Picture a graveyard in the middle of night at the start of the Civil War. The year is 1862, the place is a Georgetown cemetery, and the man in the crypt is President Abraham Lincoln, cradling the body of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who has just died of typhoid fever. Surrounded by ghosts, inundated by a “kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices,” Lincoln stares in the face of one of life’s most difficult questions: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
This is the atmosphere of George Saunders’s literary novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction last Tuesday. Joining the ranks of Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, and V.S. Naipaul, this is the second year Britain’s most prestigious literary award has gone to an American author. (This has sparked some controversy. In 2014, the prize – which had historically been restricted to candidates from Britain, Ireland, and other Commonwealth countries – was expanded to include any novel written in English and published in the UK. Some critics fear the identity of the prize is being “diluted” with American writers.)
Published by Penguin Random House in February, Lincoln in the Bardo “spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state – called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo – a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.”
According to Michiko Kakutani, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, “Saunders’s novel is at its most potent and compelling when it is focused on Lincoln: a grave, deeply compassionate figure, burdened by both personal grief and the weight of the war, and captured here in the full depth of his humanity.”
Today’s #QuoteoftheWeek spotlights the Man Booker Prize winner.
“Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end.” — George Saunders,
Saunders is the author of nine books. Before Lincoln in the Bardo, his best-known work was Tenth of December, a collection of short stories nominated for the National Book Award and named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review in 2014.
The author was born in Amarillo, Texas but grew up in Chicago. He has a degree in exploration geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines. In his bio, Saunders credits his interest in reading to a nun who gave him a copy of Johnny Tremaine in the third grade. (He was also “secretly in love” with her.)
After a brief stint working as a tech writer, Saunders wrote CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his first short-story collection. Since then, he has “traveled to Africa with Bill Clinton, reported on Nepal’s ‘Buddha Boy,’ gone on patrol with the ‘Minute Men’ on the Mexican border, spent a week in the theme hotels of Dubai, and lived incognito in a homeless tent city in Fresno, California.”
Today, the author lives in the Catskill Mountains with his wife and two daughters.
FUN FACT: Audible’s recording of Lincoln in the Bardo has 166 voices on tape. Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, David Sedaris, and Saunders are all featured.