George Saunders's funny, sad stories from a divided nation
Thursday 13 October 2016 10.00 BST
With a surrealism that owes a lot to the real world of ordinary Americans, his stories offer sharp, moral parables of contemporary life in the US
Earlier this year, George Saunders wrote an article for the New Yorker about Donald Trump’s election campaign in which he described an America “intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse”, divided into “two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two sub-countries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems.”
This riven America has always been Saunders’s great subject: there is a reason why his first collection is called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, with its title story set in a war re-enactment theme park; and it is the same reason why, 20 years later, his forthcoming first novel focuses on Abraham Lincoln in the early 1860s. As symbols of American division go, none are greater or more terrible than the civil war.
Saunders’s America isn’t only divided into left and right, but also rich and poor, black and white, and, most notably, the individual and the corporation. Aside from being one of the funniest writers around, it is difficult to think of anyone better than he is at describing how commercial imperatives deform individual lives. The powerlessness of the individual haunts his stories, the sense of citizens being to multinationals as flies to wanton boys. “‘I pour my life’s blood into this place,’” the narrator’s father says in the early story Isabelle (1994), “‘and you offer me half what I paid?’ ‘Market forces at work’,” the estate agent replies, a line that is virtually impossible to argue with, both within the confines of the story and without. Variants of it occur again and again in his work, expressing the idea, as he put it in 2001, “that our public institutions – our companies and our government and our media – absolutely affect our ability to exist gracefully in the world”.
“Market forces at work.” The words could be a top-line summary of Saunders’s stories, whether their focus is demeaning wage slavery (stripping at a chain restaurant; inhabiting a lonely cave on the outskirts of a vast theme park), advertising (the nightmarish marketing research facility of Jon; the consumerist, Philip K Dickian society of My Flamboyant Grandson), the military (the angry, isolated veteran of Home), or drug testing (on chimps in the bleak lab report of 93990, and convicted felons in the more satirical Escape from Spiderhead).
These stories are rife with euphemism, those phrases Saunders identifies as ways of enabling the unsayable to be spoken, and the unthinkable to be broached. Employers talk of “staff remixing”, not layoffs, and urge their employees to “Tell the truth. Start generating frank and nonbiased assessments of [your] subpar colleague,” while researchers who kill their human test subjects exonerate themselves by announcing they are merely obeying “the mandates of science”.
Saunders is often called a surrealist, a fabulist or an allegorist, but his work contains a lot of recognisable reality, often in the form of people worrying about how to balance insufficient income and excessive expenditure. This, from The Semplica Girl Diaries (2012), captures the rising panic of a father working every angle to move his family another rung up the social ladder:
Visa full. Also AmEx full and Discover nearly full. Called Discover: $200 avail. If we transfer $200 from checking (once paycheck comes in), would then have $400 avail. on Discover, could get cheetah. Although timing problematic. Currently, checking at zero. Paycheck must come, must put paycheck in checking pronto, hope paycheck clears quickly. And then, when doing bills, pick bills totalling $200 to not pay. To defer paying.
The “SGs” themselves are economic migrants, who leave their families to decorate suburban American lawns (the girls are strung from their heads via a microline threaded though their brain that “does no damage, causes no pain”). They are a pungent symbol of the way the west exploits third-world poverty. For much of its length, the Semplica Girls inhabit its edges, just as for the narrator, whose diary we are reading, they are marginal presences crowded out by the status anxiety he feels for his children: “Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers. Help us not, that is, to fall further behind peers. For kids’ sake. Do not want them scarred by how far behind we are.”
This anxious father, barely tolerated by his children, is a stock character in Saunders’s fiction. “I’ve done my best” one screams in Bounty (1995). “Pitiful!” his wife screams back. Bounty is the longest story in his first collection, and combines several of Saunders’s key themes: not only the loser dad, but also a theme park patronised by the rich and staffed by the disenfranchised poor, and an apocalyptic US governed more by private companies than elected officials (“our corporations”, he writes in his Trump essay, “those new and powerful nation-states”). Like the country his contemporary and friend David Foster Wallace created in Infinite Jest, Bounty is a vision of where millennial America might end up after another 25 years of bad decisions:
I sit on the deck of the barge with a semiautomatic. The water’s brown. As prescribed by federal regs, all inflow pipes are clearly labelled. RAW SEWAGE, says one. VERY POSSIBLY THORIUM, says another.
Humour is intrinsic to Saunders’s project; it both sharpens and makes palatable his vision of humanity’s tendency towards predation. But as the extract above indicates, it was more antic and farcical in his earlier collections. The jokes in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) are very funny, but arrive with a relentlessness that can become mechanical, whereas the comedy in Tenth of December (2013) is richer, arising more from character than situation. In his essay on Donald Barthelme, a writer whose style of absurdist humour is deeply imprinted on CivilWarLand (Barry Hannah being another discernible presence), Saunders writes that “[s]ome part of art, certainly of Barthelme’s art, involves the simple pleasure of watching someone be audacious”, and there is a sense that this was enough for the younger Saunders, whose vision Joyce Carol Oates once described as “cruel”.
