For the second time in two years, an American has won one of the most prestigious global awards in literature. At a ceremony in London on Tuesday night, George Saunders accepted the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel. “The form and style of this utterly original novel reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative,” said Baroness Lola Young, the chairman of the judging panel. Lincoln in the Bardo, she noted, “is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.”
The book is a dazzling and experimental ghost story set in 1862. Told in fragments of real and invented historical accounts, interspersed with script-like scenes of dialogue and first-person stories, it explores the death of Willie Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, who died of typhoid fever during the second year of the Civil War. Saunders, a Tibetan Buddhist, imagines Willie’s experiences in the “bardo,” a Buddhist plane between the worlds of the living and the dead where Willie communes with other deceased souls, and where he watches his father visit his entombed body.
In a year in which writers and artists have wrestled with the question of how to tackle the increasing prominence of hate in the political sphere, the Man Booker judges seemed to respond to Saunders’s humanizing portrait of a leader felled by grief. Ali Smith’s Autumn, one of the five other novels shortlisted for the prize, is set in the aftermath of Brexit, and considers the fragility of national identity as well as the redeeming power of art. Lincoln in the Bardo, though, ends with not just hope, but transcendence. Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, Saunders described the process of creating the novel: “There is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you ... and also beyond you—something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.”
Saunders was the bookmakers’ favorite to win the award, but the victory by an American writer immediately after Paul Beatty claimed the prize for his novel The Sellout is controversial. Prior to 2014, the Man Booker was eligible only to writers from the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. The decision to allow American writers to enter has been lamented by authors including A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes, who argue that the award’s main purpose was giving exposure to writers who were little-known in the broader American literary market. “The Americans have got enough prizes of their own,” Barnes told the Radio Times last year. Ron Charles, the fiction editor for The Washington Post, has also argued against the inclusion of Americans. “For any serious reader of fiction in this country,” Charles wrote in September, “the Americanization of the Booker Prize is a lost opportunity to learn about great books that haven’t already been widely heralded.”
Baroness Young, The Telegraph reported, stated that the judging panel was concerned only with the merits of the books on the shortlist, which also included Mohsin Hamid’s refugee parable Exit West, Paul Auster’s complex epic 4321, Emily Fridlund’s coming-of-age tale History of Wolves, and Fiona Mozley’s rural fable Elmet. “We’re solely concerned with the book and what that book is telling us,” Young said. “Nationality is just not an issue.” Saunders, in his acceptance speech, thanked “this beautiful country, which at the moment I’m madly in love with—even more than usual.”
For Saunders, the prize is an extraordinary validation of his first foray into full-length novels. The 58-year-old writer was previously best-known for his short stories, which have won him four National Magazine Awards for fiction and a MacArthur Fellowship. He came to writing relatively late in life after studying geophysical engineering and working as a technical writer until 1996. The idea for Lincoln in the Bardo struck him, he wrote in The Guardian, during a visit to Washington, D.C., when his wife’s cousin told him the story of a grief-stricken President Lincoln visiting Willie’s tomb to hold his son’s body. Saunders has often noted that the experience of writing for him feels like a way to transform pain and division into something affirmative. The author Zadie Smith, speaking with Saunders for Interview, noted that “what sets him apart is his willingness not only to go into the heart of darkness but to suggest possible routes out.”
Colson Whitehead, whose own historical novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award last year, has described Lincoln in the Bardo as “a luminous feat of generosity and humanism.” The Civil War, Whitehead writes, the backdrop against which the book is set, “is a crucible for a heroic American identity: fearful but unflagging; hopeful even in tragedy; staggering, however tentatively, toward a better world.”
The film rights for Lincoln in the Bardo have been purchased by the actor Nick Offerman and the actress Megan Mullally, both friends of Saunders who contributed to the star-studded, 166-person cast for the audiobook of the novel. But the experience of reading the book is singular, because its structure demands—and rewards—full engagement. The particular challenge of comprehending its sprawling cast of characters and fluctuating style, Baroness Young said, “is part of its uniqueness.”