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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > April 2017 > All the president’s sorrows

All the president’s sorrows

A fictionalised account of Abraham Lincoln’s life is unlike any other historical novel you will ever read, says Fatema Ahmed

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

In George Saunders’s best-known short story, “Pastoralia,” the narrator plays a caveman in a theme park. He and his fellow cavedweller Janet must grunt their way through the day while visitors look in on their palaeolithic practices. Yet for the pair (who are not a couple) there’s no escape from the late 20th century. They must also fill in a “Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form.” Janet is not pulling her weight and the narrator is reluctant to inform on her, as he is supposed to do. But he has a sick child, medical bills and maxed-out credit cards. Eventually he rats her out to save his job, applying himself more firmly to his employer’s mantra of “Thinking Positive/Staying Positive.”

An outlandish visitor park, staffed by life’s losers and sadistic middle managers, is a recurring setting for Saunders’s fiction. His protagonists are often forced to get someone weaker fired—and they can rarely afford not to comply with the bureaucratic tyranny. Fictional descriptions of the reality of modern work run the risk of being dull; but in his use of high-concept scenarios, Saunders manages to make you feel the truth of his insights almost better than any of his contemporaries.

Saunders is the most acclaimed American fiction writer who has (until now at the age of 58) never written a novel. When his story collection, entitled Pastoralia, was published in 2000, he had already been a regular contributor to the New Yorker for nearly a decade. His dystopian stories seemed like futuristic and whimsical successors to the surreal fiction of Donald Barthelme. It says as much about the way our reality has become more like one of his theme parks, as it does about his development as a writer, that his work has gained so much recognition in the last decade: a Mac- Arthur “genius” grant and Guggenheim fellowship, both in 2006; the inaugural Folio Prize in 2014. His report from pro-Donald Trump rallies last summer now reads as a prescient and detailed piece of political analysis, rather than the satire for which some mistook it at the time.

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In Prospect’s April issue: Ross McKibbin, John Curtice and Lisa Nandy examine the state of the Labour Party and question its survival at the next general election. McKibbin takes a long view and suggests that the party’s problems started long before Jeremy Corbyn, Curtice argues that breaking the party is unlikely to go as well as some may think and Nandy argues that tackling unaccountable power could help restore faith in the party. Nicholas Timmins says the NHS has always experienced financial crises so is this time any different? Lucy Wadham charts the rise of France’s Front National. Also in this issue: Owen Hatherley explores Edinburgh’s architectural conundrum, Freya Johnston on Jane Austen and Avi Shlaim on the tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin—the last best hope for peace.
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