George Saunders wins the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel I couldn’t finish

George Saunders has won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo. He is the second American (in a row) to win this British prize after the prize’s rules were changed in 2013 to allow U.S. authors. (Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won last year).

I’m a fan of many of Saunders’s short stories, especially those in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which I did not review on this website, unlike the collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which I did review on this website.

really, really, really wanted to love Lincoln in the Bardo, but I didn’t. I tried to read it at least three times earlier this year and failed to make it past the halfway mark.

I first tried via the audiobook, a gimmicky affair that caught my interest. I’m a fan of audiobooks and like most humans I crave novelty. The Lincoln audiobook features 166 readers over a relatively slim seven and a half hours, and is led by the capable Nick Offerman, along with David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, et. al. I quit the first time maybe only an hour in, assuming that the chorus of narrators was throwing me off. But then I thought, Shit, Ed, it’s not even eight hours, just knock it out. After three hours I found that I genuinely hated it. So I picked up a physical copy from the library and tried again—maybe the audiobook was the wrong media—maybe I needed to see it on the page? But: Nope.

Lincoln in the Bardo might be a really good novel and I just can’t see it or hear it or feel it. I see postmodernism-as-genre, as form; I read bloodless overcooked posturing; I feel schmaltz. I failed the novel, I’m sure. I mean, I’m sure it’s good, right? The problem is me, as usual. I’m tempted here to launch into a long rant about how little contemporary fiction seems to do for me lately, but why? Why rant?

(The last really really great contemporary American novel I read was Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, a novel that does everything I think Lincoln wants to do with a real raw precise blood-coursing intensity that I’ll never forget. And (I know this because I used my Twitter timeline as a reference just now) I just realized that I picked up Preparation for the Next Life on the same day that I downloaded the audiobook of Lincoln in the Bardo—so I was reading/auditing the novels at pretty much the exact same time. Look, let me very strongly recommend Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life).

In the second paragraph of this silly riff I wrote the words “I’m a fan of many of Saunders’s short stories.” One of those stories is a perfect two-paragraph joint, “Sticks,” which he included in Tenth of December. As I wrote in my review of that collection,

…the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks”…seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections.

I figure out a way to insert “Sticks” into pretty much any literature class I teach—I love sharing it with students so I’ll share it with you:

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veterans Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad’s one concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup, saying, Good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said, What’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he laid the pole on its side and spray-painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.

 

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9 thoughts on “George Saunders wins the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel I couldn’t finish”

  1. I so agree! I also tried to read “Lincoln in the Bardo” three times. I would have been happier with any of the other five short listed novels. What am I missing here?

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  2. I too found the narrative technique off-putting at first, and did find myself speed-reading the historic citations, but I persevered and was ultimately rewarded…there are scenes in this ghost story that haunt uniquely; depictions that I didn’t appreciate fully until after I’d finished the story and the incessant press of the narrators had subsided. As a huge fan of Saunders’ short stories I was hungry for his familiar tone and in that sense was disappointed — we didn’t get the archly nuanced revision of the familiar we’ve come to expect. But the intellect and phrasing that ultimately make this tale of the paranormal resonate (that judgment scene kept this atheist awake a few nights!) are praise-worthy.

    Will definitely read ‘Preparation For the Next Life’.

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  3. why on earth would you think listening to over 50 people read the different characters in a book would be anything but awful? that would be reason enough to never be able to read the book ever. whether or not you might’ve liked it is probably lost now.

    others: if you don’t like modern fiction, maybe you just shouldn’t read it. reading is generally meant to be enjoyable, at least on some level; not something you suffer through so you can grace others w/ yer opinion. or maybe not. if i’m in the minority here, that’s kinda sad to me. i’ve finished books i hated & taken years of quitting & restarting to finish some of my favorites. a rant on contemporary fiction–what? the state of?–sounds even less interesting than some of you found this book, which, though i also took a little time to adjust my head to the narrative structure & strap on my seatbelt, i really liked a lot.

    disclaimer: i really like george saunders a whole lot. i’d even venture that this book is currently certainly not close to my favorite of his books. i’d probably also agree w/ someone who said that winning this particular prize at this particular time w/ this particular book is somewhat akin to al pacino winning best actor for ‘scent of a women,’ or ditto paul newman for ‘the color of money.’ maybe not, though. those are two real piece of shit movies & i did really like ‘lincoln in the bardo.’

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  4. Is the problem me if I don’t like a book or a piece of music? Must I like what the experts tell me is good ? Perhaps my education is lacking , maybe I haven’t read enough ‘ good literature ‘. Do you think we develop an appetite for what we wallow in?Should we seek to acquire tastes or are we just conditioned computers taking in what is fed in day by day?

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