felt weaker and weaker, surrendered completely; it had slipped its ties and anyone who wanted could have wrung me out like a rag” (10). Preciado also becomes aware of the sound of whispering all around him, but he is unable to distinguish what is being said. He is not even sure if the disembodied voices are internal or external to himself: “Yes, voices. And here, where the air was so rare, I heard them even stronger. They lay heavy inside me” (7). Just as his ability to distinguish the words being whispered improves, Preciado himself dies and he becomes one of the disembodied voices that constitute Comala’s inhabitants. Meanwhile, one of the voices has been becoming more prominent and we realize that control of the narrative has been assumed by Pedro Páramo, Preciado’s father and the erstwhile landowner or cacique who ruled Comala and was ultimately responsible for its demise. The rest of the novel tells the story of Pedro Páramo’s life until his death, interrupted frequently by the voices of the spirits who interject to give their perspectives on the events he is describing.

The aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920s) is a significant context in the novel. The Revolution began as resistance to the 35-year regime of President Porfirio Diaz, before descending into a full-scale civil war focused on land reform, modernization, and the empowerment of the masses. Breaking the power of the Catholic Church and the powerful ranchers, known as the caciques, were key aims. However, the legacy of the Mexican revolution is mixed, with many historians suggesting that its original aim of facilitating a peasant revolution was co-opted by the emerging Capitalist middle-classes who used the civil war to consolidate their control of the land and the economic system, thus replicating the earlier feudal control of the caciques (Craib). In addition, the Cristero War of the late 1920s reinserted the Catholic Church at the heart of the state (Butler). One of the consequences of the revolution was the centralization of industry, which caused rural dwellers to flock to the cities, thus leaving behind the kinds of ghost towns found in Rulfo’s novel (Anderson 1). It is perhaps for this reason that Pedro Páramo is a book characterized by ambiguity. Characters, plot, and language all dissolve and readers are left instead with impressions, shadows, and ghosts. The text constantly challenges the reader to make sense of the complex and often contradictory narrative, the implication being perhaps that we should never believe in the “truth” of what those in positions of authority tell us. In a rare comment on his novel, Rulfo describes it as filled with silences: “In my life there are many silences. In my writing too” (Sontag 141). Danny Anderson observes that this inability to maintain a grasp on what is real and what is not is what causes the narrator Juan Preciado to lose control of the story and later his life but that this ambiguity has the opposite effect on the reader, encouraging us to question what we are being told (5). Rulfo thus uses the liminal voices of his dead characters to encourage the reader to challenge received narratives of the past, in the process gaining new insights into Mexican history.

Lincoln in the Bardo, published in 2017, is the first novel by George Saunders, previously known as the writer of short stories. The story takes place on the 25th of February, 1862, in the Oak Hill cemetery in Washington, DC, where Willie Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of the President, has just been buried following his death from typhoid. 1862 was also the low point for the Union Army, who were experiencing huge casualties in a war that was increasingly unpopular with the American public. The Bardo of the title refers to the name given to the liminal state between death and rebirth in Tibetan-Buddhist theology (Kunzru), and indeed the cemetery is populated with a vast number of spirits, seemingly unable, or perhaps unwilling, to accept their deaths and move on. Instead they work hard to keep up the illusion that they are merely sick, referring to their coffins as “sickboxes” and insisting that that are suffering from a variety of ill-defined maladies from which they will soon recover. In the meantime, they move about the cemetery at will, constantly revisiting the moments at which they became separated from their lives. One of the main characters is hans vollman (it should be noted that all of the characters in the novel are denied capital letters for their names, suggesting that whatever earthy status they may have enjoyed in the world of the living is worth nothing in the world of the dead). vollman’s death story opens the novel. He explains that on the night on which he was to consummate his marriage to his beautiful young wife, his head was struck by a beam, “hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk. And so our plan must be deferred, while I recovered. Per the advice of my physician, I took to my – A sort of sick-box was judged – was judged to be –” (5). His hesitant use of euphemistic terms to describe his death indicates his unwillingness to face his true fate, preferring instead to revisit his story repeatedly as though to find a way to bring it to a different conclusion. He is facilitated in his denial by his fellow spirits, most notably his friend roger bevins iii, who interjects to help vollman remember the precise wording, a sign of how often the characters repeat their stories. A significant source of subversion in both this novel and Pedro Parámo is the refusal of the characters to employ the sanctioned language of spirituality when talking about their corpses. Ignoring the euphemistic terminology associated with funeral rites, Saunders’ characters revel in details of their physical forms which, even in their decaying states, firmly tie them to their former corporeal lives. vollman’s description of the natural but rarely articulated degradations association with a fresh corpse brings a delightful if bleak humour to the novel: “I pooped a bit while fresh, in my sick-box, out of rage, and what was the result? I have kept that poop with me all this time, and as a matter of fact – I hope you do not find this rude, young sir, or off-putting….that poop is still down here, at this moment, in my sick-box, albeit much drier!” (6).

As befits a book narrated by the dead, there is no central narrative voice providing structure and context. Instead the voices of the dead participate in an ongoing conversation, sometimes reminiscing about their own experiences, other times interjecting and offering fresh perspectives to others. None of the characters is dominant and no one story is authoritative. Instead, their stories are presented as fragments, intercut with a vast selection of supporting documents such as newspaper reports, eye-witness accounts, and academic resources, some real and some fictitious, all of which meld together to create a reading experience which is both disorientating and stimulating. Saunders is clearly situating his historical novel in the post-truth world of social media, where we are simultaneously overwhelmed with the sheer volume of competing accounts while unable to believe in the veracity of any of them. In establishing the context for the story, namely a fund-raising party hosted by President and Mrs Lincoln on what would be the night of their son’s death, Saunders draws on a variety of historical and pseudo-historical sources. Explaining, “Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening” (19), the long list of contradictory “recollections” quoted—“As I moved about the room I would encounter that silver wedge of a moon….the moon shone high and small and blue….The night continued dark and moonless….the full yellow moon hung among the morning stars” (19-20)—wittily illustrates the limitations of every record of the past and suggests that an alternative perspective can always be found.

