What makes a Man Booker novel?
George Saunders on Lincoln in the Bardo
Ahead of the announcement of the 2017 prize next week, the stories behind the stories
Saturday 14 October 2017 08.00 BST
George Saunders on Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders. Photograph: Tim Knox (commissioned)
The inspiration for Lincoln in the Bardo was an anecdote I heard back in the 1990s: Lincoln, grief-stricken, had entered the tomb of his recently deceased son and interacted with the body. This struck me powerfully but I was reluctant to write it because I felt (correctly) that it would require resources I didn’t have. A writer of limited talent and more limited education has to work hard, at the beginning, to carve out a unique space for himself; a region where he is doing “what only he can do”. For me, this region (discovered only in my mid-30s, after many years of imitative failures-in-style) was characterised by a fast, first-person, comic style that tended to have, as its ethos, the Chekhovian notion that “every happy man should have an unhappy man, in his closet, with a hammer, to remind him, with his constant tapping, that not everyone is happy”. The stories were dark, satirical, perverse; often set on the worst day of a character’s life, in an exaggerated America where materialism and corporatism were even more obnoxious than they were (are) in real America.
For around 20 years the subsets of “my style” and “what might be required to honour that Lincoln anecdote” continued to fail to intersect. I could feel that there was a beautiful book there but began to fear that it would have to be written by somebody else. The problem: I was not confident of my ability to express sincere human emotion straightforwardly, while maintaining the required (by me) stylistic verve. That is: I felt myself rickety around the expression of positive emotion. “Happiness writes white,” said Henry de Montherlant, and, for me, likewise hope, genuine grief, positive intention, happy results. I feared blundering off into what might be called, in high literary jargon, “the cheesy”.
In 2011, I was finishing a story called “Tenth of December”, in which the protagonist, at a moment of great duress, needed to have a thought of his wife. I, the writer, did just that: had a thought of my wife. And typed it up. The result had a messy urgency, a “styleless style”, if I could put it that way. I realised that what I’d always loved about my minimalist heroes (Hemingway, Babel, Henry Green) was also what I’d loved about my comic heroes (Monty Python, Steve Martin): that moment when a perhaps-too-direct expression of a thought produces a phrase stripped of habituality or familiarity and vaulted into the realm of the poetic. If I had a sincere emotion (or imagined my character having one), it was necessary only to express that emotion in as abrupt, truthful and urgent a way as possible, for the idea to come forth in fresh stylistic clothing.
A second, parallel, cause: during those 20-odd years, while writing non-fiction pieces, I had lived incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno, California; driven the length of the US/Mexican border; travelled to Nepal to spend the night in the jungle with a miraculous teenage yogi; gone to Africa with Bill Clinton. These pieces taught me the value of simple, accreting physical detail, expressed plainly. If a 15-year-old monk has been meditating for four months in a jungle clearing, you build genuine narrative power by simply describing the clearing, even if the language used is “non-literary”. This revelation amounted to the notion of compositional patience: the writer doesn’t need to throw a party in every sentence, and the party he does throw might be more powerful if he prepares for it with a few sentences that the younger me might have considered quotidian.
Finally, a third cause: age. Age gave me a certain confidence and a certain desperation. Had I not lived? I had. Why should any human emotion be off-limits for me? It was a heartbreak to think that this might be so. If it was true, for lack of talent – better to find out. If it was true for lack of trying – that would amount to a form of artistic death. (In the early days of the Lincoln book, I remember giving myself a sad little pep-talk: “Look, if you dropped dead right now, you’ve had a good run, better than you had a right to expect at the outset. Why not take a chance?”)
One thing art does for the practitioner is provide a systematic method of continual mind-expansion; a daily habit-challenging practice that forces him to become comfortable in psychological areas he may have ritually avoided. It is (and should be) a risky manoeuvre. About a third of the way into the book, I wrote to a novelist friend, saying that it was either the best thing I’d ever written or a real career-ender.
“Don’t forget,” he wrote back. “It could be both.”
Lincoln in the Bardo is published by Bloomsbury.