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?”
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.