ShareThis Page

George Saunders' 'Lincoln in the Bardo' wins Booker prize

| Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, 10:24 a.m.
Author George Saunders of the United States with his book 'Lincoln in the Bardo' during a photocall after being announced winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, in London, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Author George Saunders of the United States with his book 'Lincoln in the Bardo' during a photocall after being announced winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, in London, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Author George Saunders of the United States with his book 'Lincoln in the Bardo' during a photocall after being announced winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, in London, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Author George Saunders of the United States with his book 'Lincoln in the Bardo' during a photocall after being announced winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize, in London, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON — American author George Saunders won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction Tuesday for “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a polyphonic symphony of a novel about restless souls adrift in the afterlife.

It is the second year in a row an American has won the 50,000 pound ($66,000) prize, which was opened to U.S. authors in 2014.

“I feel kind of numb,” said Saunders, who said disbelief and gratitude were his principal emotions on winning.

The book is based on a real visit President Abraham Lincoln made in 1862 to the body of his 11-year-old son Willie at a Washington cemetery. By turns witty, bawdy, poetic and unsettling, “Lincoln in the Bardo” juxtaposes events from Lincoln's life and the U.S. Civil War — through passages from historians both real and fictional — with a chorus of otherworldly characters who are dead, but unwilling or unable to let go of life.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is the transition state between death and rebirth.

Baroness Lola Young, who chaired the Booker judging panel, said the novel “stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling, the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these almost-dead souls.”

Saunders was awarded the prize by Prince Charles' wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during a ceremony at London's medieval Guildhall.

Accepting his trophy, Saunders said the book's style may be complex, but the question posed at its heart is simple: Do we respond to uncertain times with fear and division, “or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and try to respond with love?”

The author said he resisted telling the story of Lincoln, an American icon, for 20 years. But the novel, which took four years to write, turned out to be pointedly timely in a divided United States.

Saunders said Lincoln had “a quiet, confident generosity of spirit.”

“He underwent I think a kind of spiritual growth spurt that we don't see very often,” outgrowing the “lazy, racist attitudes” he was raised with, the author told reporters.

“His compassion and his heart kept growing out even as his own life was becoming more and more difficult,” Saunders said.

“Contrast that with the current administration that seems intent on shrinking the commonwealth of compassion until we can only care about people who are exactly like us. It's a complete eradication of the American ideal.”

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by the 58-year-old Saunders, an acclaimed short story writer who won the Folio Prize in 2014 for his darkly funny story collection “Tenth of December.”

A former oil industry engineer who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University in New York state, Saunders is probably best known outside literary circles for a commencement speech he gave in 2013 with the key message “Try to be kinder.” It went viral on the Internet, became an animated cartoon and was published as a book.

He had been bookies' favorite to win the Man Booker, which usually brings the winning novelist a huge boost in sales and profile.

Saunders beat five other finalists: New Yorker Paul Auster's quadruple coming-of-age story “4321”; U.S. writer Emily Fridlund's story of a Midwest teenager, “History of Wolves”; Scottish author Ali Smith's Brexit-themed “Autumn”; British-Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid's migration story “Exit West”; and British writer Fiona Mozley's debut novel “Elmet” about a fiercely independent family under threat.

Saunders is the second American in a row to win the prize, founded in 1969 and until 2013 limited to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. The 2016 winner was Paul Beatty's “The Sellout.”

The move to admit all English-language writers spurred fears among some British writers and publishers that Americans would come to dominate a prize whose previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel.

Young said the judges “don't look at the nationality of the writer. I can say that hand on heart — it's not an issue for us. The sole concern is the book.”

Prize organizers said 30 percent of the 144 books submitted by publishers for consideration this year were American, a figure slightly down from last year.

Young said the five jurors met for almost five hours Tuesday to choose the winner, finally agreeing unanimously on Saunders.

“I'm not going to pretend it was easy,” she said.

“We didn't have any major meltdowns at all. But we did have quite fierce debates.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.