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Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

Life has just changed for George Saunders. Even though Time magazine named the author of the winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, the Man Booker Prize 2017 victor won’t yet have fully realised what has just happened to him – indeed that might take months. In the immediate future, what awaits him is the unrelenting attention of the literary world and a diary that has suddenly become very full indeed. Saunders can kiss goodbye to any quiet, contemplative me-time for the next year, he has just become public property and whatever his next writing project might be, it will take rather longer in coming than was planned.

Saunders has just seen off not just five other shortlistees, each a significant practitioner, but some 150 other novelists. It is a case of first time lucky for him; Saunders built his formidable reputation on the back of his excellence as a writer of short stories but Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel. He is now not just £50,000 richer but the Royal Mail will literally give him the stamp of approval by using a special ‘Congratulations to George Saunders, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize’ franking mark for the next few days. Saunders can also look forward to a huge spike in sales (of his back catalogue too) as readers rush to see just what the fuss is all about.

The fuss, said the chair of judges, Baroness Lola Young, is that Saunders’s novel is ‘unique’. The book ‘stood out for its innovation and very different story-telling’, she said. ‘When I first opened the book, I thought “This is going to be pretty challenging”, but that challenge is part of its uniqueness.’ The book demands of the reader: ‘I dare you to engage with this kind of story written in this kind of way.’

The novel, based on a factual incident, describes one night in the life of Abraham Lincoln as he visits the body of his dead 11-year-old son Willie in a Georgetown cemetery. The night the grieving father spends there is populated by both the quick and the dead – by Lincoln and by innumerable souls caught in limbo who can communicate with each other but not with him and who have much to say since they are not yet ready to be dead. The death of one small boy and the pain it engenders is a microcosm of the death of thousands in the American Civil War. What Saunders does in the novel is explore not just death but life, too – its possibilities, its meaning, its missed opportunities.

For this multiplicity of voices, as Young pointed out, Saunders invented a new format, a hybrid narrative in which there are sections that read like a play as the dead yammer to one another, with passages of monologue, and sections that introduce real historical facts – such as how full the Moon was on that particular night – and historical fictions. There’s no denying that it is a deeply serious novel but Saunders wraps playfulness around the idea of history too. Lincoln in the Bardo is a book about craft as much as imagination.

The decision, said Young, was unanimous, ‘though I’m not going to pretend it was easy’. Picking the winner took an intense five-hour session, between 10am and 3pm, as the judges (Young, Sarah Hall, Colin Thubron, Tom Phillips and Lila Azam Zangeneh) had what Young called, with careful understatement, a ‘thorough, thorough discussion’. ‘I wanted my fellow judges to come with an open mind,’ she said. ‘It has been very collegial throughout the process so I asked each judge to arrive armed with one sentence about why they thought each book was great.’ As the winnowing progressed minds were changed, and the ordeal ultimately proved ‘tiring, draining but fantastic’. Disappointingly for those who like a bit of literary spice, the judges ‘remain good friends, there were no major meltdowns at all’ (gossip mongers can still hope there was a minor meltdown or two).

The win by Saunders, being American, will obviously raise comments about Transatlantic dominance, especially as Paul Beatty won last year, but Young affirmed, for the umpteenth time, that for the judges ‘Nationality is not an issue.’ As a point of fact, she noted that the judges ‘Are dependent on what is submitted to us’, and that means the nationality of the authors as well as whether there is an equal spread of male-female protagonists or indeed their ethnicity. These are concerns for the writers and their publishers, she said, and not the fiefdom of the prize judges.

Saunders has said that writing about Lincoln was not initially appealing but that he was ‘captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about him entering his son’s crypt’ and set out to try and ‘instil the same reaction I’d had all those years ago’. One can only suppose that he’s rather pleased he went ahead now.

In a resonant image, Lola Young said that the souls in bardo – Tibetan Buddhism’s version of limbo, the state between death and rebirth – in the novel are ‘voices from another world trying to claim your attention’. That seems a pretty good metaphor for Saunders’s book itself, and for the other long- and shortlisted works of the Man Booker Prize 2017.