George Saunders wins the 2017 Man Booker Prize with his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. In the book, Mr. Saunders uses the literary device of the dead in the cemetery commenting on the actions of the living visitors. The most celebrated of the visitors being President Lincoln visiting the grave of his recently departed son Willie, who died of typhoid fever at age 11. The novel, the first of Saunders, evokes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Saunders also intersperses actual passages from Civil War era newspapers and periodicals to move the narrative and embellish characterization. Both literary techniques work splendidly, creating a brilliant and unique work of fiction.
The winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 17 at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall. It’s an interesting and diverse shortlist of six authors, featuring three Americans, two British and one British/Pakistani. According to the chair of judges for the competition, Lola, Baroness Young “this year’s shortlist both acknowledges established authors and introduces new voices to the literary stage. Playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: here is a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary.”
Ironically, the two novels on the shortlist that seem best to represent “grown from tradition,” are written by the two youngest authors, the 38 year- American, Emily Fridlund and the 29 year-old British Fiona Mozley. Fridlund’s History of Wolves seems to me derived from the literary tradition of the isolated and marginal individual grappling with the prescribed mores of society, reminiscent of the writings in a bygone era by Robert Louis Stephenson, and today in the works of Stephen King. Linda, the teenage protagonist of the book, lives in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, and has to fend on her own when the Hippie commune where her parents had lived falls apart.
Another teenager, Daniel, narrates Mozley’s debut novel, Elmet. Set in rural Yorkshire, Daniel’s family is also isolated from the mainstream society. I find derivatives in this fine novel in the writings of Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, especially in the struggle of the individual against society, as well the preference to live close to nature and all its attendant beauties and perils over placing one’s roots in the mundaneness of settled communities.
The most “radical” of the two shortlisted novels are by the esteemed American authors, Paul Auster and George Saunders. Auster’s book, 4321, experiments with four different narratives and timelines for the same fictional protagonist, who happens to resemble the author in so many aspects of his life. I must admit that I truly enjoyed the first two hundred pages of the book because Auster writes superbly. Then the author’s self-abortion started to run amok, and by its conclusion on page 862, I felt bored and intellectually dissatisfied.
The main ploy utilized by Saunders in his book Lincoln in the Bardo i.e. the dead in the cemetery commenting on the actions of the living visitors evokes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Saunders also intersperses actual passages from Civil War era newspapers and periodicals to move the narrative and embellish characterization. Both literary devices work splendidly, creating a brilliant and unique work of fiction.
The “contemporary” novels that complete the shortlist are Ali Smith’s Autumn and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. This is the fourth time that Ms. Smith has been shortlisted. She is universally respected by the British writing establishment, and is an acknowledged mentor and role model for an ascending younger generation of women writers in her country.
Autumn is a complex and intricate novel with several parallel stories that move around in time. It is often described as a post-Brexit model for its setting of a mood of estrangement and xenophobia in contemporary Britain.
Exit West traces the long journey of a young man and woman escaping their unnamed war-torn country seeking to find open doors and safe havens in their wanderings. Hamid’s distant and objective writing tone is almost Kafkaesque. Yet the book that it most reminds me of is J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 Booker-winning Life & Times of Michael K.
Who will the coveted prize this year? If I were a judge, I would vote for Ms. Mozley’s Elmet. It stirred my emotions more than any of the other selections. The author carefully crafted each and every word, blending magnificent lyrical language within a suspenseful and powerful storyline.
Will it win? Perhaps. We are overdue to have a British woman win the prize. The last woman to capture the coveted Man Booker was Eleanor Catton in 2013. The last British writer to win was Hilary Mantel in 2012. Although I believe that Elmet is more deserving this year to win than Autumn, sentiment for Ms. Smith might overtake the merit of Ms. Mozley’s outstanding debut novel.