Adam Begley enjoys strange satire in George Saunders's Pastoralia
188pp, Bloomsbury, £9.99
Adam BegleySaturday 5 August 2000 01.27 BST
Pastoralia: a good name for a theme park. It suggests rural simplicity tweaked, enhanced by modern technology and superior management skills. Though George Saunders uses it as the title of a story set in a theme park, it could also be his wry comment on the circumstances of the unnamed narrator, whose job is to impersonate a caveman. He lives in a cave and sleeps in a "separate area" equipped with a fax machine. On the cave walls are fake pictographs; outside, a herd of "robotic something-or- others" appears to be feeding.
Saunders's bitterly funny stories here and in his extraordinary debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), succeed in squeezing meaning and emotional resonance out of absurd, post-real predicaments. His satirical jabs are sharp and scary, but also sad and unexpectedly touching. In Pastoralia, the faux -caveman is urged to denounce a "subpar" colleague, but resists with a truth so primitive it shocks: "'She's a friend,' I say." Though he's meek and dim, beset by troubles and half-brainwashed by his inane job, he acquires with that single utterance a provisional heroism. In Saunders's world, that's the best you can hope for.
Saunders specialises in giving losers - the ugly, the weak, the self-absorbed - a flicker of appeal or delusional hope. We meet them in motivational seminars, drivers' education courses, walking home from dead-end jobs. We follow them to places like Sea Oak, with "no sea and no oak, just 100 subsidised apartments and a rear view of FedEx". Inside those apartments, the tenants are watching TV: "How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who's always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they've been sainted by pain."
Saunders's stories present an unsettling amalgam of degraded language and high art: slogans, jargon and the crippling incoherence of daily speech, arranged on the page with meticulous care. He cherishes the brutal solecisms of the American vernacular, working them for laughs and the odd shot of beauty, too. Who can resist a high school education "mini-session" called "Who You Do Is Up To You"?
Less shocking, less zany than CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in which the subnormal, paranormal and not yet normal all clamour for a hearing, Pastoralia sticks mostly to plausible absurdities. There's one ghost story, but the supernatural dimension is eclipsed by the ghost's all-too-human complaint: "Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?" The rest of the stories succeed on the strength of fine-tuning, not special effects.
A darling of American critics, Saunders was last year chosen by The New Yorker as one of the 20 best fiction writers under 40. Though his sensibility is easy to spot, it's nearly impossible to pick out his voice. He's a self-erasing author, happy to let other voices do the work. This absence could be ominous - a black hole that sucks in the contemporary scene and spits out satire - but it reads more like confidence, or serene faith, or philosophical calm. Or a good sense of humour.
Adam Begley is literary editor of The New York Observer.