The catalyst for the action in the book comes when Lincoln, distraught at the loss of his son, returns to the cemetery after dark to hold his dead body in his arms, unable to move on from his loss. This display of his father’s love also makes Willie determined to stay, much to the dismay of the spirits who warn that children are not supposed to linger for long in the bardo. The title of the novel thus refers to both Lincoln characters: Willie is in the bardo because he cannot pull himself away from the love of his father, while Lincoln is stuck in his own grief, unable to move on from the loss of his son while, additionally, mired in the catastrophe that is the American Civil War. In an interview, Saunders cites the American Civil War as an unresolved moment in American history, to which much of the polarization of contemporary society can be traced (Baskin 36). An earlier short story he wrote entitled “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” (1992) was set in a theme park built on the site of a former plantation where its primarily white visitors participate in battlefield reenactments, while the ghosts of the plantation slaves are forced to constantly relive the violence of their deaths. Saunders’ argument in this story is that we need to stop fetishizing and repeating traumatic moments from history, which merely traps us in a liminal space between past and present. Lincoln in the Bardo can be read as his attempt to move America beyond this stasis by identifying and learning from past mistakes.

The two novels are thus similar in their use of the liminal space of the graveyard to revisit moments of particular crisis for their respective societies, moments in which traditional certainties were overturned but whose legacies have as yet failed to bring about constructive and harmonious social change. My analysis of the novels will examine their use of liminality in the structure and plot of the stories, before considering how these liminal spaces facilitate the revision of historical narratives. Before I do so, I will briefly outline some of the theoretical approaches to liminality that I will use to support my reading.

The study of liminality and its function in society was first proposed by French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his 1906 book The Rites of Passage. The word liminal derives from the Latin limen, which means a threshold. Van Gennep theorized that each individual’s life takes the form of a number of acts of threshold crossings. For each one of these events, there are ceremonies whose “essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined” (2). Van Gennep suggests that these ceremonies, which he characterizes as rites of passage, are subdivided into three stages, each with its own set of rituals: separation from a previous world or state (preliminal rites), the transitional stage (liminal or threshold rites), and incorporation into the new world (post-liminal rites) (11). The rituals surrounding marriage and graduation during which an individual symbolically passes from one state to another are examples of the continued presence of such ceremonies in contemporary society.

Most significant for the purposes of this essay are the rituals surrounding death and burial. Van Gennep makes the interesting observation that in spite of the emotional pain engendered by the death of a loved one, there is in most cultures little attention paid to the separation or preliminal part of the ritual. Rather it is the final two stages, the ceremonies surrounding the funeral and the burial, that are given the most public attention: “the rites of separation are few in number and very simple, while the transition rites have a duration and complexity sometimes so great that they must be granted a sort of autonomy” (146). During this period, both the deceased and the bereaved find themselves in a liminal space, suspended between the worlds of the living and the dead. Van Gennep explains that the function of this period of liminality is to allow the bereaved the time to come to terms with their loss and then, when the requisite time has passed, to emerge from their grief and reintegrate into society. The termination of the initial period of mourning often coincides with the burial and thus the final incorporation of the deceased into the world of the dead (147). The role of liminality in enabling the bereaved to come to terms with their loss is not a particular focus in the novels, although in the case of Lincoln in the Bardo, it is a father’s initial inability to move on from his son’s death that serves as a catalyst for the story. With that exception, the focus in both novels is on the deceased and their seeming unwillingness to move out of the liminal space in which they find themselves trapped.

Van Gennep’s research into the social role of rites of passage highlights their restorative function. These rites are designed to enable individuals to transition through periods of chaos so that they can be reincorporated into society again afterwards. He frequently uses the terms “regeneration” and “reconsolidation” (163) when describing the function of these rites and states that it is when society is in danger of breaking down that they are most urgently needed to renew people’s faith in social order. He explains that all societies have traditionally been nervous of those for whom regular funeral rites cannot be performed, and he emphasizes that a key function of the funeral rites is to publically pay tribute to the dead as a means of appeasing them and ensuring that they will indeed progress into the world of the dead (160).

Victor Turner, the British cultural anthropologist, builds on Van Gennep’s study of the rites of passage and accepts his thesis that such rites are fundamentally aimed at the restoration of social order. However, Turner’s focus is principally on the potential for resistance located in the liminal stage of the ritual. The defining characteristic of the liminal state is its ambiguity. As people are passing from one known state to another known state, they temporarily find themselves in a space which is not defined and thus not controlled:

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention. (The Ritual Process 95)

A significant characteristic of liminality is that social structures and hierarchies are suspended, and people live instead as what Turner describes as “an unstructured or rudimentarily undifferentiated communitas…. of equal individuals” (The Ritual Process 96). The bonds of communitas, he says, are anti-hierarchical, facilitating “undifferentiated, egalitarian… relationships” which tend to “ignore, reverse, cut across or occur outside of structural relationships” (Drama, Fields, and Metaphors 274). No individual in a communitas has authority over another because all are equal. The suspension of power relations moreover facilitates the creation of strong bonds between individuals who in discovering their equal status find themselves united in bonds of friendship. The construction of such communities and their ability to include all their members on an equal basis is a central theme in the two novels, whose characters, both in life and death, have found themselves ignored if not wilfully misrepresented by those who are in positions of power. They gather to testify against both those who repressed them in the world of the living and to challenge historical accounts which have continued to exclude them from official narratives of the past. The challenge the characters pose to hegemonic narratives is echoed in the fragmentary style of the novels, which in turn challenge the reader to look beyond the literal meanings of words to liberate alternative interpretations.

