Fever Dream
  • March 30, 2018


  • Samanta Schweblin

    4Fever Dream
    Z2Lincoln in the Bardo

    George Saunders

  • Judged by

    All Judges

Lincoln in the Bardo

Angela Chen: Fever Dream was more atmospheric; it unnerved me and created a more visceral sense of urgency to finish. It was sparse, whereas Lincoln in the Bardo had too much going on. But ultimately, I cared for Lincoln’s chorus of voices instead of the two of Fever Dream, and I was more moved by Lincoln’s messy development of individual characters than the mystery of Fever Dream’s plot.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
0 1

Ruth Curry: Here’s a list of places I cried reading Lincoln in the Bardo:

My bedroom

My living room

Downtown F train

Downtown E train

My office


But after several days I worried it would be physically impossible for me to finish this book. I texted a friend:

Ruth Curry text

I did finish Lincoln in the Bardo, although I skipped take two of the death scene. And while I can appreciate and corroborate all the praise other judges and readers have lavished on this book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the unwilling victim of a rather cheap trick.

Fever Dream is also about dead children, and ghosts, and catastrophe, but it suggests where Lincoln in the Bardo badgers, casts a spell rather than sets a trap. It asks you to think and deduce, rather than tell you what to feel. And I hate being told what to do, so Fever Dream is my Rooster winner.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
1 1

Joseph Fink: I am aghast that Exit West isn’t in the finals, and am tempted to cast a protest vote in its direction. But, fine, I’m willing to work within the two-party system. Fever Dream is an unrelentingly tense experience, and I truly appreciate the skill involved in creating a horror novel that so completely immerses the reader without losing the clarity of its story. But ultimately Lincoln in the Bardo is, for me, more memorable, more ambitious, and more successful in achieving its ambitions.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
1 2

Maris Kreizman: Like Judge O’Connell, I’m one of those people who thinks George Saunders is a god, which is probably a bit too high of an expectation to set before reading his first novel. I adore his brain and his artistry, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by his novel. (Side note: My husband sings Lincoln in the Bardo to the tune of “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room.”) In the meantime, Fever Dream shook me. The narrative was so propulsive that it wouldn’t let me go. It was a web and I was tangled in it, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
2 2

Jaya Saxena: Everyone else probably noticed the similarities here—the purgatorial space, the parental loss, the dialogue. There is more alike than not. I wonder what it is about 2018 that’s drawing us to these themes and similarities, but decisions must be made. While Fever Dream is all urgency, Lincoln in the Bardo is a deliberate slow burn. It builds out with kindness and sorrow and the weirdness of old B-genre fiction. Then again, Fever Dream has all that condensed into a bomb of a novella against Lincoln’s capital-N Novel. Lincoln left me aching, but Fever Dream left me breathless.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
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Jeffrey Cranor: My favorite part of finishing a book is when I want to turn right back to page one and start over. This isn’t to say all great books should have this effect, but it was my tiebreaker in determining which of two excellent novels is ever so slightly better. I adored the high difficulty, hilarious dialogue, and emotional weight of Lincoln in the Bardo, but Fever Dream’s tear-jerking, muscle-tensing horror—far deeper than a 180-page book should be—had me going from the last page to the first in order to experience it all again.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
4 2

Ismail Muhammad: What a great rematch. Fever Dream is a taut and riveting horror story reminiscent of Poe or The Yellow Wallpaper, and the first book in a while that I’ve read in one sitting. Reading it, I marveled at Samanta Schweblin’s ability to craft an atmosphere of complete fear while obliquely engaging the dread that I imagine accompanies maternal love. She uses body horror as a way to put motherhood in conversation with ecological contamination. This is thrilling writing based in a formal conceit—a conversation between two characters—that shouldn’t work but somehow does.

