Early on in “Sea Oak,” a short story from Pastoralia, the second of five collections by George Saunders, the characters watch a TV show called How My Child Died Violently. The show is hosted by “a six-foot-five blond,” Saunders writes, “who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain.” The episode they’re watching features a 10-year-old who killed a 5-year-old for refusing to join his gang.
Later in the story, the narrator’s Aunt Bernie dies of fright, then comes back undead—judgy, pushy, visibly rotting, incensed at what she suffered in her lifetime.
Saunders does not explicitly connect the dots between these two deaths, but the story does ask its readers to consider the meaning of Aunt Bernie’s suffering. Are people sainted by their pain? It would seem to be a throwaway line delivered by a TV presenter on a ghoulish reality show, but it’s also the central question not only in “Sea Oak” but in nearly all of Saunders’s writing.
In the past, Saunders has investigated this question through stories and novels about dystopian theme parks and foul-mouthed ghosts. Collections like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000) conjure worlds where cheery, corporatized language conceals outrageous cruelty. In Persuasion Nation (2006) and Tenth of December (2013) have similar preoccupations. Saunders designs plots that force his characters to choose between their own well-being, dignity, and autonomy and those of another person. He sets these constructions in the grim present or the grim near future, when resources are scarce and prospects nil and this choice is inescapable.
His readers are likewise caught between sympathy for his characters and frustration with them. The puzzles that Saunders puts before us are double binds; there are, after all, no clean ways out. One doesn’t want to choose between covering up a murder or losing one’s job. But for Saunders, that’s a standard predicament. Like Jigsaw, the villain of the Saw horror movie franchise, he creates traps for his victims that force them to cut off limbs, or otherwise maim themselves, in order to escape. It would be sadism if not for the humanity at the core of every story, and especially the humor.
Liberation Day, Saunders’s latest collection, features several of these traps. In the first and title story, the narrator, Jeremy, has had his memories removed. He has no idea who he is, except that for four years he has been the property of a rich man named Mr. U. Mr. U “pinions” Jeremy to a wall, plugs him into special technology, and makes him monologue for audiences of his friends.
To create such a harrowing and yet darkly funny premise requires more than imagination. It requires new language—the invented jargon that readers gradually come to understand. We learn that Jeremy is a “Speaker”; the “Speaking Wall” is where he and two others like him are pinned; a “Fahey Cup” is what his head is plugged into; and a “Pulse” is what he feels when the technology compels him to speak. If he speaks without permission, he receives a penalty in a shed. He is sometimes fed off a “Proffering Plate” at the end of a “Reaching Rod.”
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At night, Mr. U’s wife comes in and, using the technology, has Jeremy talk to her. His talk is both dirty and romantic (“her hips, her breasts, the way her hair falls across her shoulders in the early morning light”) and, over time, becomes heartfelt. Eventually Jeremy gets the opportunity to free himself and the two other Speakers. But doing so will ensure that he never sees the woman he loves again. He has to choose, knowing that his choice will guarantee misery. It’s just a question of whose.
Another story, “Ghoul,” is set in a theme park with rigid rules. In it, the narrator, Brian, works at an exhibit called “Maws of Hell.” Like all of Saunders’s worlds, the setting is sketched with a light touch. You learn only what you need, but each detail delights. The exhibit features a plastiform “Remorseful Demons” and characters like the “Screaming Doomed Cleric.” If a “Ghoul” wants to perform well, he can let out one of six “Optional Dread Whoops.” The name “Maws of Hell” becomes more literal as the story progresses—it is subterranean, the utilities are on the fritz, no visitors ever arrive, and if you mention these things you’ll be kicked to death. Also, there is no exit.
Brian’s girlfriend, having discovered the latter, writes to him in a suicide note: “Sweetie, no one is coming. To see how good we have done/are doing. It is just us. Forever. Until a flood gets us or the air or food stops coming. What a joke, the way we live.” Armed with this knowledge, Brian must decide whether to spread the truth about their situation and risk getting kicked to death, or keep it to himself and stay alive.
The settings for these traps are not always fantastical. “A Thing at Work” takes place in an ordinary office. Two women are stealing, one by taking paper towels and coffee pods from the kitchen, the other by billing clients for the hours she spends in a hotel having lunchtime sex with “Ed Maxx from Kodak.” When the women rat each other out, their manager has to decide which one to fire: the annoying but pitiable typist whose crime is far less serious, or the attractive executive whose termination will create a bigger hassle for him personally.
What end do Saunders’s inventions serve? They are tests of empathy, trolley problems of a sort: whom to save and how many. The correct way out of a Saunders trap is to choose the other person; only then does a character glimpse transcendence. But despite these stories’ generosity, humor, ingenuity, and sharp social satire, the constant focus on empathy begins to feel coercive—imposed on readers as well as the protagonists. Is empathy really the be-all and end-all? Is this a project ambitious enough for a writer of Saunders’s talents? Are there no heights to scale beyond it?