Pedro Páramo is a difficult book to read, particularly on one’s first few attempts. The only story that is told chronologically is that of the titular character, who recounts in the present tense the story of his life, from his impoverished childhood to his gradual assumption of control over the hinterland of Comala, until he was the owner of a vast ranch called the Media Luna. Pedro Páramo’s domination over the townspeople is read by Susan Savage Lee as an indictment of the Mexican government’s tacit support for the system of caciquismo, which was allowed to perpetuate inequalities in land ownership long after the promises of the Mexican Revolution had ostensibly been achieved: “Rulfo’s use of caciquismo provides an example of how the colonized imitate the colonizers in their efforts to rebuild their country and culture after the initial colonizers no longer retain economic and political power. The presence of such a system suggests that oftentimes imperial discourse exists even after the colonizer has moved on to other areas” (156). We learn that that Pedro Parámo did indeed treat Comala as his own personal property. A profligate womanizer, he married Juan Preciado’s mother merely to avoid having to pay debts he owed her father, slept with most of Comala’s women, and thus fathered many of its young men. In this he was facilitated by the Catholic church, which turned a blind eye to his behaviour because he was one of the few inhabitants of Comala who could afford to pay for absolution. His only weakness was his unrequited love for childhood sweetheart Susana San Juan, and in fact the narration of his life is structured around his memories of Susana, who was taken out of his reach by her father and married to another man. After the death of her husband, and in the context of the revolution, her father returns her to the protection of Pedro Páramo. In spite of his delight to have her back, Susana has at this point gone mad with grief over her husband’s death and dies without succumbing to him. An incessant tolling of bells after Susana’s death causes the townspeople to mistake the event for a celebration, and in an act of revenge, Pedro Páramo folds his arms and vows to let Comala starve. In spite of his control over the town, Pedro Páramo cannot save the only woman he loves. He takes his revenge in the only way that he can, and with the withdrawal of his patronage, Comala becomes arid and deserted: “He swore to wreak vengeance on Comala. ‘I will cross my arms and Comala will die of hunger’. And that was what happened” (130). The stark, unemotional tone of the final sentence here makes it clear that Pedro Páramo, the landowner or cacique, wields absolute power over the lives of his townspeople. His authority over the narrative is also clear, the novel ending with the description of his death: “He fell to the ground with a thud, and lay there, collapsed like a pile of rocks” (139). Rulfo’s sense of humour is evident in the fate he writes for his main protagonist, whose demise is in fact predetermined by his name: Pedro (rock) and Páramo (barren plain).

Much critical attention has been paid to the ending of the novel, in particular its message about the legacy of the Mexican Revolution. Ivan Kenny reads the ending as optimistic about the final destruction of the cacique system, a legacy that Rulfo suggests will disappear leaving no physical mark on the landscape: “With this entropic image, the novel seems to suggest that the cacique will leave behind no commemorative statue with which to celebrate his patrimony” (84). Of course, like all of the other characters, this is not the end of Pedro Parámo’s story but rather the beginning of an endless cycle of retellings, his punishment to be trapped for all eternity reliving his fall from power and the loss of his only true love, while listening to the voices of those whose lives and livelihoods he destroyed: “Suddenly his heart stopped, and it seemed as if time and the breath of life stopped with it. ‘So there won’t be another night’, he thought. Because he feared the nights that filled the darkness with phantoms. That locked him in with his ghosts. That was his fear” (138). Most importantly, as Ken Eckert points out, Páramo’s death marks the start of the afterlife for the other townspeople, who now find their voices and begin to retell their stories free from his repressive control: “The last passages of the novel describing his ruin take place contrasted against an image pattern of regeneration after his power is broken” (81).

The ambiguity of the liminal space in which the novel takes place is mirrored in the narrative structure and language, with the readers given either no solid facts with which to orientate ourselves or given so many contradictory facts that it becomes impossible to maintain a clear sense of what is being described. With the exception of Pedro Páramo’s narrative, our encounters with the other characters are fleeting, their stories insubstantial and fragmented. Many critics use the analogy of photographic snapshots when describing the narrative structure of the novel (Boullosa 26; Eckert 77), and in fact seeing the text as a collection of visual images which are only loosely arranged around the central story is a helpful way to approach it. It is significant that many of the characters only begin to speak as Pedro Páramo’s narration touches upon an event in which they crossed his path. This suggestion that even in death their voices are subordinated to the authority of their erstwhile landlord or cacique is perhaps most evident in the fate of Juan Preciado, the novel’s ostensible narrator. Far from articulating the sort of self-confidence we would associate with a hero’s quest, Preciado is never in charge of his own story, constantly interrupted by the memories of his dead parents and disconcerted by Comala’s inhabitants who know a lot more about him than they should. Patrick Dove describes the novel as “an experience with blindness” (98), a very apt image as both Preciado and the reader struggle to orientate themselves amidst the dearth of tangible facts. A particularly vivid example of this narratorial uncertainty arises on Preciado’s first night in Comala, when he is offered a bed for the night in the home of Eduviges Dyada, lodgings recommended to him by Abundio Martínez, a burro driver who had guided him to the town. Dyada’s house is described as “a long series of dark, seemingly empty, rooms,” although as Preciado’s eyes get used to the dim light, he begins to decipher “shadows looming on either side, and sensed that we were walking down a narrow passageway opened between bulky shapes” (8). Casually mentioning that her home is full of “odds and ends….other people’s things” (8), Dyada leads the narrator into a room that is completely empty, assuring him that he will be comfortable on the floor. Preciado makes no further comment on the barrenness of his lodgings and on first reading neither does the reader. However, on second reading, and aware now, although he himself is not, that Preciado is a spirit, the reader’s eyes also adjust to the “darkness” and we realize that what is being described is a crypt and that Preciado is in fact being led into his grave. The disorienting juxtaposition of death and the calm language used to discuss it is mirrored in the conversation Dyada has with Preciado about his mother: “She told me you would be coming. Today, in fact. That you would be coming today” (9). The masterful punctuation and the ambiguity it constructs around the meaning of “today” and whether it refers to Preciado’s arrival or his mother’s communication is further reinforced in Dyada’s casual response to the news of the latter’s death: “ ‘I didn’t get word from your mother until just now’. ‘My mother?’ I said. ‘My mother is dead’. ‘So that was why her voice sounded so weak, like it had to travel a long distance to get here. Now I understand” (9). The rational explanation for the irrational phenomenon of spirits communicating with each other is what gives this novel its great power and sense of rebellion.

