George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year
By JOEL LOVELL
January 3, 2013
In a little sushi restaurant in Syracuse, George Saunders conceded that, sure, one reality was that he and I were a couple guys talking fiction and eating avocado salad and listening to Alanis Morissette coming from the speaker above our heads. Another was that we were walking corpses. We’d been on the subject of death for a while. A friend I loved very much died recently, and I was trying to describe the state I sometimes still found myself in — not quite of this world, but each day a little less removed — and how I knew it was a good thing, the re-entry, but I regretted it too, because it meant the dimming of a kind of awareness that doesn’t get lit up very much. I was having some trouble articulating it, but Saunders was right there, leaning in and encouraging. He has a bushy blond mustache and goatee going gray, and sometimes, when he’s listening intently, he can look a little stern, as if he just stepped out of a tent at Antietam. But then he starts talking and the eyebrows go up and it’s all Chicago vowels and twinkly Doug Henning eyes, and if you didn’t know that he was more or less universally regarded as a genius, you might peg him as the superfriendly host of a woodworking show on daytime public access.
“It would be so interesting if we could stay like that,” Saunders said, meaning: if we could conduct our lives with the kind of openness that sometimes comes with proximity to death. He described a flight from Chicago to Syracuse that he was on a little over 10 years ago. “We were flying along, and I’ve got a guilty pleasure — I’m reading Vanity Fair — and I’m on my way home. And suddenly there’s this crazy sound, like a minivan hit the side of the plane. And I thought, Uh, oh, I’m not even gonna look up. If I don’t look up from the magazine, it’s not happening. And then it happened again.”
Everyone starts screaming, the plane is making terrible metal-in-distress sounds. Black smoke — “black like in a Batman movie” — starts streaming out of the fresh-air nozzles overhead. They turn back toward O’Hare, “and there’s that grid of Chicago, and I’m seeing it coming up really fast.” The lights flicker, and the pilot comes on and tells everyone, with panic in his voice, to stay buckled. “And there’s this little 14-year-old boy next to me. He turns to me and says, ‘Sir, is this supposed to be happening?’
“And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that one syllable, over and over. And also thinking, You could actually piss yourself. And the strongest thing was the sense of that seat right there.” He pointed toward the imaginary seat back in front of him. “I thought, Oh, yeah, this body. I’ve had it all this time, and that’s what’s going to do it. That right there.” He had assumed that if he was ever faced with death, he would “handle it with aplomb,” he would be present in the moment, he would make peace in the time he had left. “But I couldn’t even remember my own name,” he said. “I was so completely not present. I was just the word no.”
Eventually he managed to turn to the kid next to him and say that it was going to be O.K., “though I didn’t think so. And there was a woman across the aisle. And finally — it was like coming out of a deep freeze — I could just reach over, and I took her hand.” That’s how they remained for the next several minutes, waiting to die.
In the end, they didn’t crash into the Chicago streets or plunge into the freezing lake but made it safely to the runway, where all the emergency-response equipment was in place but not needed. It turned out, in a detail that could have been lifted from a George Saunders story, they all nearly died because the plane had flown into a flock of geese.
“For three or four days after that,” he said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”
You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace — the George Saunders Experiment. It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.
This week, Saunders’s fourth book of stories, “Tenth of December,” will be published by Random House. He is 54 years old and published his first book, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” in 1996, when he was 37. Since then there have been two other collections, “Pastoralia” and “In Persuasion Nation”; a novella, “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”; a children’s book, “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip”; and a collection of reported nonfiction, essays and short humor pieces called “The Braindead Megaphone.”
When “CivilWarLand” first came out, there was a lot of talk about Saunders as a new, savage, satirical voice bursting onto the scene, though he’d been publishing the stories one at a time over eight years, writing them while making a living at a day job preparing technical reports for a company called the Radian Corporation, in Rochester. His stories are set in what might be described as a just slightly futuristic America or, maybe better, present-day America, where, because of the exigencies of capitalism, things have gotten a little weird. These initial stories often take place in theme parks gone to seed or soul-withering exurban office strips, but the stories themselves are overflowing with vitality; they are sometimes very dark but they are also very, very funny. The characters speak in a strange new language — a kind of heightened bureaucratese, or a passively received vernacular that is built around self-improvement clichés (“It made me livid and twice that night I had to step into a closet and perform my Hatred Abatement Breathing”) — and this lends them the feeling of allegory, though they are something else too, that’s harder to place. The book was published right around the same time as David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” and it felt back then as if those two writers (and a handful of others) were busy establishing the new terms for contemporary American fiction.