Saunders’s body of short fiction, taken together, is monumental. While he is also the author of a novel, the Booker Prize–winning Lincoln in the Bardo, the short story is his primary form. His stories are hilarious, imaginative, thrilling on the language level, moving and absurd. To read them is to feel awed by the author’s dual capacity for silliness and darkness. It’s hard to be funny in fiction—it requires precision but also looseness, a perfect calibration of control—and Saunders is very funny. Many of his premises elude easy summary, because they are so out there. In his stories, you’ll find theme parks gone to seed; a scrap of candy bar wrapper that becomes a god; crooked purveyors of raccoon disposal; women swinging from microline in front yards; workplace strife between a cave man and a cave woman; a picaresque about a boy with clawed feet; and innumerable losers, suckers, middle managers, and hopeless cases.
For this reason, it is perhaps unfair to assess Liberation Day in the context of its exemplary predecessors. It may not be Saunders’s best collection, but that is in part because the field is so crowded. His debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, bursts with sadness, strangeness, and brutality. The title story contains a classic Saunders trap: CivilWarLand is a down-at-the-heels theme park on the precipice of ruin. Gangs of teens vandalize the park regularly. “Last month they wounded three Visitors and killed a dray horse,” Saunders’s narrator tells us. “Several of them encircled and made fun of Mrs. Dugan in her settler outfit as she was taking her fresh-baked bread over to the simulated Towne Meeting.”
The narrator, a factotum and cringing subordinate to the theme park’s owner, Mr. A, is tasked with beefing up security. He first attempts to arm a reenactor and finally consents to bring in Samuel, who got “kicked out of Vietnam for participating in a bloodbath.” Samuel has no compunction about using violence, and soon the narrator finds himself burying the hand of a high schooler who has been killed for stealing candy. The narrator is cornered: He needs the job to take care of his family, but it is not right, we can all agree, to help conceal the murder of a child.
It is only after the narrator himself is murdered that he achieves total empathy, forgiving his murderer as his soul leaves his body. “Possessing perfect knowledge I hover above him as he hacks me to bits. I see his rough childhood. I see his mother doing something horrid to him with a broom handle. I see the hate in his heart, and the people he has yet to kill before pneumonia gets him at eighty-three…. I see the man I could have been, and the man I was, and then everything is bright and new and keen with love.” Is this sainthood? It seems like it. In any case, it’s pretty generous for a guy who’s just been hacked to bits.
There are many more Saunders stories that similarly reward their characters after a gruesome act of self-sacrifice. In “CommComm,” from In Persuasion Nation, two ghosts soar over the town after being murdered by a coworker. But post-death, they each perform a small act of kindness for the other. As snow and birds stream through them, one reflects, “That is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.”
The best example might be “Escape From Spiderhead,” a story from Tenth of December. A character named Jeff, in prison for murder, is made to participate in an experiment that includes the use of Darkenfloxx™, a drug that induces severe depression. (“Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times ten. That does not even come close to how bad you feel on Darkenfloxx™.”) Jeff knows from prior experience that Darkenfloxx™ makes people kill themselves. In a pivotal scene, he has the opportunity to use the drug on himself, knowing it will make him die by suicide, rather than see it used on another person. He does so and becomes another of Saunders’s ghosts—flying over town, perching on a gargoyle, and having a revelation: “From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”
There’s a religiosity in Saunders’s insistence that empathy can deliver a person to a higher plane. But presented over and over, even in stories that impress with their invention, entertainment value, and critique of consumerist culture, this insistence starts to feel precious and a little stale. It seems more like a case of special pleading than a foundational truth—a day-old pastry force-fed via the Reaching Rod.
Not every story in Liberation Day follows this formula: Sometimes love takes the place of empathy. “Mother’s Day” alternates between the perspectives of two women, lifelong enemies, who shared a lover; “Sparrow” is an understated story about two ordinary store employees who fall in love. However, the collection’s final story, “My House,” explores something else: not just love or its absence but the formation of hate. It is short and stripped-down. A man wants to buy another man’s house, a beautiful old place that is falling apart. The buyer has the money to maintain it; the seller does not. They like and understand each other instantly, but when they’re about to close the deal, the seller asks if he will be welcome to visit sometimes and spend the night. The first man hesitates before answering yes. After this, the deal falls apart. The would-be buyer writes letter after letter, but the seller won’t budge. The house sinks into the earth; its handsome columns bow and crack; the front yard becomes overrun with wild turkeys, “big and ugly, strutting around like dinosaurs.” The buyer grows increasingly desperate and angry, but his letters receive no replies. Plagued by resentment, he grows ill. The story diverges from the usual model: Empathy does not prevail.
Saunders admires Russian literature—he recently published a book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, that analyzes stories by the classic Russian authors—and this story feels akin to Chekhov; it is quietly great. Here is a topic that’s new to Saunders and worthy of his prodigious imagination: the subtle winds that shift the psyche, the mysteries of human interaction. The characters of this story are fragile and complex. They are fickle and burning up with bitterness. There are no saints here.