The Strange Arcane: On George Saunders
The financial collapse of 2008 was terrible for many people, but it was a terrific boon to George Saunders, or at least to his fiction, which has always found a rich vein of material for satire in the income gap between America’s rich and poor. His newest collection, Tenth of December, is remarkably faithful to the spirit of his earlier work, but his stories only become sharper and more relevant as the income gap widens and our America comes more and more to resemble the land of his own cartoonish, not entirely dark imagination.
Like his previous collections, especially CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000), Tenth of December is full of bizarre disasters and wild monologues, but also like his previous collections, the impression of chaos belies a careful design. Saunders’s stories take place in a test tube; the conditions are scrupulously controlled. From story to story and collection to collection, the setting hardly varies: this is the world of the 1950s sitcom—all white, approximately suburban, entirely enclosed, a Cold War American Dream. But it’s also a satirical version of that world. There is no middle class in Saunders; the middle class is merely a fiction in which the downwardly mobile characters attempt to find some consolation. Economic polarization is the rule here as well as the joke. Everyone in these stories is rich, magically and safely rich, or else they’re going down with the ship.
In “Puppy,” wealthy Marie walks into working-class Callie’s house and is appalled by “the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume…the spare tire on the dining-room table…some kind of crankshaft on a cookie sheet…a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint.” Marie is deciding whether or not to buy a dog, which Callie hopes to sell in order to release her husband from the duty of shooting it. That is what one does with “extra” animals, he maintains, and his feeling is, “when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs.” Marie tries to stay positive, as characters in Saunders always do, but she flees in her Lexus when she sees Callie’s son, Bo, chained to a tree in the yard. Marie doesn’t know that Callie has been driven to such an extremity by Bo’s own recklessness. “When Bo got older,” Callie thinks, “it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed.”
The situation in “Puppy” is typical. One woman has money, the other does not, and the distinction, which is so arbitrary that it can only be a joke, degrades the one and forces the other into hypocrisy. The same formula recurs again and again. These are the initial conditions of the experiment, so to speak.
But the variable is the human voice, and voice is what makes these stories memorable and unique. “Exhortation” is all voice: a low-level manager at a company of some kind—big companies in Saunders never make or do anything in particular, but simply provide small paychecks and a desk at which to be unhappy—attempts to rouse his disaffected employees with a surprising analogy. “So say you are charged with, you and some of your colleagues, lifting a heavy dead whale carcass onto a flatbed. Now we all know that is hard. And what would be harder is: doing that with a negative attitude.” He explains that he and his sons have had to do this on their vacation. “What we found—Timmy and Vance and I—is that even with only a neutral attitude, you are talking a very hard task.”
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It’s easy to say that this speech is funny—the word “task” in this context, or the need to specify that the “carcass” is also “dead,” or the strange particularity of that colon before “doing that with a negative attitude”—and yet it’s impossible to explain why. One of the curious features of these voices, and maybe of unusual voices in general, is that their effect depends on garbled locutions and syntactical idiosyncrasy of the sort that is difficult to characterize and almost impossible to remember afterward. And yet these voices are what distinguish Saunders’s writing from more overtly politicized writing on the same theme. They are what make his writing good fiction rather than bad allegory. His stories are about people in desperate circumstances, but they are always about the people and their stories, and never about the circumstances.
In the title story, an imaginative kid named Robin wanders through the woods fantasizing about rescuing the new girl in his class from some kind of forest sprite. Saunders’s diction tells us everything we need to know about him: he “was not the fastest wicket in the stick. He had a certain girth. Which Dad prognosticated would soon triumphantly congeal into a linebackerish solidity. He hoped so. For now he just had the slight man boobs.” There are too many modifiers, an overreaching vocabulary, the slang stirred in for good measure: this is a kid in distress, bullied and alone.
And then there’s the writer of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” whose elliptical style reflects not only his frantic anxiety to improve his economic circumstances but also the habits of mind that may have prevented him from doing so. After taking his daughter to a birthday party at her friend’s house, he relates a conversation he’s had with Emmett Torrini, the girl’s father: “Asked about my work, I told. He said well, huh, amazing the strange arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things, things that offer no tangible benefit to anyone, how do they expect people to continue to even hold their heads up?” The diarist is too muddled to grasp Emmett’s condescension, nor does he bother to specify, for the reader’s benefit, what it is he does for a living. He absorbs these sentiments without comment and continues pathetically, “Could not think of response. Note to self: Think up response, send on card, thus striking up friendship with Emmett?”