I remember Wallace coming into the offices of Harper’s Magazine, where I worked at the time, just before or after the book party for “Infinite Jest” (which has maybe gotten more attention than any book party in memory, with the descriptions of Wallace hiding in an upstairs room, away from the hundreds of people there to celebrate or be close to his genius). It’s hard to know now if Wallace actually looked spooked or if I’m projecting that look back onto him, but I do clearly recall him standing in the hall in his untied high-tops, saying that George Saunders was the most exciting writer in America.
That kind of thing has been said a lot about Saunders since then. For people who pay close attention to the state of American fiction, he has become a kind of superhero. His stories now appear regularly in The New Yorker, he has been anthologized all over the place, and he has won a bunch of awards, among them a “genius grant” in 2006 from the MacArthur Foundation, which described him as a “highly imaginative author [who] continues to influence a generation of young writers and brings to contemporary American fiction a sense of humor, pathos and literary style all his own.” As Joshua Ferris recently wrote in an introduction for the reissue last fall, in e-book form, of “CivilWarLand”: “Part of the reason it’s so hard to talk about him is the shared acknowledgment among writers that Saunders is somehow a little more than just a writer. . . . [He] writes like something of a saint. He seems in touch with some better being.”
It is true that if there exists a “writer’s writer,” Saunders is the guy. “There is really no one like him,” Lorrie Moore wrote. “He is an original — but everyone knows that.” Tobias Wolff, who taught Saunders when he was in the graduate writing program at Syracuse in the mid-’80s, said, “He’s been one of the luminous spots of our literature for the past 20 years,” and then added what may be the most elegant compliment I’ve ever heard paid to another person: “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” And Mary Karr, who has been a colleague of Saunders’s at Syracuse since he joined the faculty in the mid-’90s (and who also, incidentally, is a practicing Catholic with a wonderful singing voice and a spectacularly inventive foul mouth), told me, “I think he’s the best short-story writer in English alive.”
Aside from all the formal invention and satirical energy of Saunders’s fiction, the main thing about it, which tends not to get its due, is how much it makes you feel. I’ve loved Saunders’s work for years and spent a lot of hours with him over the past few months trying to understand how he’s able to do what he does, but it has been a real struggle to find an accurate way to express my emotional response to his stories. One thing is that you read them and you feel known, if that makes any sense. Or, possibly even woollier, you feel as if he understands humanity in a way that no one else quite does, and you’re comforted by it. Even if that comfort often comes in very strange packages, like say, a story in which a once-chaste aunt comes back from the dead to encourage her nephew, who works at a male-stripper restaurant (sort of like Hooters, except with guys, and sleazier), to start unzipping and showing his wares to the patrons, so he can make extra tips and help his family avert a tragic future that she has foretold.
Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”
And “Tenth of December” is more moving and emotionally accessible than anything that has come before. “I want to be more expansive,” Saunders said. “If there are 10 readers out there, let’s assume I’m never going to reach two of them. They’ll never be interested. And let’s say I’ve already got three of them, maybe four. If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”
There are stories in this new book that are recognizably Saundersian: one that’s largely told in fake chivalric speech, for example, and another, the most purely satirical in the book, in the form of a memorandum from “Todd Birnie, Divisional Director” RE: “March Performance Stats.” (What Todd is the divisional director of is never explicitly stated, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the euphemisms his memo is constructed of mask something horribly dark.) But several of the new stories stake out emotional territory Saunders has never quite ventured into before, at least not this deeply. The title story, for instance, is about the intersecting, on a winter day, of the lives of a boy whose physical description says everything about his social status — “a pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” — and a man dying of cancer, who has decided to kill himself by going to the park and taking off his clothes and freezing to death, thus sparing his family the suffering and raging and degradation that’s sure to come.
“If death is in the room, it’s pretty interesting,” Saunders said, meaning that any story circling around the idea of death is going to be charged. “But I would also say that I’m interested in getting myself to believe that it’s going to happen to me. I’m interested in it, because if you’re not, you’re nuts. It’s really de facto what we’re here to find out about. I hate the thought of messing around and then being like, ‘Oh, I’ve got pancreatic cancer.’ It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to even think of. But to me, it’s what you should be thinking about all the time. As a fiction writer, the trick is how to be thinking about it in a way that makes it substantial. You want it to matter when you do induce it.”
