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The Man Booker Prize shortlist, reviewed: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ and ‘4 3 2 1’

The year’s biggest literary prize – the Man Booker award – is announced on Wednesday morning, October 18 (NZ time). All week this week we review the six shortlisted titles. Today: Philip Matthews on Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, and the favourite to win, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

What did Paul Auster think he was doing? After years of producing tightly written, mysterious, even dreamlike novels (personal favourites: The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace, The Book of Illusions), the great American writer surprised everyone with an 866-page monster that didn’t really read much like Auster at all. It is almost but not quite accurate to say that 4 3 2 1 tells the story of a young man named Archie Ferguson who is almost exactly Auster’s age, who grew up in New Jersey like he did, went to college in the 1960s like he did, loved girls and baseball and pursued a career as a writer. Again, like he did. Nothing new about any of that: there have been alternative Austers with different, sometimes improbable names all the way through. The difference is that Auster gets four goes at the life of Ferguson.

He is up to something deep here but the prose is uncharacteristically light. The sentences are long and loose, sometimes rolling on for half a page or more. At first reading, you suspect he has been barely edited. There are lists of people, places, current events, books, movies – all the mundane details that locate a character in space and time, which Auster has not bothered with much before. There is an old-fashioned realism going on here that makes it, paradoxically, an experimental novel in some other way. The experiment operates at the storytelling level: the four Fergusons set off in parallel, like a running race, but gradually they fall away until just one Ferguson remains standing 866 pages later.

Each of the four lives starts at the same place and time, with parents named Rose and Stanley and a grandfather from Russia, before accidents and other forms of chance separate one Ferguson from another. It can look like a sociological experiment: how would life turn out if this or that happened to you? In one version, Ferguson’s parents separate. In another, they stay together. In one storyline, Amy Schneiderman is his girlfriend. In another, she is his stepsister. One Ferguson gets to go to Paris like Auster did but other Fergusons don’t. And so on.

The book can feel flabby, baggy and repetitive, like a parody of a Philip Roth novel about growing up in New Jersey. But surely Auster is too good a writer to write a bad book by accident. So there must be something else going on. You learn what that is if you make it to page 862, at which point you see that Ferguson the writer, the last Ferguson standing, is preparing to write a book that will take five years to finish and will come to a total of “one thousand one hundred and thirty-three double-spaced typed pages”. Yes, the notion of the writer telling you about writing the book you are holding is a corny metafictional trick that has been sprung on us before, but there is a telling detail when Auster’s Ferguson learns that the “most difficult passages for him to write were the ones that recounted the deaths of his beloved boys”, especially Ferguson 1. That death was really tough.

What do we want from stories? What is the balance between realism and escapism? Do you care about plausibility? Those are questions for readers and there are no right answers. But I think Auster is asking questions of himself this time, and doing it in public, and throwing new light on what he has been doing over the past 30 years, right back to The New York Trilogy. What does he want from writing? Why invent stories, especially ones that both align with and deviate from his own story? Any of these arbitrary lives could have turned out differently, which he emphasises by their entirely random endings. On another day, in a better mood, Ferguson 2 could have been the winner. So why make this choice and not that one? An interest in chance and coincidence has been important to Auster since the start but this time he goes further into the mechanics of it.

When I first tackled 4 3 2 1 I found it frustrating, once I got over the shock of seeing a brick-sized book with Auster’s name on it. Six months later, I realise I have fond memories of it, and of entire places within it – especially the run-down Rochester, New York, where a Ferguson goes to work as a newspaper reporter and the New York campus of Columbia University where a Ferguson studies. The book is a big, strange achievement, an introverted and deeply private exercise in writing for the sake of writing that gives the false impression of looking outwards and speaking to the world. Trust Auster to write a book that works but fools you into thinking it doesn’t.


The full Man Booker shortlist:

4321 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals, John Murray)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)


Better known as a short story writer, George Saunders had the idea for his first (so far, only) novel Lincoln in the Bardo when he heard that US president Abraham Lincoln twice slipped away during the night to visit and talk to his dead son, Willie, at a cemetery in Washington DC. Willie died suddenly at the age of 11 in 1862, a private tragedy while the greater tragedy of the Civil War roared in the background. Saunders was gripped by the image of the president cradling his son like a pieta, and whispering to him. What did he say? Could the dead boy have been in some way conscious of it?

It is fair to say that Lincoln in the Bardo is not the book you would expect from that sombre introduction. Saunders is not a melancholy or deeply serious writer – his antecedents would be satirists, humorists and pastiche artists like Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon and maybe John Kennedy Toole. A taste for black humour, puns and dirty jokes always runs close to the surface.

Saunders constructs the book from voices, some real and some invented. It could be the world’s most unlikely radio play or film script. He has consulted genuine historical sources about the toll of the Civil War and the sorrow of the Lincolns, and seemingly made up other sources, while also creating an entire community of noisy, squabbling ghosts who inhabit the cemetery where Willie’s body lies in its “sick-box”. A “sick-box” is what you call a coffin if you are not aware that you are actually dead. A cemetery is a “hospital-yard”.

In Buddhism, a bardo is an intermediate state between one incarnation and another, much like a Catholic limbo. The intermediate state that Saunders describes is unruly and phantasmagoric and in a lowbrow moment, some of the ghosts that haunt the book reminded me of the obnoxious ghost uncles in old Casper comics and movies (I doubt Sanders would mind). The ghosts are disfigured by that which they longed for or suppressed in life. But a little of this morbid comedy goes a long way. I was more impressed by the occasional (too few, really) moments of genuine tenderness Saunders imagines between the grieving president and his son, in scenes like this, told in the small, lost voice of a dead child:

“Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:
“We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.
“Then let out a sob
“Dear Father crying    That was hard to see    And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is as inventive and original as the armies of critics say it is but it just (I’m sorry) didn’t come alive for me. At times I was even actively bored and I wondered whether the acclaim it has attracted is to do with timing – whether there is something appealing or cathartic about returning to an earlier moral and political crisis in the United States, only with an anti-Trump at the helm. Does Lincoln persist in the American imagination as decent, honest and (as we see in the novel) genuinely loving, whereas Trump appears to be none of those things? Is it weird that the current president also has an 11 year old son? Who knows.

Books develop critical momentum and now Lincoln in the Bardo appears, with Auster’s 4 3 2 1, on the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize. From 1969 to 2013, only Commonwealth writers who wrote in English and published in the UK were able to compete but American writers became eligible from 2014 on. It was a like a literary Brexit in reverse: the UK opened its doors to the world. But was it a good idea? Or did it risk diluting what made the Man Booker what it was? I think it has done the latter. There are three American writers on the Man Booker list of six this time (the third is Emily Fridlund). The Saunders novel in particular feels so American in its vernacular and its narrow historical and cultural concerns that its appearance on the Man Booker shortlist almost feels like a provocation of some kind. You really want Americans in this thing, it asks. Are you sure about that? Check this out then.


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, $33) and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (Faber, $37) are available at Unity Books.

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