Lincoln in the Bardo is no less a technical marvel. Normally, Saunders leaves me cold. He seems like a master technician capable of pyrotechnics few other writers could hope to pull off—but whose language strikes me as bereft of feeling. I opened Lincoln in the Bardo expecting more of the same. Instead I found the voice of Hans Vollman, a ghost who’s still drunk on the trust and sweetness that suffuses the home he shares with his young wife. Where Fever Dream is a claustrophobic tale of parental loss, Bardo is a joyous celebration of life that overflows with emotion. For me, that sense of unrestrained feeling wins out over horror.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
4 3

Caitlin Roper: What a freaky pair of magical stories! Lincoln in the Bardo’s choral arrangement of spirited ghosts stuck in a cemetery entertained and moved me once I gave up trying to interpret and analyze what, exactly, every quote and fragment meant, where it was from, whether it was “real.” But Fever Dream grabbed me by the throat and never let go. It was a singular, propulsive, terrifying read unlike any other. Both of these books are powerful, each a dream, but Fever Dream is the one I’ll never forget.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
5 3

Meaghan O’Connell: Is it better to have written a book that is so ambitious that it becomes unwieldy and doesn’t quite work—but is full of joy and love, and of course it’s a pleasure to witness the reaching—or is better to have written a small, powerful, relentless book that succeeds on an artistic level so handily that it feels like witchcraft?

Only the writer in me would ever claim to prefer the former. And only in theory. In practice, I came to these books as a reader. And as a reader, I prefer Fever Dream.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
6 3

Lauren Cohen: I read Fever Dream last year, holding my breath all the while, the dread stifling. The feeling was of course duplicated upon re-read. Lincoln in the Bardo was one I never planned to read until the ToB; the subject nor the style appealed to me. Both books are seriously strange; I will never confuse them with another title. That said, neither book clicked with me. In the end, it is Saunders’s assembly of primary sources to create the chapters about the Lincoln family that won me over. This fiction-meets-nonfiction creativity was new to me, and I thought it worked brilliantly.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
6 4

Patrick Hoffman: From the beginning, Fever Dream lives up to its title. Who knew that the vision of a young boy burying ducks, for instance, could provoke terror. But that’s what it did. It is a truly frightening story, almost breathless in its intensity. I just finished it and I feel sick with fear. It is a ruthless and effective book.

For the first 185 pages of Lincoln in the Bardo I had almost the exact opposite feeling. The book felt precious, self-indulgent, overly clever. How did this thing get so hyped? How did it win the Booker Prize? But then something happened. The book suddenly clicked into focus for me. It felt like an optical illusion becoming visible. It started really working. This is a truly remarkable book. I must choose Lincoln in the Bardo.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
6 5

Shelly Oria: Oh my. Can we split the Rooster this year? Actually that sounds violent and kind of gross.

What I mean is that the task of choosing between these two brilliant books seems impossible. In fact, I’ve been dreading today for this reason. Both Fever Dream and Lincoln in the Bardo innovate—actually innovate, as in tell a story in a new way—and neither sacrifices emotional resonance on the altar of form. Both, strangely, punch you in the gut in similar ways: some of the most achingly beautiful moments in both have to do with parental love. But because I’m forced to choose, I asked myself the following dumb question: If I was headed to a bookless island where I was told I would spend the rest of my life and could only take one of these two books with me to read and reread till the end of time, which would it be? Fever Dream, once again, is my winner.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
7 5

Bryan Mealer: Don’t get me wrong: Lincoln in the Bardo is a masterwork. The ingenuity of form and dialogue and the ambitious premise make it one of the best works of fiction in a very long time. Saunders deserves every award he’s been given. But Fever Dream captured me in a way I never expected. It held me dangling in a haunted between-space where my feet never touched the ground. Even after putting it down, those ghosts seemed to follow me, whispering in my head. And to me, that’s the mark of exceptional fiction.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
8 5

Juliet Lapidos: Experimental fiction is alive and well, far more so than the characters in either Fever Dream or Lincoln in the Bardo. Weird, isn’t it, that both Tournament finalists take place in a sort of purgatory? And that both rely exclusively on direct discourse to advance the plot? (The former is a dialogue between a dying woman and an only-maybe-real young boy; the latter a chorus of ghosts). They’re both successful in their experimentation. But Lincoln in the Bardo has more to say—about grieving and self-awareness. It’s also more fun.