I asked him about the occasional dramatization in his stories of the moments after death, the way characters’ lives are sometimes suddenly reframed and redeemed. “In terms of dramatic structure, I don’t really buy the humanist verities anymore,” he said. “I mean, I buy them, they’re a subset of what’s true. But they’re not sufficient. They wouldn’t do much for me on my deathbed. Look at it another way. We’re here. We’re nice guys. We’re doing O.K. But we know that in X number of years, we won’t be here, and between now and then something unpleasant is gonna happen, or at least potentially unpleasant and scary. And when we turn to try and understand that, I don’t really think the humanist verities are quite enough. Because that would be crazy if they were. It would be so weird if we knew just as much as we needed to know to answer all the questions of the universe. Wouldn’t that be freaky? Whereas the probability is high that there is a vast reality that we have no way to perceive, that’s actually bearing down on us now and influencing everything. The idea of saying, ‘Well, we can’t see it, therefore we don’t need to see it,’ seems really weird to me.”
Saunders has taught in the graduate writing program at Syracuse for 16 years. I spent a couple of days sitting in on his classes, a small five-student workshop and a “forms” class, which on the day I was there was focused on the nature of revision; specifically, on a handful of Raymond Carver stories and the fraught relationship between Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. The students seemed really sharp, and Saunders is clearly committed to them. “With this caliber of student, you have to be really honest,” he told me. “It keeps you looking at your own process, so you don’t import any nonsense.” In an interview several years ago with Ben Marcus for The Believer, Saunders defended the time spent in an M.F.A. program by saying, “The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim.” But it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist. . . . Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”
After finishing up with his student conferences, Saunders gave me a quick literary tour of Syracuse — Toni Morrison’s old neighborhood; Tobias Wolff’s house (where Saunders and his wife, Paula, and their daughters lived after Wolff left Syracuse to teach at Stanford); the little place where a sober Raymond Carver made his life with the poet Tess Gallagher. We drove to the end of a block and Saunders pointed out a run-down house with a basement apartment that had a couple of small, dark windows and a broken concrete patio. It was a grim-looking spot. “That’s where Dave wrote ‘Infinite Jest,’ ” he said. “There should be a plaque there.”
He and Paula now live just outside of Oneonta, N.Y., two hours southeast of Syracuse. Their house sits on 15 acres, up a hill at the end of a rocky drive. It’s a beautiful place. There’s a koi pond and, because they devote a significant part of their lives to the practice of Nyingma Buddhism, there are statues of the Buddha here and there and colored prayer flags strung in the woods.
Saunders writes in a shed across the driveway from his house, where we sat for a couple hours one morning while his two yellow labs nosed around outside the door. There’s the desk and a sofa and a table stacked with books that he has been researching for his next project. On the shelves there are pictures of him and Paula and the girls and a great one from his jazz-fusion days of him playing a Fender Telecaster, with white-blond Johnny Winter hair to his shoulders. “In our lives, we’re many people,” he said as he lifted the photo off the shelf.
We talked for a while about his relationship to Wallace. For all the ways in which their fiction might seem to be working similar themes, they were, Saunders said, “like two teams of miners, digging at the same spot but from different directions.” He described making trips to New York in the early days and having “three or four really intense afternoons and evenings” with, on separate occasions, Wallace and Franzen and Ben Marcus, talking to each of them about what “the ultimate aspiration for fiction was.” Saunders added: “The thing on the table was emotional fiction. How do we make it? How do we get there? Is there something yet to be discovered? These were about the possibly contrasting desire to: (1) write stories that had some sort of moral heft and/or were not just technical exercises or cerebral games; while (2) not being cheesy or sentimental or reactionary.”
“Those guys came from a much better trained place,” he said. “They had a very strong and passionate involvement with postmodernism when it was still hot off the griddle.” Whereas, for him the question wasn’t how to move beyond the postmodern fathers who shaped current American literary sensibility; it was how “to mimic the emotional conditions of my actual working life” — how to, as he later put it, arrive at a voice that was informed by “the mild ass-kickings” he suffered or witnessed in his adult life “that had the effect of politicizing and tenderizing me.”
His dad owned a pizza restaurant in Amarillo, Tex., after having run a couple of places in Chicago called Chicken Unlimited. While Saunders was in college, studying geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, the restaurant burned down. Because of a quirk in the insurance coverage, his family lost the restaurant. Soon afterward the family moved from Amarillo to New Mexico, where his father set up a support facility engaged with CO2-recovery stations for oil rigs. “I remember it being 20 below outside, and the pipes in our mobile home froze,” Saunders said, “and my dad was out there in just a Windbreaker with a blow torch, trying to unfreeze them.”
After he graduated from the School of Mines, Saunders went to work for an oil-exploration company in the jungles of Sumatra. “I was trained in seismic prospecting,” he said. “We’d drill a deep hole and put dynamite in the bottom and blow it up remotely, which would give you a cross-sectional picture of the subsurface, which tells you where to drill.” They worked four weeks on and two weeks off and in the down time would be shuttled in helicopters to the nearest city, 40 minutes away, and then from there fly to Singapore.
