If you are a new reader of George Saunders, the first thing you ought to know is that Saunders is the funniest writer in America, more likely to make you laugh in public, if that’s where you’re reading his books, than any writer since P.G. Wodehouse. The competition–David Sedaris, Tom Wolfe, Christopher Buckley–isn’t even close.
It is easy, therefore, to pigeonhole Saunders, to think of him largely as a wit and an absurdist extraordinaire. This would be to miss his point. Saunders’s laughs are a cover, a diversion, beneath which reside some profoundly serious intentions regarding the morality of how we live and the power of love and immanent death to transform us into vastly better creatures than we could otherwise hope to be. These are the biggest intentions an artist can have.
Among younger writers these days, Saunders has many imitators. He often writes with great wit and affection about working-class people and the situations of nonsensical hardship they face. With so few writers left in the United States qualified (and willing) to cover this terrain, Saunders ends up attracting some disciples simply along class lines. But class is not his main concern. His main concerns are much harder to pin down–unlike writers who often can be successfully imitated, say Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, Saunders does not work in the mainstream tradition of North American short fiction, nor does he have a simple style, though it may sometimes appear so. His sensibility, always a close relative of style, is exclusively his own, sophisticated, daring and politically unusual, to the degree that one can’t really imitate him unless one believes what he believes–everything he does is in service of an immovably unique worldview. In this as in several other ways, Saunders reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, which is to say he is a radical, and only a small number of people who really understand the convictions behind his work–the caustic humor that, pulled back, reveals a scouring contempt for consumer society and modern life, as well as a deep and specifically religious eagerness for transcendent meaning–would choose to embrace them.
Saunders’s previous works include the short novel The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil and the story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. In Persuasion Nation, his new book of stories, is no mere compilation of pieces. Nor is the book a grouping of “related” stories. It’s more like a stack of armaments. He has divided the collection into four parts, each section numbered and headed by a long fictional “excerpt” from a text of Saunders’s invention called Taskbook for the New Nation, by one Bernard “Ed” Alton (the quoted “Ed” is a typical Saunders gesture, a couple of ink strokes revealing what is often ridiculous in our cultural habits and chosen identities). It’s a brilliant piece of faux right-wing philosophy, full of blowsy declarations about our imagined “enemies” and how to combat them, which entails, in the fictional pundit’s view, complete moral flexibility, bending our principles to whatever form may be necessary for our continued prosperity and strength; indeed, the whole book is a symphony on the destruction of individuality and honor that follows our tendency to do just as old “Ed” recommends. The strongest stories in the book start in Saunders’s realm of surreal comedy but end in nuanced revelations of the terror and longing that lie beneath the surface of contemporary American life, a terror and longing that Saunders strongly associates with the consumer mega-culture that has become our only national milieu.
Fortunately, Saunders need not make this point didactically: His extraordinary imagination finds stability and credibility in his talents as a mimic of all the tonalities of contemporary American public language. He does working-class sad-sack narrators and stories in the form of documents (such as “93990,” which takes the form of a lab report on the effects of toxins used on monkeys for the benefit of science)–and by the end of the book one has the sense that there is no dialect that Saunders can’t reproduce on the page. In “Jon” he displays a perfect mastery of an idiom you might call talk-radio-white–grammatically confused and fueled entirely by received phrase-packages and muddy ideas:
Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coordinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of It’s Yours to Do With What You Like! in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame!
In Persuasion Nation moves steadily forward with a growing sense of authorial anger and oddly tenacious religiosity, in a series of morally outraged fables gorgeously clothed in idiom and humor. “Brad Carrigan, American,” like the title piece, first ran in Harper’s, rather than The New Yorker, which usually publishes Saunders–one senses that Saunders has ventured into territory The New Yorker is not quite ready to handle. Both stories address an extraordinary fictional terrain: characters alive and struggling not in what would qualify as even the most fantastically imagined earthly locale, past or future, but within television programming. Not actors in a television show or commercial, mind you, but actual characters who live inside the realm of the super-reality we watch on TV.
“In Persuasion Nation” depicts a series of characters in television commercials, most memorably a polar bear who must, over and over, as often as an ad commonly runs on television, enact a scene in which he attempts to steal some Cheetos from an igloo, and an Eskimo (who like the polar bear is a reluctant actor, trapped in this repetitive narrative) catches him and axes him in the head. In the other story, Brad Carrigan is a confused husband to Doris in some kind of sitcom replete with a wacky neighbor and various family relations. Plot changes and transformations of the physical landscape keep occurring, we gather, as the network determines new ways to keep the show popular. At one inspired moment, the backyard becomes a mass of writhing, talking corpses from some Central Asian ethnic slaughter. Brad worries about the corpses, trying to calm his increasingly troubled conscience, but everyone else just wants to get along in the dumb-happy realm they’ve been given: There is no grief in a laugh-tracked world.
