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.