“I’d been kind of an Ayn Rand guy before that,” he said. “And then you go to Asia and you see people who are genuinely poor and genuinely suffering and hadn’t gotten there by whining.” While on a break in Singapore, walking back to his hotel in the middle of the night, he stopped by an excavation site and “saw these shadows scuttling around in the hole. And then I realized the shadows were old women, working the night shift. Oh, I thought, Ayn Rand doesn’t quite account for this.”
Whenever he was on leave, he would stock up on weeks worth of books to read. “This was serious business,” he wrote in an essay called “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” which appears in “The Braindead Megaphone.” “If the books ran out before the four weeks did, I would be reduced to reading the same 1979 Playboy over and over, and/or watching hours of wayang theater on the bunkhouse television.”
On one of those trips, Saunders picked up “Slaughterhouse-Five,” though at that point in his life he had “read virtually nothing” and didn’t really know what to make of it, as it didn’t conform to his sense at the time that “great writing was hard reading.”
Eventually he got sick from swimming in a river infested with monkey feces and came home. He spent the next two years, as he put it, “trying to be ecstatic like Kerouac and ‘understand America.’ ” There was a woman in Chicago he had been crazy about but always felt was out of his reach, but now, having traveled in Asia and returned and being on the verge of living the life of the writer, “whatever my immature and arrogant idea of that was, I went to her and said, ‘Stick with me.’ ” They moved to L.A., “me and this girl I was supposed to be showing the world to, and I couldn’t find work,” Saunders said. “We were at the bottom.” So they fled Los Angeles and went back to Chicago, where Saunders lived in his aunt’s basement and got a job working as a roofer. He wrote a remarkable essay about that time and the end of that relationship, “Chicago Christmas, 1984,” years ago for The New Yorker. “Finally, in terms of money, I got it,” he wrote. “Money forestalled disgrace.”
In 1985, Saunders was accepted into the graduate writing program at Syracuse based on a story of his called “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room.” “It was wild, it was funny,” he said. “But I repented of it. It was modern, and I wanted to be in 1932. I wanted to be Hemingway.” In his author’s note for the reissue of “CivilWarLand,” he writes: “If I got tired of [Hemingway], I did a Carver imitation, then a Babel imitation. Sometimes I did Babel, if Babel lived in Texas. Sometimes I did Carver, if Carver had worked (as I had) in the oil fields of Sumatra. Sometimes I did Hemingway, if Hemingway had lived in Syracuse, which, to me, sounded like Carver.”
He met Paula, who was also in the writing program, shortly after he arrived in Syracuse. They were engaged after three weeks and Paula became pregnant seven months later, on their honeymoon. “We went from being young Carver-acolyte beatniks to Ozzie and Harriet in what felt like a week,” he said. “Well, Ozzie and Harriet if they were broke.” In 1989, when their daughter Caitlin was 1, they moved to Rochester so Saunders could work as a technical writer for the Radian Corporation. Their second daughter, Alena, was born a year later. With both daughters, Paula went into labor at five months and had to go on complete bed rest. At one point their car broke down, and Saunders biked back and forth to work along the Erie Canal in a cold-weather moon suit cobbled together from “a set of lab goggles, a rain poncho, some high rubber boots that I seem to remember had little spacemen on them.”
If it’s possible to locate the exact moment when George Saunders became George Saunders, it’s right around here. “I was so terrified by that L.A. experience,” he said, “I couldn’t imagine getting to that place with Paula and the girls. So I took the Radian job, and it was a very liberating thing. If I can provide for them, then in my writing time I can be as wild as I want. Having felt that abyss, I basically said, ‘O.K., capitalism, I have seen your gaping maw, and I want no trouble with you.’ ”
For the last couple of years he’d been working on what he described as a “disastrous novel” — “La Boda de Eduardo” — but he realized, with the force of epiphany, that the attempts to graft his life experience onto a Hemingway-Carver framework were foolish. There was an experience he was living that hadn’t adequately been represented in fiction yet. Not a Kafkaesque existential deadness, but something else, something that captured “not the endless cycle of meaningless activity but the endless cycle of meaningful activity.”