Rulfo’s dead do not ascend from the earth and assume spiritual form. Rather they retain their sense of corporality and specifically embed themselves in the ground under the houses they once occupied, speaking to each other from their graves and complaining at times about the dampness seeping into their coffins because of the incessant rain. This is a significant element in Rulfo’s use of the liminal space as a means of resistance to dominant narratives. Kenny notes that the family home, the church, and the cemetery were important “national spaces” in the post-revolutionary Mexican state, symbolizing the connections between “patriarchy, prosperity and stability,” and that Rulfo’s location of the dead under the floors of their former homes rather than in the state-sanctioned space of the cemetery thus subverts this discourse of “state-sponsored Mexican cultural nationalism” (73). Many of the characters claim to be stuck in liminality as a consequence of the refusal of the corrupt and aptly named priest, Father Renteria, to absolve them of their sins because of their inability to pay him for the service. One of the unnamed female characters explains to Preciado that the church’s hard-hearted attitude to the poor and the sins they sometimes had to commit in order to survive is responsible for the legions of restless spirits roaming the streets of Comala: “None of us still living is in God’s grace. We can’t lift up our eyes, because they’re filled with shame. And shame doesn’t help. At least that’s what the bishop said” (56). Her own situation is one of the many darkly comedic moments in the book. She explains that the church has condemned her for her incestuous relationship with her brother, and indeed Juan Preciado initially mistakes her brother for her husband when he is forced to spend a night in their company. However, the ambiguity of the narrative means that we do not actually know if she had a sexual relationship with her brother when they were alive or if they are merely buried in the same grave and thus cohabiting only in death.

Rather than feeling damned by their rejection by the church, many of the characters celebrate their liberation from its binary system of redemption or damnation. Dorotea, who becomes one of the main narrators after Preciado’s death, admits to him that she was guilty of procuring many of the town’s girls for Pedro Páramo and as a consequence could not be pardoned by the church. Dorotea’s reaction to her rejection by the church is interesting. She expresses relief rather than regret that she is now free from the recriminations of her soul and the demands of the church that her focus should always be on the next life: “After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done?…. Besides I lost all interest after padre Rentería told me I would never know its glory” (72). She strongly criticizes the control the church wielded over people’s lives, a power vested in the binary language through which it defines reality. In the church’s eyes, as Dorotea notes, either the “glory” of Heaven or the “sins” of Hell await. Dorotea rejects this binary narrative through her embrace of the earth as her eternal resting place, claiming, “For me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here” (72). This resistance to the narrative of the church is in fact more evident in Spanish, where the same word cielo means both “heaven” and “sky,” an example of the linguistic ambiguity employed by Rulfo throughout the text to undermine and subvert hegemonic meanings. The notably earthy and practical language Dorotea uses to describe the moment she died is also very resistant to the resolute focus on spirituality in religious discourse on death. Reflecting on the fate of her soul given her refusal to move into the sanctioned spaces of heaven or hell, she envisions it as a physical entity, whose presence within her body she is happy to be without:

And now I don’t have to listen to its whining about remorse. Because of it, the little I ate turned bitter in my mouth; it haunted my nights with black thoughts of the damned. When I sat down to die, my soul prayed for me to get up and drag on with my life, as if it still expected some miracle to cleanse me of my sins. I didn’t even try. “This is the end of the road,” I told it. “I don’t have the strength to go on.” And I opened my mouth to let it escape. And it went. I knew when I felt the little thread of blood that bound it to my heart drip into my hands. (73)

Dorotea’s soul, like the narrative of the church and indeed the repressive power of the cacique, is an instrument of repression, concerned not with guiding her spiritually but with wielding its power over her even in death. Kenny reads this section of the novel as indicative of Rulfo’s critique of the repressive Catholic discourses that sought to stifle traditional Mexican beliefs in the afterlife:

Through its macabre caricature of the nature of mind, body, and soul, the text thus deconstructs the ideological framework underpinning the repressive Catholic discourses which form part of the Mexican national imaginary. From the national space of the graveyard, and as a character emblematic of marginality, Dorotea’s dark, weary, and resigned humour therefore constructs a liminal site of resistance to the dominant hegemonic discourses which have governed her life, and left her riddled with guilt. (83)

By allowing the characters to live on after death, the novel is perhaps suggesting that the older beliefs and traditions, which sustained and supported rather than merely repressing the population, have managed to survive the attempts of the modern state to confine and destroy them.

The depiction of Preciado’s own demise is similarly resistant, undermining the generally-accepted privileging of life over death. Preciado initially blames the increasingly loud murmurs and screams he hears all around him for causing him to die in terror when they become too loud to ignore: “The murmuring killed me. I was trying to hold back my fear. But it kept building until I couldn’t contain it any longer. And when I was face to face with the murmuring, the dam burst” (64). However, this equation of the murmuring with death is contradicted by his mother, who insists that, on the contrary, the murmuring is the very essence of what gives the community its life and vitality: “life whirs by as quiet as a murmur….the pure murmuring of life” (64). Eckert offers an interesting interpretation of Preciado’s fate by suggesting that his journey to Comala is not so much that of a living man who dies and becomes part of a ghostly town but rather that of a man who was dead from the very start of the novel who becomes better able to hear the voices of his fellow dead once he has accepted that he is one of them (76). Similarly, Lee reads Preciado’s journey as that of a young man who “stumbles upon his father’s legacy through the testimonies presented by the dead townspeople Pedro Páramo once oppressed” (152-3). In fact, it is difficult to see Preciado’s death as negative as it unites him with Dorotea at the heart of community, unconventional though it may be. The very cosy, domestic image of Preciado nestling against Dorotea in their shared bed or grave, and their effortless participation in the conversations they overhear amongst their fellow dead, are in strict contrast to Preciado’s earlier lack of control over his experiences and suggest that his death is, in a strange reversal, an enriching and unifying experience, rather than one predicated on loss and isolation. It is similar for Dorotea, who explains that her earthly life was so lonely she had lived her whole life yearning for a son, a yearning so strong it turned into a delusion that she had a son who was stolen from her. It is only now in her shared grave that her longing to have someone to embrace is finally fulfilled: “They buried me in the grave with you, and I fit right in the hollow of your arms. Here in this little space where I am now. The only thing is that probably I should have my arms around you” (67). Anderson uses the image of a haunting to describe the unsettling but potentially empowering impact such remnants of the past can have on social memory:

The decadent remnants of a quasi-feudal social order, violent revolutions, and a dramatic exodus from the countryside to the city all gave rise to ghost towns across Mexico. The traditional world of rural Mexico, folk Catholicism, and oral tales gradually receded beyond the horizon for the rapidly urbanizing Mexico of the 1950s. Pedro Páramo makes readers aware of the disquieting presence of a dying, but not quite dead traditional Mexico looming just out of sight—a lingering reality no longer present, not yet past. (2)

By joining the communitas of the dead, Juan Preciado and all the others who had been silenced by the Catholic Church and wronged by Pedro Páramo during their lifetimes now have the opportunity to have their previously-silenced voices heard, their continued presence in the landscape a source of resistance to attempts by the modern, secular state to erase all vestiges of indigenous traditions.

