The Strange Arcane: On George Saunders
Like most of the other characters in Tenth of December, the diarist can do nothing to improve his prospects. He lives in a world upon which he will have no meaningful impact. But like the other characters, he continues to articulate an inane American optimism, the optimism of SUV commercials. He asks himself, “When will I have sufficient leisure/wealth to sit on haybale watching moon rise, while in luxurious mansion family sleeps?” The very thought is enough to get the gears of fantasy turning. “At that time, will have chance to reflect deeply on meaning of life, etc., etc. Have a feeling and have always had a feeling that this and other good things will happen for us!”
His hopefulness is not altogether ludicrous. Right up until the action of the story, wealth and happiness seem to have been there for the taking—he has only just missed out on a wild prosperity that everyone he knows has been wallowing in. And this is the pattern throughout the collection. Things are suddenly different, suddenly less good, than they were the day before. At some conjectural moment before the action of “Puppy,” for instance, Marie has been poor. She is poor no longer, which is why she wants to tell Bo, “Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.”
But it can’t, not any longer. No one in these stories ever makes a positive change. The narrator of “Escape From Spiderhead” finds relief in suicide. The narrator of “My Chivalric Fiasco” is promoted only because his boss wants to purchase his silence after being caught in an adulterous embrace, though it doesn’t matter: by the end of the story, the narrator is jobless. The “Semplica Girl” diarist wins $10,000 from a scratch-off ticket, but his big win only highlights the fact that all he can hope for is a wild glitch in the machinery of fate—and even then, he squanders the money immediately and goes deeper into debt. Even the writer of the hilarious “Exhortation,” a manager of some kind, refers obliquely to the penalties that will be visited on him if his employees fail to improve their performance. The Horatio Alger ethos that so many of these characters profess is a relic of older days. These people have inherited a hopefulness, an idea of themselves and their country and their shinier futures, that is no longer applicable.
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And yet these stories are not despairing or unbearably grim; they’re brisk and entertaining. The reason is that Saunders remains credibly compassionate even while taking such a wicked delight in the misfortunes of his characters. Moments of comic degradation are almost always followed by moments of real pathos. After the birthday party in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” there is a heartbreaking scene: the diarist’s daughter, forgetting that her own birthday will be nothing like her friend’s, says, “I can’t wait till my party. My party is two weeks, right?” But when she remembers her family’s financial insecurity, she tries to pretend she doesn’t want a celebration at all.
When he seems to be having fun at their expense, Saunders still knows what’s at stake for these people. Their troubles matter to him, and somehow, even though his satirical design means that he must function as the architect of their misfortunes, it always appears like he’s rooting for them. “Puppy” ends with Callie reflecting that no one in the world loves Bo more than she does. In “Sticks,” the narrator’s father dresses a wooden pole up according to the spirit of the season (“Dad’s one concession to glee”); the rest of the time, he rations the children’s ketchup and shrieks at them for wasting apple slices. But later, after the narrator and his siblings have “left home, married, had children of [their] own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within” them, their father provides little stick offspring for the wooden holiday pole and tapes up “letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding.” He paints “a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole.”
These people are cartoons, but they’re real people too. They clamor to be heard even when they don’t make sense; they are full of hope and want and need; and they are what matter. These stories are not, in the end, about poverty or wealth or degradation, but about people baffled by the predicament of human life and hoping against hope that something will improve. It doesn’t get any better than the little loner kid in “Tenth of December,” who imagines the girl in his class telling him, “We…have a pool. You should come over this summer. It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on.”
Vince Passaro, in the June 8, 2006, issue of The Nation, reviewed In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders's then-latest collection of short stories.