Plus one for George Saunders’s long-awaited first novel.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
8 6

Rumaan Alam: I make no claim to understand the purpose of a novel, let alone the novel. Judgment is subjective. The critic’s task is to feign authority.

I appreciate George Saunders. As a younger reader, I loved Pastoralia, but despite my fond memories of reading Saunders and my admiration for him as a person (is there any artist of his stature who is as nice?) I found Lincoln in the Bardo impossible to read.

Fever Dream is an extraordinary, confounding, astonishing book, animating the horror of parenthood (maybe love and life itself). I actually can’t believe how good it is.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
9 6

Ashley C. Ford: There is only so much heavy the heart can take. Lincoln in the Bardo asks the reader to sit with this heaviness, to sift through it slowly with all the quiet melancholy and restraint you can stand. Fever Dream, on the other hand, uses the heaviness to terrify you, to slowly crush your sense of space and reason. Both of these brilliant novels imagine access to worlds we humans have no (apparent) access to at this time. Lincoln in the Bardo felt like a weighted journey, but Fever Dream felt like a dark adventure. That’s why I choose the latter.

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
10 6

Merritt Tierce: I don’t feel certain about my championship judgment the way I did about my opening round judgment, in part because these brilliant books are variations on a theme, so reading them together becomes that much more of an exhilarating and haunting step into the veil. I’m struck by how there seems to be a supernatural agenda here, a cosmic joke, some weird ouija in the rematch. That these books—these particular books, both about the horror-ecstasy-materiality of our connections to one another and to the other side, both so precisely about the bardo, the passing on, that rope going slack—met in an opening round and find each other here again just tells me the zombies always win. So I’ll throw some salt over my left shoulder and say Saunders three times fast, even though my true verdict is that everyone absolutely needs to read both books. (But leave the lights on, and make sure you keep your kids within rescue distance.)

Fever Dream Lincoln in the Bardo
10 7

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: Holy cats. As is our custom, we reached out to Samanta Schweblin and offered her our congratulations and the award of a live rooster. She declined the fowl, saying:

Thank you for this incredible award, dear Jury. The news that multiple novelists, publishers, and journalists have chosen Fever Dream as the winner of this year’s Tournament, and that the prize is really a live rooster, is the most perfect prize I could have hoped for. My next book is Mouthful of Birds and perhaps I should change the title to Mouthful of Roosters. I’m very honored to have been considered in the company of these other books and great writers. I’m jumping for joy.

In a separate note, her American publicist at Riverhead Books said:

She really would have liked to take a rooster home but she fears it won’t make it all the way to Berlin. Will let you know if she ever decides to move to the US so that she can claim it retroactively, lol.

We’ll be happy to honor that pledge. In the meantime, the Tournament of Books will make a donation in Schweblin’s name to Heifer International.

Nozlee Samadzadeh: Incredibly, 17 of you correctly guessed the spread of today’s match. We had to turn to the technocratic soothsayers of random.org to pick our two winners, laureen and LadyCat. Winners, please email us with your handle, proper name, mailing address, and desired item from the TMN store so we can get your prizes in the mail.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $3 and Field Notes will match your $3 and donate $6 to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

As for the bracket contest over on Twitter and Facebook, it was a four-way tie! As with the spread predictions, we’ve randomly selected a winner, and congratulations, Sam McPhee, we’ll be in touch!

Kevin: And as for the match, this was one of those “didn’t see it coming/should have seen it coming” outcomes for me. What’s your reaction, John?

John Warner: Is this the biggest “upset” in the history of the Tournament?