The inhabitants of George Saunders’ bardo are similarly determined to tell their stories, resisting the frequent incursions into the graveyard by angelic emissaries intent on persuading them to move on to the afterlife. They linger due both to their frustration that their earthly lives ended too soon and their inability to leave behind the preoccupations that occupied their attention in the world of the living. roger bevins iii, one of a trio of principle narrators, for example, committed suicide when he was rejected by his male lover and forced to confront the social shame engendered by his homosexuality. He revisits the moment of his death repeatedly, acknowledging that he regretted his actions almost immediately and rather poignantly stating his determination that as soon as he recovers his strength, he will no longer be afraid to live his life to the full: “I am waiting to be discovered (having come to rest on the floor, head against the stove, upended chair nearby, sliver of an orange peel against my check), so that I may be revived, and rise….and go outside, into that beautiful world, a new and more courageous man, and begin to live” (27). This account is both poignant in its denial of reality—bevins’ confusion of verb tenses reflecting Preciado’s—and funny in its juxtaposition of heartfelt regret and the banal details of the mess on the kitchen floor on which bevins dies. The passage is also interesting for introducing us to a clever visual technique employed throughout the novel. In spite or perhaps because of the characters having left their bodies behind them in their sick-boxes, their preoccupations manifest themselves physically, so that bevins’ regret that he had not fully embraced life is articulated through the additional limbs and sets of eyes he grows, signifying his desperation to experience as much of the world as he can: “‘Bevins’ had several sets of eye. All darting to and fro Several noses All sniffing” (27). Many of these caricatures are very funny. hans vollman, for example, whose life ended on the evening he was to consummate his marriage, is doomed to wander through the liminal space stark naked and preceded at all times by a large, erect penis: “The other man (the one hit by a beam) Quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off…. It bounced as he….Awful dent in the head How could he walk around and talk with such a nasty –” (28). This description by willie lincoln brilliantly captures the polyvalence of Saunders’ bardo, where surreal apparitions coexist with the brutal physical injuries that have killed the characters.

Another brilliantly described character is Jane Ellis, whose ongoing anxiety for her three daughters manifests as three giant orbs which either smother her with cries for attention or disappear leaving her bereft:

At times these orbs grew to extreme size, and would bear down upon her, and crush out her blood and other fluids as she wriggled beneath their terrible weight, refusing to cry out, as this would indicate displeasure, and at other times these orbs departed from her and she was greatly tormented, and must rush about trying to find them, and when she did, would weep in relief, at which time they would once again begin bearing down upon her. (78)

The fusion in this description between the disembodied orbs and the instinctive, emotional attachment of a mother even after death introduces an authenticity and emotional depth into Saunders’ depiction of his spirits. More cynical perhaps is the description of percival “dash” collier, a wealthy, influential tycoon who continues to obsess about his wealth and many properties even after his death from a stress-induced heart attack: “Mr. Collier (shirt clay-stained at the chest, nose crushed nearly flat) was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment” (129). In spite of the humour, these scenes are amongst the most poignant in the novel, because behind all this talk about their lives and worries on earth is the fundamental fear that the dead will soon be forgotten by the living: “What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved…. Our departures caused pain…. And yet…. And yet no one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly…. Ever” (71-2). It is for this reason that they linger in the bardo, repeating the stories of their deaths for all eternity as though through repetition they will prove something about their own significance.

The catalyst for the characters comes when Lincoln returns to the cemetery to spend more time with the body of his son. The honest articulation of his grief and tenderness of his embrace has what hans vollman rather ironically describes as a “vivifying effect” (66) on the characters, reminding them that they too were once loved and restoring their sense of self-esteem. Regarding willie as a sort of Messiah, they flock around him desperate for him to listen to their stories and thus confer upon them the respect they feel they deserve. For many of the characters, this chance to testify provides them with enough closure, and they begin to move on in large numbers. It becomes apparent, however, that willie has determined to stay in the cemetery, kept there by the promise that his father will return to visit him again. The particularly gruesome fate that awaits children who linger too long in the bardo is a huge concern to the other characters and motivates them to cooperate and formulate a plan to save him. willie is so attached to his father that the only way to persuade him to move on is to somehow get his father to persuade him that it is time to go. The trouble is that a heartbroken Lincoln is similarly paralyzed by his grief and wants to cling on to his son’s body for as long as he can. The characters devise a plan whereby willie will temporarily inhabit his father’s body, with the expectation that this access to each other’s unspoken thoughts and memories will provide both with the impetus they need to let each other go. willie enters his father’s body hoping to hear more of his loving thoughts but instead he finds his father recalling a memory of a woman he had once seen, who returned continually to the spot in which her daughter had been hit by a bolt of lightning, as though by revisiting the fatal spot she could somehow change what had happened. Lincoln suddenly understands for the first time the depth of the woman’s grief and her desperate desire to imagine a different future for her daughter. This realization enables him to begin the process of accepting his son’s death and moving through the stages of his own grief: “His boy was nowhere; his boy was everywhere…. His boy was no more here than anyplace else, that is. There was nothing special, anymore, about this place…. His continued presence here was wrong; was wallowing” (303).

Saunders uses this scene to introduce his central argument, that it is only through empathy that society can build a harmonious future where all of its inhabitants will feel included and valued. Lincoln’s reflection on willie’s death enables him to empathize for the first time with all the other parents grieving for the sons whose lives are being lost in the Civil War: “His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone laboured under some burden of sorrow….that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others” (303). Lincoln realizes that he is at a turning point in his presidency: he can either succumb to his grief and give up, or he can renew his efforts to bring the war to a successful conclusion. The book is very cleverly written at this point, with Lincoln’s reflections interrupted by excerpts from historical texts detailing the toll of the war and the growing public anger about the huge casualties resulting from it. Reading it, you can visualize the catalogue of images, fragments of memory, and overheard comments that run through the President’s mind as he is trying to make a difficult decision. Lincoln’s revelation also has a significant impact on willie, who now realizes that he is in fact dead, an epiphany that enables him and many of the other characters to move on from the bardo. Saunders’ argument is perhaps that it is only when the dead come to terms with their deaths that they are released from the compulsion to go over their death moments repeatedly and can move on. This is also the key to interpreting the ways in which he uses his liminal space to comment on traumatic moments of history that can keep a society trapped in what he describes in an interview as a cycle of violence (Baskin 38). This prescription of empathy as the key to building a harmonious society is best articulated by the spirits themselves who experience an uplifting sense of communitas when they merge together to help Lincoln to face up to his son’s death: “Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true…. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end…. We must try to see one another in this way” (304).