And they’re not only on TV; they watch TV, too: At one point the extended family dines and takes in a report on babies in Africa born with AIDS. Needless to say, they quickly change the channel, settling instead on a channel advertising a new program called Kill the Ho. Each section of the story ends with a “We see” narrative device that introduces a commercial break–for example, “We see from the concerned look on Brad’s face, and the way he throws back his chair, and the concerned look Doris shoots him for throwing back his chair in the middle of dinner, that it’s time for a commercial”–which is Saunders’s way of reminding us that, fictionally speaking, we’re watching a television program while at the same time we’re inside the consciousness of a fictional character who happens to be a character in that program.
One feels strongly that Saunders is doing something entirely new here. With these two stories and a band of others in this book, he has achieved a kind of twenty-first-century American magical realism. And magical realism, as Joan Didion once observed, and Gabriel García Márquez confirmed in his Nobel lecture, had a realistic purpose, reality itself in Latin America in those years having become “magical” all on its own. Any serious depiction of actual life essentially required this treatment. So it has become for us, and Saunders is the only prominent writer who has fully recognized the fact. Many of his stories reveal a truth that we prefer to spend most of our time hiding from: that in the United States today, for a person with an active conscience, full participation in daily economic and social life has become increasingly a schizophrenic and impossible act.
Saunders’s way out of this dilemma, and the counterpoint to his ingenious comedy, resides in a growing spiritual dimension in his work, a spirituality that reaches its peak in the collection’s final piece, “CommComm.” CommComm, an office on an Air Force base, stands for “community communications.” The narrator’s specialty is PIDS, an acronym for a public information instrument, something like a press release but involving more media–PowerPoint, themed coloring books, etc. The pace of misdeeds at the base, however, soon makes such PR Band-Aid work pointless. Meanwhile, on the personal front, the narrator has other problems, largely embodied in the ghosts of his mother and father, who inhabit his house and spend their nights in extreme agitation, flitting from the couch to the top of the stairs, spinning around the floor lamp and bouncing around the kitchen in a state of increasing distress. It turns out they were brutally murdered by two otherwise unexplained Latvians who showed up in this Air Force base town somewhere in Middle America. Mom and Dad don’t know they are dead and are trapped in harrowing nights of reliving their violent demise. During the day they hide in the decorative turret at the top of their small-town home. The narrator tells us:
I climbed up once, then never again: jaws hanging open, blank stares, the two of them sitting against the wall, insulation in their hair, holding hands.
”Have a good one,” I shout at the turret as I leave for work.
Which I know is dumb, but still.
Of all the remarkable moments in this book, none quite matches the end of this story, in which the narrator is murdered along with Giff, another Air Force base employee (they’re killed by a colleague trying to keep his job). They too become ghosts, and in some complicated mathematics of Saunders’s ghostdom, Giff manages to “free” the narrator’s parents and the narrator himself, so that they can stop haunting the world and go where they belong. Saunders depicts them making their passages to the realm of the dead:
We go. Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below, and we hear their prayers, grievances, their million signals of loss. Secret doubts shoot up like tracers, we sample them as we fly through: a woman with a too-big nose, a man who hasn’t closed a sale in months, a kid who’s worn the same stained shirt three days straight, two sisters worried about a third who keeps saying she wants to die. All this time we grow in size, in love, the distinction between Giff and me diminishing, and my last thought before we join something I can only describe as Nothing-Is-Excluded is, Giff, Giff, please explain, what made you come back for me?
Again, one thinks of Flannery O’Connor, of her uncompromising sense of comedy and the hard tragedy and undying hope she always revealed beneath it. One of her greatest stories, “Revelation,” features a vision reminiscent of Saunders’s: a prissy and preposterous farm wife suddenly shown, as she hoses down her concrete pig pen, a stream of bodies rising toward heaven. Nowadays, in a time of the most limited sense of possibility and ambition in American literature, where even the discussion of the requirements of art, as opposed to success, feels obsolete and embarrassing, I can’t think of another writer who would try to do what Saunders is doing, or anything close to it. This is an important book.