The Man Booker Prize

2017 - George Saunders

Born: 2 December, 1958, Amarillo, Texas, U.S.

Author's quote: “When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. What I want is to have the reader come out just 6 percent more awake to the world."

Field: Fiction

Prize share: 1/1


Books Written By George Saunders


About George Saunders

George Saunders (born December 2, 1958) is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, children's books, and novels. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, McSweeney's, and GQ. He also contributed a weekly column, American Psyche, to the weekend magazine of The Guardian between 2006 and 2008.

A professor at Syracuse University, Saunders won the National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004, and second prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1997. His first story collection, Civil War Land in Bad Decline, was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award. In 2006 Saunders received a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2006 he won the World Fantasy Award for his short story "CommComm".

His story collection In Persuasion Nation was a finalist for the Story Prize in 2007. In 2013, he won the PEN/Malamud Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Saunders's Tenth of December: Stories won the 2013 Story Prize for short-story collections and the inaugural (2014) Folio Prize. His novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas. He grew up near Chicago and graduated from Oak Forest High School in Oak Forest, Illinois. In 1981, he received a B.S. in geophysical engineering from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. Of his scientific background, Saunders has said, "...any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses."

In 1988, he was awarded an M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University; while there, he met Paula Redick, a fellow writer, who would become his wife. Saunders recalled, "we [got] engaged in three weeks, a Syracuse Creative Writing Program record that, I believe, still stands."

Regarding his influences, Saunders has written:

I really love Russian writers, especially from the 19th and early 20th Century: Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Babel. I love the way they take on the big topics. I’m also inspired by a certain absurdist comic tradition that would include influences like Mark Twain, Daniil Kharms, Groucho Marx, Monty Python, Steve Martin, Jack Handey, etc. And then, on top of that, I love the strain of minimalist American fiction writing: Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff.

From 1989 to 1996, Saunders worked as a technical writer and geophysical engineer for Radian International, an environmental engineering firm in Rochester, New York. He also worked for a time with an oil exploration crew in Sumatra.

Since 1997, Saunders has been on the faculty of Syracuse University, teaching creative writing in the school's MFA program while continuing to publish fiction and nonfiction. In 2006, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship. He was a Visiting Writer at Wesleyan University and Hope College in 2010 and participated in Wesleyan's Distinguished Writers Series and Hope College's Visiting Writers Series. His nonfiction collection, The Braindead Megaphone, was published in 2007.

Saunders's fiction often focuses on the absurdity of consumerism, corporate culture, and the role of mass media. While many reviewers mention his writing's satirical tone, his work also raises moral and philosophical questions. The tragicomic element in his writing has earned Saunders comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut, whose work has inspired him.

The film rights to Civil War Land in Bad Decline were purchased by Ben Stiller in the late 1990s; as of 2007, the project was in development by Stiller's company, Red Hour Productions. Saunders has also written a feature-length screenplay based on his story "Sea Oak".

In a November 2015 conversation with American writer Jennifer Egan for the New York Times, Saunders said that he was writing a novel set in the 19th century, which while "ostensibly historical" was also closer to science fiction than much of his previous work.

Saunders considered himself an Objectivist in his twenties but now views it unfavorably, likening it to neo-conservatism. He is now a student of Nyingma Buddhism.

 


Reviews

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

By Mary Lins

Before you crack open George Saunders' new (first) novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo", you must empty your mind of what you expect an historical novel to be. Both the structure and the narrative are incredibly non-traditional, somewhat experimental, often disorienting, but ultimately fulfilling. Let me assure you that if you open your mind, you'll not only get used to it, you will enjoy it thoroughly.

That said, I think "Lincoln in the Bardo" would work even better as a stage play, somewhat reminiscent of "Our Town", and in this sense I think an audio recording of the novel, if done well, might be the best way to experience this work.

Bardo is a Tibetan word for the "in-between" or "transitional" state between lives (thank you, Wikipedia). The novel takes place in one night in a cemetery and the story is narrated by hundreds of voices: old and young, men, women, and children, white and black, salve and free. These denizens of Saunders' novel are in a place between life and death. We are told that people stay in this gray area for varying periods of time and that children usually stay there a very short time (this is where it also sounded a lot like Purgatory to me). Do these "beings" know that they are actually dead? They use words like "sick box" for coffin, and "sick-form" for body, "white stone home" for mausoleum, so they seem to be unclear as to their actual state. Through these voices Saunders creates as fascinating (and chilling) a version of the after-life as Dante Alighieri gave us. (There is a particularly interesting and notable discussion among them about free will in the latter part of the novel.)

The basic plot is fictionalized history: Willie, Abraham Lincoln's young son, has died and he is now in the Bardo. Here we meet the many fascinating - and funny! characters who show Willie around, who witness the unusual sight of Lincoln cradling the body of his young son, and who endeavor to help both father and son to find peace. That's as far as I will go with the "plot" of this novel.