The significance of liminality is that it enables the individual to escape from the rules and regulations of ordinary society and formulate a potentially unlimited number of alternative perspectives. As Turner explains, “If liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs” (The Ritual Process 167). It is for this reason that societies will work to limit and marginalize the potentially destabilizing impact of liminal voices by surrounding them with the kinds of rituals described by Van Gennep and their contemporary equivalents:

That this danger is recognized in all tolerably ordered societies is made evident in the proliferation of taboos that hedge in and constrain those on whom the normative structure loses its grip during such potent transitions as extended initiation rites in “tribal” societies and by legislation against those who in industrial societies utilize such “liminoid” genres as literature, film, and the higher journalism to subvert the axioms and standards of the ancient regime. (Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors 14)

This suggestion that cultural texts constitute a liminal space in which prescribed narratives and perspectives can be challenged and overturned is of particular relevance to my reading of the selected novels, which both work to subvert the authority of the chronological, historical narrative in order to create a space within which alternative perspectives and previously marginalized voices can be accommodated.

This desire by the novelists to resist the closure and the resulting invisibility suggested by a chronological historical narrative has itself become a key theme in contemporary debates about history. In his survey of historical interpretations of Irish identity, for example, Roy Foster criticizes the tendency among historians to impose a neat, chronological structure on the past, stating that such projects always work to foreground hegemonic interpretations while marginalizing alternatives: “Irish historical interpretation has too often been cramped into a strict literary mode; the narrative drive has ruthlessly eroded awkward elisions” (21). He calls upon contemporary historians to resist such simplifications and strive instead to develop a historical narrative that would “make room for alternative truths and uncomfortable speculations” (21). This is similar to what Edward Soja suggests is the responsibility of contemporary geographers: “to tamper with the familiar modalities of time, to shake up the normal flow of the linear text to allow other, more ‘lateral’ connections to be made” (1). The effect of this “new geography” approach, in the words of Gerry Smyth, is the creation of a “poststructuralist sensibility in which space was a ‘text’ subject to myriad cross-referenced, but ultimately unauthorised, meaning systems” (12).

Michel Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to suggest spaces that, like the liminal spaces described above, can accommodate multiple perspectives that both intersect with and undermine the authority of dominant representations. He defines heterotopia as “the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect” (24). He offers the experience of looking at one’s refection in a mirror as an example of how heterotopic spaces function: when you look in a mirror, you are occupying a space which is simultaneously real in that the mirror exists in your real space but also unreal in that your reflection exists in an unreal space behind the mirror that is not accessible to you. The mirror thus helps us to accept that many different realities can coexist in the same space. Foucault suggests the cemetery as another example of a heterotopic space, a site that is both intrinsically connected to the real life of a society and yet also simultaneously very much separated from it—you can visit a cemetery to feel near to deceased loved ones but you are fundamentally separated from them. Like all other heterotopias, the cemetery is capable of “juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (25). One of the ways in which it achieves this is through its heterochrony, in other words its ability to suspend time as a narrative that implies progress, and instead to accommodate multiple different time periods layered on top of each other (26). The history recorded in a graveyard is, after all, not linear—graves are not arranged chronologically. Rather the history of each family is layered in a single site, each body buried on top of a previous one. Foucault thus suggests using space as a tool to analyse history, with competing narratives being allowed to coexist in such a way that they reflect, distort and unsettle each other, thus opening up new critical perspectives.

A crucial point about Foucault’s heterotopia as a critical tool is that it opens up a dialogue between competing perspectives rather than simply swapping one for another. Your reflection in the mirror after all does not replace the real you, rather it offers a different view or perspective that you accept as being linked to but not identical to yourself. Another important point about heterotopias is that they are not alternative or outside spaces but are rather deeply embedded within the real. It is only because of this connection to the real that they can mirror and distort our perspectives. One of the most interesting aspects of Rulfo’s ghostly Comala is the co-location of domestic and burial spaces. The dead are not buried in the distinct space of a cemetery but are resting in the earth under their former homes. As more bodies arrive, they share their stories, and their knowledge and understanding of the past becomes more complete. The authority of Pedro Páramo’s narrative of the past is thus fatally undermined. Juan Preciado’s improved ability to hear and understand the voices of his fellow dead is also reflected in the growth in understanding the reader experiences upon repeated reading of the text. Like Foucault’s mirror analogy, Preciado now sees Comala through the memories of the other characters, thus receiving a wealth of different perspectives that are allowed to coexist harmoniously.

Saunders achieves the kind of heterotopic space described by Foucault in the conceit of the mass inhabitation of Lincoln by the legions of the dead, who enter his body to save willie and end up saving themselves when the sharing of each other’s thoughts turn them into a communitas, suddenly conscious of the selfishness that had driven each of them to remain isolated within their own death stories: “To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else…. One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story…. But this had cost us, we now saw” (255-56). Their newfound ability to put aside their concerns about themselves in order to work together as a community is further reflected in their physical transformations, the additional grotesque symbols of their frustrations no longer needed: “Looking over, I found Mr Vollman suddenly clad, his member shrunk down to normal size….Becoming aware of Mr Bevins staring at me, I glanced over and found him no longer a difficult-to-look-at clustering of eyes, noses, hands, et al. – but a handsome young man” (256-57).

