George Saunders won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, becoming the second American in a row to win the coveted British literary award. His winning novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” describes the night President Lincoln visited his son’s body in a Washington graveyard.
“It has been a wonderful and frenzied day here,” Saunders wrote via email from London on Wednesday. “A great honor, but the real fun was getting to hang with the other short-listed writers,” who include Paul Auster, Emily Fridlund, Mohsin Hamid, Fiona Mozley and Ali Smith. “All day today was involved in a sort of joyful PR Olympics, talking to many journalists. The Man Booker has an amazing reach, I am finding out — emails coming in from all phases of my life, which makes me feel a little like Huck and/or Tom in the rafters of that church overhearing my own funeral. But what a way to go.”
The prize, worth approximately $66,000, virtually guarantees increased sales around the world, though “Lincoln in the Bardo” was already a bestseller in the United States.
Baroness Lola Young, chair of the Man Booker Prize, made the announcement at a ceremony Tuesday evening in London. “The form and style of this utterly original novel reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative,” she said.
Distinct from the poignant satires Saunders has published in the New Yorker and elsewhere, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is an extended national ghost story, a strangely funny and piteous tale about the death of Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.
The book’s structure is strikingly unusual. It’s composed largely of brief quotations from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, personal testimonies and later scholars, each one meticulously attributed. We hear from people who worked for the president, his friends, colleagues and enemies, 19th-century biographers and more recent ones such as Doris Kearns Goodwin. Saunders has said he came to see his role as a novelist expanding to include the role of “curator.”
This form, though, is not the novel’s only radical element. Stirred into the mix of what Saunders calls “historical nuggets” are the voices of fictional characters, invented witnesses and commentators — and the majority of these people are ghosts trapped in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie is laid to rest.
Last year’s Booker Prize went to “The Sellout,” by American writer Paul Beatty. This year, when half the finalists were U.S. citizens, there was renewed concern that the august British award was being taken over by Americans. Indeed, in choosing “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the judges have again selected a distinctly American story and author.
The Booker contest was closed to Americans until 2013, when the eligibility rules were expanded to include writers beyond Commonwealth, Irish and Zimbabwean citizens.
In any case, the bookies got it right this year. The Guardian reported that “Lincoln in the Bardo” was favored to win 6-4.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.