One of my favorite things about this unique novel, was how Saunders presented conflicting "news reports". For example, when reporting on the White House gala reception the night Willie is dying, some "witnesses" said there was a full moon, some said there was no moon, some said it was green, some red, others said it was just a sliver. This serves to remind us that recorded history is just as unreliable as our current news reporting. What is the truth? Do we ever know? For the purpose of "Lincoln in the Bardo", we only need to know that the Lincolns did lose their beloved son Willie in early 1862, all else is brilliantly imagined and "reported" by Saunders.

Ultimately "Lincoln in the Bardo" is a riveting exploration of death, grief, and love told in an utterly unique, almost poetic, fashion.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

By Mike W.

I almost want to break this review into two parts. One for those who know Saunders and one for those who’ll be experiencing him for the first time. What does it matter? Well, you’re about to hear and read a lot about this book, Lincoln in the Bardo, about Saunders himself (there was so much press with Tenth of December that I feel like he and I have hung out multiple times; that I know all his stories), and about his genius. Then, if you’ve never read him, and especially if you haven’t read much in the way of modern or post-modern literature, you’re going to pick up this book and put it down in about five minutes. That, dear readers, would be a grave (see what I did there?) error, a real tragedy. Why? Because Saunders’ much anticipated first novel really is as genius as the stories and interviews and blurbs are going to claim, but you have to do a little more of the work as a reader than you might be used to.

Much anticipated is the phrase you’ll probably hear most. What that should tell you is that Saunders has a strong fan base. He truly does, and full disclosure here, I’ve counted myself among them for a few years now. His mastery of the short story is well known, with the use of quirky characters, odd theme parks, and surreal science fiction-y, angst inducing situations known to take you to dark, uncomfortable places but that still manage to find and nourish a spark of humanistic hope. Perhaps the most common feeling among his readers as they’ve enjoyed these works is “man, I wish this guy would write a novel!” He has, and in true Saunders fashion, he’s ensured that very little about the experience is “normal”.

I’m not going to regurgitate plot here, plenty of better reviews have already done you that favor. What I do want to make sure to express is the feel of the structure and the experience, perhaps in terms of other things you’ve read and seen. The most common comparison I’ve read is Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology”. The comparison is apt, there are similarities, mainly in that the dead speak to us of their pasts and especially of their mistakes. But Masters’ dead are much less playful and rarely attempt humor while Saunders’ cast of spirits deliver several laugh out loud moments as they guide readers through the tale. I thought often of Twain as I read.

Another comparison that came to mind several times was Dante’s Inferno. Though instead of a proper hell, we are treated to a description of a Bardo, a purgatory where spirits have remained in between their death and their final destination. Each held up for reasons of their own personal obsessions, several of which are brilliantly and humorously described throughout the novel. Others are devastatingly sad yet delivered equally as powerfully. The reader increasingly learns about the rules and behaviors of that Bardo through these snippets of stories.

This is probably a good time to talk about structure. It’s quite different and again, I’d expect no less from Saunders. Picture a Greek chorus, a paragraph or two of dialog (rarely more) with an attribution after each. It is startling at first and again, will be especially so to readers less familiar with modern and post-modern lit. And so it is this difference that will probably be the biggest complaint as the reviews begin to pile up here. My advice? Hang in there, it works and it works quite well. In fact, you’ll not only get used to it, you’ll learn to love it.

More comparisons now. Lincoln, the titular and in some ways central (though in many ways not) character expresses the most powerful dialog and I often thought of Shakespeare when Lincoln spoke. These are beautiful and profound moments, by far the novel’s most powerful as he reflects on the death of his son Willie. You don’t have to be a parent to feel the impact of his dialog, but it sure didn’t hurt, and I personally haven’t read such raw, sincere and painful cogitation on death and mourning since I read Twain’s “The Death of Jean”. Readers of Paul Hardings’ Enon have also tasted of similar parental agony. In any case, it is through Lincoln’s character that the deepest waters flow.

One other comparative thought, especially if you’re hearing all the publicity and thinking of picking up this novel for grandma who loves to read. It’ll also bring to mind at various times Beavis and Butthead, or maybe Hank and Bobby Hill. I don’t mean that as a negative, I really don’t. But I do understand that this is something about Saunders that people either love or hate. At one moment Lincoln may wax eloquent on the spark of life and in the next, you may be reminded for the tenth time or more that one of the spirits has a massive erection. These moments bring me joy and laughter, but I do comprehend that for some others they don’t carry the proper dignity of their normal read. If you are one such, Saunders may not be for you.

Most importantly, I’d implore all readers to keep an open mind. If you’re a Saunders fan, you’re going to be strengthened in that fandom. If you’re new to Saunders, but enjoy alternative structures and have a history of adventurous reading, I’m confident you’ll soon count yourself a soldier in his army. However, if you’re one whose reading tends toward the traditional, conservative in structure and clear in its identity, then Lincoln in the Bardo’s narrative structure and its moments of revelry may at first feel like nails on a chalkboard to you. Please, fight through it. The novel's main points could yet become for you sweet susurrations of humanistic glory that leave you wet eyed and wondering where Mr. Saunders has been all your life.