Kevin: I suppose we have a few metrics to help determine this. Going into the ToB, Bardo was far and away the reader favorite, tallying almost 40 percent more Zombie votes than its nearest rival. Pre-tourney, Bardo had almost five times the support that Fever Dream had from ToB followers.

Fever Dream not only beat Bardo in the finals by a relatively comfortable margin, it beat George Saunders’s novel, the number-one overall Tournament seed, twice on its way to the Rooster. Pretty remarkable.

It’s worth noting, however, that if the opening-round matchup between these books had drawn any of today’s seven dissenting judges, Fever Dream would have been knocked out on Day One of the tourney, never to return. This is an impressive feat to be sure, but as always the path to the finals is paved with a bit of luck.

Fever Dream is a seductive novel. Its hypnotic powers don’t work on everyone, of course, but they did on me. I never would have predicted this a month ago (or, to be honest, even a day ago), but when I finished Fever Dream, I did feel like it had the potential to surprise in the tourney, the way it had surprised and won over me.

John: I read Fever Dream on the return leg of a recent trip to India in a darkened plane cabin between Delhi and Newark and it scared the shit out of me, even as I’m not sure I fully understand it. The effect was heightened by the atmosphere, hemmed in by economy-class seating that violates the Geneva Conventions, but even if I was in the most inviting sunlit space, I don’t think I could’ve escaped the gravitational pull of the story.

Earlier in the Tournament, Judge Saxena described Fever Dream as a “gut punch,” but it went beyond that, more of a gut-twister. I think this makes it well-suited to this kind of upset, as the visceral power of the book seems undeniable, even as I grapple with what it’s supposed to add up to. I didn’t enjoy it, really, but at the same time, I want others to share the experience because it was so powerful.

On scope and vision I think Lincoln in the Bardo has it beat, but in this case, I would’ve voted with the majority. Bardo is denied the Booker/Rooster double.

Kevin: All congratulations and admirations to Samanta Schweblin and Fever Dream. I can’t wait for Mouthful of Roosters to make its way to these shores.

We have a few more mouthfuls to say before we wrap up. Thank you once again to ToB’s sponsor Field Notes. Field Notes is not only an ultracool company staffed by wonderful people who make awesome things (and whose support helps to make the Tournament of Books possible), they also will be making a generous donation to 826 National’s literacy programs. Full disclosure: Field Notes published a book of mine (and in another incarnation was once my employer), but I am also a longtime paying subscriber and use their notebooks every single day. They are an indispensable part of my work and my life and Coastal, the latest quarterly edition, is absolutely stunning. I look forward to that Field Notes surprise in my mailbox with every change of season, and if you know someone who writes for work or pleasure, I promise you they will love a Field Notes subscription.

John: Even as one ToB ends, we’re already well into amassing contenders for next year’s Tournament. I’ve encountered some terrific reads already, including Laura Lippman’s throwback noir, Sunburn; Kate Greathead’s Laura & Emma (reminiscent of an all-time fave, Mrs. Bridge); The Comedown by Rebekah Frumkin (a one-time columnist for me at McSweeney’s), and Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin, a cross between Tom Drury and Kent Haruf that devastated me emotionally.

I’ve also got new books by Tom Rachman (The Italian Teacher), Jonathan Miles (Anatomy of a Miracle) and Kate Atkinson (Transcription) on my radar. A recent review by Viet Thanh Nguyen of Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels has pushed it toward the top of the TBR pile.

Kevin: Co-sign Sunburn. Laura Lippman has long been one of my favorite writers (and also one of my favorite people) in the suspense world and this book is terrific, dark, and fun. Urrea is a wonderful and important author and I can’t wait to get to Broken Angels, which just came out this month. I have Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon at the top of my stack right now. If you tell me there’s a new Kate Atkinson coming, I am making a table-clearing sweep of my formidable TBR surface to make room for a new Kate Atkinson.

It’s not fiction, but Alexander Chee, an alumnus here at The Morning News, has an essay collection coming out in just a couple weeks called How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I loved Queen of the Night, and I can’t wait for his first book of nonfiction.