From today’s vantage, it is a strange word to read in relation to Saunders, someone who is often cited as continuing the project of working towards a moral fiction that David Foster Wallace once stated as his goal; a practising Buddhist who is cast as fighting the good fight against capitalism’s cruellest excesses; a sage who, like Wallace before him, has had a speech to students packaged up as an inspirational tract. But the early stories really do display cruelty, at least in part: much is made of disability, children are killed off at an alarming rate (this tendency, it so happens, has persisted: wherever you find yourself in Saunders’s fiction, you are never many pages from a dead child), and characters are forced out of difficult situations into impossible, agonising ones. This soliloquy, from The 400-Pound CEO (1993), captures the world in which much of the early fiction plays out:
I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.
But if Saunders was more callous towards his characters in the past, he has always positioned them within a moral landscape. The world he describes may seem to be beyond repair, and yet the urge to repair it persists. In his introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Saunders writes that Twain’s novel “locates itself squarely on our National Dilemma, which is: How can anyone be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours?” Saunders returns to the same moral conundrum again and again. “As soon as I start writing”, he told Ben Marcus in 2004, “things start to unfold around some central moral vector, and that’s that”. Inevitably, at some point in a Saunders story, an ethical decision has to be made. Like Flannery O’Connor, a writer who had a moral vision of forbidding harshness, Saunders enjoys stripping things down to the basics and setting two characters on a collision course. Think of Morse and Cummings in The Falls, or the drowning boy and the suicidal old man Eber in Tenth of December. Two people with opposing views set on an intersecting path: a fundamentally dramatic situation, and also, often, a moral one. In The Falls, the stressed dad Morse and the poet manqué Cummings walk alongside a river, each absorbed in their own frustrations. When they see, from their alternate vantage points, two girls in a canoe heading for the falls, a clear moral question is being posed. It is Morse who replies, throwing himself to almost certain death in order to try and save the girls, who, we are told, “were basically dead” already. The story’s final line – “he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water” – resonates with a sense of the heroism that resides in the everyday, and the belief that it is what we attempt to do that defines us, rather than what we succeed in doing.
Reading Saunders in quantity, you get the sense that if The Falls continued beyond its abrupt end, Morse might not be pointed to as a hero but derided as a fool. An aspect of morality that Saunders is particularly interested in is the pressure that one person doing the right thing exerts on the vast majority of regular people who prefer to bump along with the blinkers on, making immoral or at least amoral choices and not appreciating being made to think about it. Brad Carrigan, American, from Saunders’s most overtly political collection, In Persuasion Nation (2006), is an ingenious study of the way morality breeds resentment. The story is a fantasy in which the main characters appear to be living inside a surreal sitcom. They hear music announcing commercial breaks, or to signify that the contents of their suburban back garden have “morphed again”, and “the familiar Carrigan backyard is now a vast field of charred human remains”.
It so happens that these slaughtered tribespeople can still communicate (ghosts are another Saunders trope). Brad befriends them, and is saddened by the story they relate. He tries to help them, but only succeeds in alienating his wife and her lover, Chief Wayne. She tells him:
Oh, you break my heart. Why does everything have to be so sad to you? Why do you have so many negative opinions about things you don’t know about, like foreign countries and diseases and everything? Why can’t you be more like Chief Wayne? He has zero opinions. He’s just upbeat.
Unable to simultaneously maintain his ethical standpoint and function in his domestic environment, Brad is consigned to a grey space where misfits get “Written Out”. Fittingly for someone whose compassion has made his existence untenable, his final utterance as he dissipates into nothingness is the repeated phrase: “Poor things.” The story is a masterpiece of Saundersian juxtaposition: satirical and absurd but heartfelt, and bleak but intensely funny. What better form for a critique of a divided country to take than a radical split between registers?
To return to Twain (who also wrote about two Americas, and chose a fitting name to do it under), the things Saunders identifies most clearly in his predecessor’s writing are also true of his own. Twain “started his career being purely funny”, Saunders explains, and “did not establish an agenda and carry it through, but wrote as the spirit moved him, in as improvisatory manner as ever writer ever did”. Likewise, Saunders has often spoken of attending not to theme, or overall structure, but to the individual sentence: get that right, and the rest, he says, will fall into place. “Huck Finn”, he writes, “is a great book because it tells the truth about the human condition in a way that delights us”. Saunders’s most successful stories work in the same way, leading us along new and surprising pathways to arrive at fundamental truths.