Saunders further uses the conceit of the mass inhabitation to reflect on ongoing divisions between the races. The cemetery, reflecting the society outside its walls and indeed arguably the contemporary context, is segregated, and there is initially resistance among the white characters to the black characters, most of them slaves, participating in the inhabitation of Lincoln. However, in the spirit of equality which defines communitas, the black characters also grab this opportunity to tell their stories. elson farwell takes the opportunity to articulate his rage that in spite of all he had done to faithfully serve his owners, they abandoned him to die on his own when he collapsed on the ground:

Lying there it occurred to me with the force of revelation, that I….had been sorely tricked…I regretted every moment of conciliation and smiling and convivial waiting, and longed with all my heart…. That my health might be restored to me, if just for one hour, so that I might….destroy them and tear down that tent and burn down that house, and thus secure for myself….A certain modicum of humanity. (217)

Particularly heartbreaking is the testimony of the young mulatto slave girl, litzie wright, whose experiences of abuse were so harrowing she is unable even after her death to verbalize them, her testimony articulated only by implication: “************” (221). The juxtaposition of litzie’s absent voice with the angry, voluminous statements of her fellow slaves is very effective, and Saunders’ restraint in this passage allows her silence to express inexpressible horrors in a manner reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Of particular significance in the context of Saunders’ overall message is the narrative of thomas havens, whose testimony initially speaks highly of the white family who owned him and refuses to countenance any suggestion that his life was an unhappy one. As he recalls his life, however, he begins for the first to question his status as a slave. By narrating his experiences, in other words, he makes visible previously unrecognized deprivations:

I did not have any such harsh experiences as you have been describing….I endeavoured to be a good and honourable servant, to people who were, fortunately for us, good and honourable people themselves. Of course, there was always a moment, just as an order was given, when a small, resistant voice would make itself known in the back of my mind….And I must say, that voice was never quite silenced. (220)

With his eyes now opened to the freedom he had been denied, he knows that he has to do something to redress the voicelessness that constituted his human life, so he jumps into Lincoln’s body as the President is leaving the cemetery for the last time, the implication being that Lincoln’s perspective on race will from now on be influenced by the presence within his mind of a black soul or conscience. Jon Baskin explains that at the time of his son’s death, Lincoln had not yet written the Emancipation Proclamation and that the novel’s ending can thus be read as an attempt to link the development of his determination to end slavery with the compassion for all human suffering engendered by the loss of his son (36). Indeed, Saunders in interviews about the book often cites empathy as the key to moving beyond the divisions of the past. Speaking about what drew him to write about Lincoln’s leadership, he emphasizes the President’s ability to see beyond his own reality and imagine a country in which everyone would feel valued and included: “He had such respect for the office; he had such respect for the country, and throughout his presidency, in this almost mythical way, his tent of empathy got bigger and bigger…. it started to include the slaves and former slaves in a really radical way” (Gatti 34). It is not surprising that Saunders draws some very unfavourable comparisons between Lincoln and the current incumbent: “So now what’s happening is the tent of empathy is getting little, tiny, until it’s only as big as the President: ‘I like everybody who is just like me, and I like everyone who likes me, and everyone else is to be excluded’. That’s a complete inversion, in my view, of the Lincolnian vision of America” (Gatti 34-5). The problem, Saunders suggests, is that in contemporary society the ability to compromise is often seen as weakness: “Our idea that compromise and conversation and uncertainty are signs of weakness is a real problem” (Begley 100). The inevitable result is that intransigence is misread as strength and refusal to change one’s mind is seen as principled.

I would like to conclude by expanding on Saunders’ assessment of contemporary society and reflecting in a more general sense on the role that novels such as these can play in creating liminal spaces within which we can usefully challenge hegemonic perspectives and formulate potential alternatives. As a lecturer teaching English within a Humanities Department, some of the most fulfilling conversations I have with colleagues and students revolve around the perceived value to society of a Humanities education and the intersections that exist between higher education, critical thinking, and active citizenship. Research indicates that a Humanities education contributes in significant ways to the creation of a more tolerant, open-minded society and that literature in particular “opens up our imaginative potential….thus making us more sensitive to the attitudes and emotions of our fellow citizens” (Holm et al. 12-13). The central argument made by Rulfo and Saunders about the role a liminal space can play in accommodating alternative perspectives in order to move beyond the repeated mistakes of the past is particularly relevant to the current context, with supporters of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America seemingly clinging to an imagined past in order to avoid having to accommodate or even acknowledge alternative perspectives. James Conroy argues that since 9/11—and certainly we can say with significantly more urgency over the past few years—individuality as both a concept and a fundamental right under democracy has gradually been eroded by all manner of hegemonic mechanisms operating in the name of security (1-2). Consenting to such measures as good citizens has resulted in the erasure of one’s individuality. This is an interesting example of the ways in which words can be manipulated by those in positions of power so that over time they can come to mean the opposite to what they may once have intended. In a sense, you can now be a good citizen only if you give up the right to be an individual, which seems a bizarre contradiction. We can see a similar process at play in the recent shift in meaning invested in the word Populism, from its original, revolutionary promise that ordinary people’s concerns would be listened to, to the reactive, emotionally-manipulative, post-truth movements we have come to associate with the term in recent years. This shift towards Populism has resulted in a bizarre, seemingly contradictory situation in which society is both increasingly homogenous on the one hand and extremely polarized on the other. What is crucially missing in contemporary society is the sense of a balanced centre, where multiple perspectives can coexist and thus enrich social perspectives through debate. Critical thinking, as Conroy suggests, has to a very large degree been drowned out in contemporary society by the self-indulgence that drives a culture of complaint: “If ever there was a time of ‘critical reflection’ evident in the public spaces of liberal democracies, then it has been largely supplanted by a ‘culture of criticism’. It is important that these two are distinguished lest it be imagined that being afforded the right to criticise is the same thing as embracing critical awareness” (27).

This important distinction between the ability to criticize and the development of a meaningful critical perspective can be related to both the novels examined in this essay, filled as they are with a cacophony of voices, all fuelled by a self-righteous anger that their complaints are not being listened to. The most desperate, unredeemable characters are those who do not pause in their litanies of complaint long enough to reflect on their own culpability. Rulfo is particularly critical of the church, represented by Father Renteria, who seeks spiritual absolution for his failings towards Comala’s poor but cannot bring himself to publicly criticize Pedro Páramo, who is the only one in the town with the means to pay him: “I feel very close to you in penury, and in the long hours you spend every day carrying out your duties. I personally know how difficult our task is in these miserable villages to which we have been banished; but that in itself gives me the right to tell you that we cannot serve only the few who give us a pittance in exchange for our souls” (78). Similarly, the most desperate of the spirits in Saunders’ bardo, the only characters who will never be able to move on, are those who continue to seek someone to blame for their misfortunes:

Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find Elmer so irritating? I did not. But there I was…. Did I ask to be born with a desire to have sex with children? I don’t remember doing so, there in my mother’s womb. Did I fight that urge? Mightily. Well, somewhat mightily. As mightily as I could. As mightily as someone could who had been born with the particular affliction. (269)

It is irresistible, given our current context in 2019, not to reflect briefly on the similarities between the communities critiqued in the novels and the manner in which the debate—if you can call it that—on Brexit has been conducted both by British parliamentarians and the media, the tabloids in particular. In his thought-provoking book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, Fintan O’Toole links the decision to exit the EU to what he calls “the strange sense of imaginary oppression” (xvii) that has defined English nationalism since the end of the Age of Empire. Describing Brexit as a form of national self-flagellation, O’Toole suggests that there is something deeply self-indulgent about wallowing in a self-generated crisis: “Of all the pleasurable emotions, self-pity is the one that most makes us want to be on our own….Only alone can we surrender completely to it and immerse ourselves in the steaming bath of hurt, outrage and tender regard for our terribly wronged selves” (1). Self-pity, he further suggests, is directly linked to self-regard: “We tend to think of self-pity as being similar to low self-esteem, but it is in fact a form of self-regard….The more highly we think of ourselves, the sorrier we feel for ourselves when we do not get what we know we deserve” (1). He links this descent into self-pity to two main factors. The first is historical: the realization that it no longer occupies a significant place at the centre of the world has resulted in England occupying a sort of liminal space, where it hovers between a feeling of “happy supremacy” and a sense of “being trapped in a drab web of inferiority” (7). The second is linked by O’Toole to the sense that the white male is somehow being excluded from the dominant discourse in today’s society which, fuelled by the rise of hashtag activism, tends to crystallize around opportunities to proclaim victimhood: “Victimhood has been seen to be the currency of power—women, people of colour, ethnic minorities appeal for equality by reference to their collective suffering. In this sense, the far-right is white man’s #MeToo movement. Not only am I not guilty, but I am in fact a victim” (85). O’Toole’s depiction of the self-righteous indignation of the elite Brexiteers has its literary equivalent in Saunders’ Bachelors, a group of particularly amoral male spirits, who are the only characters to refuse to take part in the mass cooperation to save willie’s soul lest participating in the communitas might compromise the independence they prize above all else: “And it seemed to me, having given it my Consideration, that it was not in our best Interest to get involved, for this Affair had nothing to do with us, & might Threaten our very Freedom, & burden us with Noxious Obligations, & constrain us in our Endeavour of doing, at all times, Exactly what we Liked” (261). It is difficult when reading the childish, self-serving selfishness evident in these lines, as well as the description of the shower of hats which the Bachelors rain down on the rest of the characters as they depart, not to visualize the arrogant distain that has characterized the behaviour of a number of wealthy, privileged Brexiteers over the course of the debate on Brexit. Saunders’ use of frequent capital letters very effectively conveys the self-importance of the speaker’s pronouncements and his use of seemingly unassailable certainties behind which he will hide, precluding any debate or compromise.

Both Conroy and Turner argue that liminality can restore a space for critical thinking, enabling a society to move beyond this limiting culture of complaint. Turner explains that the consensus—or communitas—achieved through liminality is predicated not on the erasure of differences between individuals but rather on the accommodation of difference in a non-hierarchical structure:

In human history, I see a continuous tension between structure and communitas, at all levels of scale and complexity. Structure, or all that which holds people apart, defines their differences, and constrains their actions, is one pole of a charged field, for which the opposite pole is communitas, or anti-structure….representing the desire for a total, unmediated relationship between person and person, a relationship which nevertheless does not submerge one in the other but safeguards their uniqueness in the very act of realizing their commonness. Communitas does not merge identities; it liberates them from conformity to general norm. (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors 274)

This description of communitas as facilitating the exchange of opposing perspectives and identities in an anti-hierarchical, non-judgemental way is exactly what Rulfo and Saunders attempt to achieve in the different ways in which they allow their characters to merge together.

I want to conclude optimistically by returning to the argument that the arts can constitute precisely the kind of liminal space we need in order to combat polarization and facilitate the meaningful exchange of perspectives. Conroy argues that poetry—and he means in its wider sense of any text or practice which seeks to open up rather than constrain meaning—is at its heart a liminal force, utilizing its metaphorical language, ambiguity, and imaginative possibilities to elude “all centrist impulses and attempts to control” (149). He further suggests that the very act of reading a poetic text demands of the reader a particularly engaged and active type of reading and the development of a critical perspective that challenges inherited meanings and seeks to develop new insights:

While a poem may well demand an emotional response it also requires a cognitive one…. What is interesting for us here is that poetic metaphor—and after all, without metaphor there is no poetry—requires that we suspend our thoughts about how particular words are normally used and come back to them afresh to look at what they now tell us about some thing in the world. …..The metaphor in which poetry consists is perennially straining at the edges of meaning in its attempt to exact a little more truth. (151-52)

This, I think, perfectly captures the liminality embedded in both the structure and narrative style of the two novels, which, as I hope I have managed to demonstrate, simultaneously frustrate, inspire, and energize the reader. Conroy’s assessment is closely echoed by Saunders, who, referring specifically to the role fictional texts play as liminal spaces for reflection and transformation, states that a novel is

a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another…. I think this is what fiction does, really, or tries to do… It encourages us to step out of ourselves and into someone else, temporarily. Which in my view, is de facto, a moral experience. (Baskin 36)

Speaking specifically of Lincoln in the Bardo, he states:

Writing this book felt like a chance to get back in touch with the country and realise that this process of imagining one’s country is ongoing. We have to constantly ask “What do we stand for?”…. The events of the last year have made me think that fiction is so vital to what human beings do. It’s not peripheral, it’s actually the essential human activity. (Gatti 34)



[1] It was a huge honour to be asked to deliver the 2019 W. A. Emmerson Lecture in memory of my dear friend Tony Emmerson. Tony’s warmth, kindness, and generosity were the hallmark of his work for the Irish Association for American Studies, as was his belief in the role of the IAAS in bringing together researchers and lovers of American history and culture. In choosing a theme for my lecture, I wanted to pay tribute to Tony’s career as an American historian by choosing novels that have as their central focus a concern with history, specifically with those who claim ownership over our interpretations of history.


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Image Credit: “Renwick Chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, DC” from Robert Lyle Bolton, via Flickr, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.