John: I’m willing to bet our readers could fill in many more books for us to mull over as we begin the countdown to the next long list.

Nozlee: Yes, please comment with the books you’ve loved so far this year, and the ones you’re looking forward to! After all, the 2019 Tournament isn’t that far away, and the next Rooster Summer Reading Challenge is even closer.

Kevin: I think this year might have been the most impressive collection of judgments we’ve ever had in the ToB. If you were moved by a judge this year, I really encourage you to check out their bios and buy one of their books if possible. Upcoming books by this year’s judges include Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, Angela Chen’s ACE, Joseph Fink’s Alice Isn’t Dead, Juliet Lapidos’s Talent, and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready. All the judges do this for free and it takes a considerable amount of time and brain joules. If you like what they did here, supporting their work is a terrific way to say thank you.

Finally, I try not to do this often, but if I can dispense with all shame for a minute, I co-wrote an indie feature called Chasing the Blues (based on an old short story of mine) that is currently making a tour of film festivals across the country. It’s a dark comedy about a pair of rival vinyl collectors pursuing a mythically rare (and possibly cursed) blues record from the 1930s (It has some themes in common with Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, in fact). The cast is amazing, and I’m extremely pleased with the way it turned out. In the next few months it will be at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson, Miss.; the Sarasota Film Festival; the River Run Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC; and the Glass City Film Festival in Toledo. Here is the trailer as well as the end of my self-dealing. If you have a chance to see it, I hope you’ll give it a shot.

John: ToBers can catch me weekly as The Biblioracle at the Chicago Tribune. If you see me mention a book favorably there you can bet that I’ll be lobbying the ToB powers that be to consider it for the long list.

Rosecrans Baldwin: Before we go, one other fun thing for Rooster lovers. Because of the support we’ve received this year from our Sustaining Members—thank you all!—we’re hosting more Tournament events in 2018.

First, in May, we’re doing a one-month popup Tournament for nonfiction—think of it as an exhibition match. Five weeks, three recently published memoirs, and the one and only Sarah Hepola, author of the New York Times bestseller Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, hosting the discussion. It’s going to be grand. Thanks to everyone for their book recommendations, and based on your votes we’ll be reading Hunger by Roxane Gay, Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood, and Educated by Tara Westover. Then, come June, we’ll kick off the 2018 Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, with books and hosts to be announced soon.

Andrew Womack: One last thing. The future of the Tournament of Books really does depend on your support. Thanks to the generosity of our Sustaining Members, last year we introduced the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, and this summer we’re able to do it again. We have the nonfiction popup coming this May. And we have even more planned, but we need your support to do it. It came up in the commentariat earlier this year, and it’s true: We don’t have an office. We have day jobs. We want to build and grow The Tournament of Books, but we can’t do it alone. Please take a moment to find out more about why we need your support and consider becoming a Sustaining Member today. And thank you all for another wonderful year of the Rooster!

John: Kevin, you and I probably get more airtime than anyone in our annual exercise, but we do a mere fraction of the work. Before we sign off for another year, we should offer our eternal thanks to Nozlee, Andrew, and Rosecrans who quite literally make this happen.

Kevin: Yes! I guarantee that no reader of the ToB has any idea how much effort those three put into this event each year (and it’s only compounded by the fact they have to put up with the two of us). That they are planning even more spinoffs for this spring and summer is incredible to me, but I am ever grateful that they have made this wonderful thing real and continue to make it better every spring.

And speaking of how unnecessary you and I are, John, thanks also to this year’s guest commentators, and thanks especially to the readers of the ToB and the fantastic folk who make up the commentariat. Every match in the ToB is like a cup of fruit yogurt: The really delicious stuff is at the bottom. You guys are terrific. We love you and we’ll miss you, but we will see you next year!

2018 Tournament of Books Merch

New 2018 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we're asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.


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