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George Saunders wins the Man Booker Prize for his ghostly, empathetic Lincoln in the Bardo

The Duchess Of Cornwall Attends The Man Booker Prize Photo by Chris Jackson - WPA Pool / Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

George Saunders just became the second American ever to win the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Released in February of this year to widespread acclaim, Lincoln in the Bardo is a triumph of a book, built around a single quasi-historical image: A year into the Civil War, the president’s son, Willie Lincoln, died of typhoid fever, prompting rumors that Abraham Lincoln would sneak into his crypt to cradle the dead body in his arms.

Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of those visits, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the graveyard in which Willie is buried. The novel’s narration switches from ghost to ghost with little warning, and there are so many ghosts — 166, to be exact — that this is at first bewildering and disorienting and then becomes an exhilarating delight.

“This really stood out because of its innovation — its very different styling and the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these not-quite-dead souls in this other world,” said Baroness Lola Young, chair of this year’s Booker Prize judging panel. “There was this juxtaposition of the very personal tragedy of Abraham Lincoln with his public life, as the person who’d really instigated the American Civil War.”

Saunders is a celebrated writer of satirical short stories, but Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel. He’s also the second American to win the Booker — last year’s winner, Paul Beatty, was the first, in a trend that some have suggested points to the growing Americanization of an award that used to be distinctly British. (The Booker Prize was only eligible to citizens of the British Commonwealth until 2014.)

Too American or not, Saunders’s work in general, and Lincoln in the Bardo in particular, is characterized by its enormous empathy, and its belief that in order to truly connect with someone you must figuratively enter into their souls, and that books are one of the ways in which we do that work. In a conversation with Zadie Smith earlier this year, Saunders expanded on how he thinks about ways books can make us better and more empathetic people:

I was thinking the other day about the idea that you have a reader and a writer, and they’re different and they’re flawed and they’re fucked-up, each in their own way. And most times they’re in the middle percentile of human goodness. They’re just who they are. Then, in the moment of reading, the writer comes up to the surface and the reader comes up to the surface and they kiss, like two fish. That actually does happen. We know that happens. They’re both briefly their best selves, or at least better selves. A flawed human being writes something and 60 years later a reader picks up the book and something in them rises to meet it. And I believe that, when this happens and the reader goes out into the world the next day, there’s some alteration that might possibly inflect the person positively.

By that logic, Lincoln in the Bardo is a book that can make you your best self, if you rise to the surface to meet it.