“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”
The lesson he learned was the thing he sensed all those years ago in Sumatra, reading but not fully grasping Vonnegut. “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”
There’s a story in the new book called “The Semplica Girl Diaries” that took him more than a dozen years to write. It’s narrated in a series of journal entries by a man who has just turned 40 and is struggling to erect what paltry defenses he can against the shame of not providing more for his family. (From one entry, which struck me, caught as I tend to be in a web of financial neuroses and class anxiety, as chest-achingly true: “Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad. . . . Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy stressed guy in bad car.”) The Semplica Girls of the title are women from various third-world countries (Moldova, Somalia, Laos, etc.) who have applied to come to America and get paid to decorate the lawns of the wealthy, by being strung aloft, in flowing white gowns, on a microline that runs through their brains. Through them — through the acquisition of them — the narrator hopes to elevate his family’s status and bring his kids joy.
It’s one of a handful of Saunders’s stories that originated in a dream. “I went to a window that didn’t exist in our house, and I looked into the yard, and I saw a row of what I understood in the dream logic to be third-world women who had a wire through their heads,” he said. “Instead of horror, my reaction was like, ‘Yeah, we did it.’ Just like if you’d gotten a new car or a kid into school or something, that feeling of, I’ve come such a long way, I’m able to give these things to my family. And there was a sense that there was an alleviated shame.”
“Semplica Girls” is a perfect illustration of the point where Saunders the technically experimental wizard and Saunders the guy whose heart exists outside of his body converge. It’s science fiction of the highest order. The unreality has been rendered on the page in completely convincing and compelling detail, but it’s also a story about domestic yearning, and a story about oppression and injustice and the complicated ripple effects of global capitalism. In an interview on The New Yorker’s Web site with Deborah Treisman, his editor there, Saunders explained the challenge of the story this way: “Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it — and so things have to be ramped up. . . . These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language. So, in this case, I just started out by trying to get the guy to that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling.”
In another story “Escape From Spiderhead,” the narrator is being held in a prison-research facility where he and the other inmates are being used as human guinea pigs to test the effects of new drugs. The pharmaceutical names are pure Saunders: Verbaluce, for eloquence of thought and speech; Vivistif, for what you would imagine; and Darkenfloxx. “Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times 10. That does not even come close to how bad you feel on Darkenfloxx.”
The story is concerned with the question of suicide and the struggle to get free of your own mind. I mentioned to Saunders that it reminded me of David Foster Wallace, and he said that he wasn’t consciously writing about Wallace, but he was thinking about him a lot during the writing of that story and others in the new book. “ ‘Tenth of December’ has the same overtones,” he said. “But if you notice it” — meaning, if you find yourself making a comment about suicide — “you run away from it and just focus on inhabiting the story and the character as intensely as you can.
“I admired him so much,” he said about Wallace. “His on-the-spot capabilities were just incredible. And I thought, Yeah, we’re a lot alike. We’re similar, nervous guys. And then when he died, I thought [of myself], Wait a minute, you’re not like that. You don’t have chronic, killing depression. I’m sad sometimes, but I’m not depressed. And I also have a mawkish, natural enthusiasm for things. I like being alive in a way that’s a little bit cheerleaderish, and I always felt that around Dave. When he died, I saw how unnegotiable it was, that kind of depression. And it led to my being a little more honest about one’s natural disposition. If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it” — which is, in part, what the process of writing allows — “then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”
The last time we met, Saunders waited in the cold with me until the bus for New York came along. We were talking about the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities. We said goodbye, and I got on the bus. It was dark now, and you couldn’t really see the other passengers. I had “The Braindead Megaphone” with me, and I turned on my little light and reread a story he did several years ago for GQ, about traveling to Dubai. “In all things,” he wrote, “we are the victims of The Misconception From Afar. . . . The universal human laws — need, love for the beloved, fear, hunger, periodic exaltation, the kindness that rises up naturally in the absence of fear/hunger/pain — are constant, predictable. . . . What a powerful thing to know: that one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers.”
At the risk of hyperbole at the end of a story that began in a state of fairly high exaltation, I would say that this is precisely the effect that Saunders’s fiction has on you. It “softens the borders,” as he put it in one of our conversations. “Between you and me, between me and me, between the reader and the writer.” It makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people. The guy talking on the bus about how his girlfriend doesn’t appreciate his music and why couldn’t she just cut him that much slack, seeing how he just did all that time? The couple in the basement of the Port Authority, the wife helping her husband get into his Grover costume before he stepped out onto 42nd Street. The woman, one recent morning, who screamed at panhandlers on the subway that it was the day after Christmas and why couldn’t they just give us all some peace? “Peace on Earth,” she hollered. “Is that so much to ask for? Get off the train.” She went on for a while, and some other passengers started to turn on her. “I’m right!” she yelled. “I’m right.” And then her face took on the saddest expression.
It’s hard to maintain, the softness. It’s an effort. That Dubai story ends with these lines, wisdom imparted from Saunders to himself: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”