George Saunders’s surreal, experimental first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, marking the second year in a row that the prize has gone to an American author.
The novel unfolds in a cemetery in 1862, where a grieving Abraham Lincoln visits the crypt that holds the body of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever. At the graveyard, Willie’s spirit is joined by a garrulous, motley community of ghosts who exist in the liminal state between life and death. At times, the narrative feels more like a play or an oral history than a novel, with dialogue among the ghosts, interspersed with scraps of historical research and snippets of contemporary news accounts that Mr. Saunders gathered, or in some cases invented.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Saunders said he was encouraged that the judges had recognized such an unconventional novel.
“For me, the nice thing is that the book is hard, and it’s kind of weird and it’s not a traditional novel,” Mr. Saunders said. “I didn’t do it just to be fancy, but because there was this emotional core I could feel, and that form was the only way I could get to it.”
At a news conference in London on Tuesday, Lola Young, the chair of judges, said that the novel was “unique” and “stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling; the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these almost dead souls, not quite dead souls, this other world.”
By awarding the prize to Mr. Saunders, the judges will likely face a renewed backlash from critics who have complained that the prize has become Americanized. Last year, Paul Beatty became the first American to win when he received the prize for “The Sellout,” a dark satire about race and the legacy of slavery and segregation in America. Mr. Saunders and Mr. Beatty both won for books that wrestle with deeply American themes and painful chapters of the country’s history. This year, three of the six finalists were American, which prompted another round of criticism that emerging British and Commonwealth writers were being overlooked.
Speaking on behalf of the judges, Ms. Young dismissed the notion that Americans have colonized Britain’s most prestigious literary award.
“We don’t look at the nationality of the writer,” she said. “We’re solely concerned with the book, with what that book is telling us.”
Until recently, the Man Booker, which was first awarded in 1969, was restricted to novels written by authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth nations. In 2014, the contest was opened to any novel written in English and published in Britain. Past winners include Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, V .S. Naipaul and Hilary Mantel.
The expansion of the prize parameters has drawn criticism from some in the literary world, who warned that the Booker would lose its British character with the incursion of American writers. After Mr. Beatty won last year, a group of writers, including Julian Barnes and A. S. Byatt, denounced the decision to let Americans compete. Ron Charles, a book critic for The Washington Post, criticized the list of finalists for being overly American, writing that “for any serious reader of fiction in this country, the Americanization of the Booker Prize is a lost opportunity to learn about great books that haven’t already been widely heralded.”
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In addition to Mr. Saunders, the other Americans to make the list of finalists were Paul Auster, who was nominated for “4321,” an epic narrative that tells a Jewish boy’s coming-of-age story in four different versions; and Emily Fridlund, for her debut novel, “History of Wolves,” about a teenage girl growing up in a commune in the Midwest.
The other finalists were the British novelist Fiona Mozley, whose debut novel “Elmet,” centers on a single father raising his teenage children in rural Yorkshire; the British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, nominated for “Exit West,” a surreal, dystopian story about two refugees fleeing a civil war through magic doors; and the British novelist Ali Smith, whose novel “Autumn,” about the relationship between a middle-aged British woman and an elderly man, explores the rise of British nationalism. Ms. Smith, who has been shortlisted for the Booker four times, was considered a favorite to win this year.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” won near-universal praise from reviewers when it was released in February, and became a No. 1 best seller. In a review in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that “Saunders’s extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life.”
Before he wrote “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Mr. Saunders, 58, was best known for his dark and often funny futuristic, dystopian short stories. Born in Amarillo, Tex., and raised in and near Chicago, Mr. Saunders never imagined growing up that he could one day write for a living. He got a degree in geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines, then worked as a geophysicist in Indonesia, where he read to keep himself occupied at a remote camp. When he returned to the United States, he supported himself with odd jobs, working as a doorman, a roofer, in a convenience store and in a slaughterhouse.
He eventually enrolled in an M.F.A. program at Syracuse University, and in 1996, he published his debut fiction collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” which established him as an innovative writer with a dark, demented streak. He went on to publish several other collections and novellas, including his widely celebrated 2013 short story collection, “Tenth of December.”
Mr. Saunders first got the idea for “Lincoln in the Bardo” in the late 1990s, when he was visiting Washington, and his wife’s cousin pointed out the crypt, and told him the story about how Lincoln would visit his son’s body. The story stayed with him for some 20 years, but felt too daunting. Finally, in 2012, he began to work on the novel.
“This is an idea that obsessed him for a long time,” said Andy Ward, Mr. Saunders’s editor and the editor in chief of Random House. “This book was something that I hadn’t seen before.”
Mr. Saunders, a Tibetan Buddhist, drew on the Buddhist notion of the bardo — the phase of existence between death and rebirth — bringing a supernatural layer to the historical setting. With the chorus of ghosts in the cemetery, Mr. Saunders tied Lincoln’s suffering to a universal human plight of mortality and loss, giving it an epic, mythical quality.
“For me, the book was about that terrible conundrum: We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end,” Mr. Saunders said in an email interview with The New York Times Book Review. “What do we do with that?”