January 16, 2013

George Saunders: A Critical Overview

Tenth of December, by George Saunders

I had the pleasure of getting to talk with legendary author George Saunders for CCLaP's podcast last week, a rare treat given how in demand he is on this latest tour even among the major media; but that meant I had to do some serious cramming in the few weeks leading up to our talk, in that (I guiltily confess) I only became aware of his existence a month ago, because of a passionate recommendation from my friend and Chicago science-fiction author Mark R. Brand, with Saunders' new book, tour, and interview opportunity being merely a fortuitous coincidence. And that's because the vast majority of Saunders' output has been short stories, while regulars know that my own reading habits veer almost 100 percent to full novels, which means he's simply and unfortunately been off my radar this whole time; but of course I'm happy to make room in my life for exquisite short-fiction writers once I learn about them (see for example my revelation after reading John Cheever for the first time a few years ago), which means that I tore through all seven books now of his career in just a few weeks recently, so I thought I'd get one large essay posted here about all of them at once, instead of doing a separate small review for each book.

And indeed, as I mentioned during the podcast as well, like Cheever I think Saunders' work is going to be at its most powerful once his career is over, and all the stories collected into one giant volume that a person reads all at once, instead of debating the merits of one individual collection over another. And in fact this is something else I said in the podcast, that I find it fun to think of Saunders' stories as essentially interchangeable tales in one big comic-book-style shared universe, albeit the most f-cked-up shared universe you'll ever spend time in: a possibly post-apocalyptic America, although whether through slow erosion or one big doomsday event is hard to determine, where the only businesses that still thrive are outlandish theme parks designed for the amusement of the now "natural betters" of our new Mad Max society, and staffed by the permanent class of have-nots which now includes a large population of genetically modified freaks, a place where ghosts are real and magic exists and the new normal is extreme cruelty at all times for all other humans left in the wreckage of a crumbled United States. And so if you look at the four story collections that Saunders has now put out -- 1996's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, 2000's Pastoralia, 2006's In Persuasion Nation and this year's Tenth of December -- you'll see that the vast majority of all these pieces fit at least somewhat into the general paradigm just described, although with others that are much more realistic in tone but still with the same unbelievable cruelty and darkness, many of them set among racially tense situations in eroding post-industrial cities.

Yeah, sounds like a big barrel of laughs, right? And in fact this was the biggest surprise for me as well when first reading them, that Saunders is not just on the stranger side of the bizarro* subgenre, but is one of the most wrist-slashingly depressing authors you will ever find, yet this Guggenheim and MacArthur grant winner is regularly on the bestseller lists, has appeared on David Letterman and The Daily Show, gets published on a steady basis in such hugely mainstream magazines as The New Yorker and GQ, and is adored by literally millions of fans out there, many of whom would never open the cover of a book from Eraserhead Press to save their life. And that's because Saunders never talks about these things specifically to be depressing, but rather as a way of highlighting how important simple humanity is to our lives, the simple act of being humane and optimistic about the world, which he does not by writing about the humane acts themselves but what a world without them would look like. And that's a clever and admirable thing to do, because it means he sneaks in sideways to the points he wants to make, not beating us over the head but forcing us to really stop and think about what he's truly trying to say, to examine why we get so upset when this fundamental humanity is missing from the stories we're reading. Ultimately Saunders believes in celebrating life, in trying to be as helpful and open-minded to strangers as you can, in being as positive about the world at large as you can stand; but like the Existentialists of Mid-Century Modernism, he examines this subject by looking at worst-case scenarios, and by showing us what exactly we miss out of in life when this positivity and love is gone.

*(For those who are new to CCLaP, "bizarro" is a hard-to-define term but one we reference here a lot; also sometimes known as "gonzo" fiction, sometimes as "The New Weird," a lot of it comes from either the wackier or more prurient edges of such existing genres as science-fiction, horror and erotica, while some of it is more like Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs, a conceptual cloud of strangeness that has a huge cult following in the world of basement presses and genre conventions, as well as such literary social networks as Goodreads.com. If you want to think of famous examples, think of people like Kathy Acker, Mark Leyner, Will Self, Chuck Palahniuk, Blake Butler, China Mieville...and, uh, George Saunders!)

Now, of course, in all honesty, there are also a few clunkers scattered here and there in these collections as well, which is simply to be expected in a career that now spans twenty years; and when it comes to the small number of other books he's put out besides story collections, I have to confess that I found those to be a much iffier proposition. For example, there's the 2000 children's book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, cute enough but as inessential to an adult as any children's book is; then there's his one collection of nonfiction essays, 2007's The Braindead Megaphone, an uneven compilation of random pieces which includes some real gems (one of the best being that GQ piece mentioned, where Saunders is sent George-Plimpton-style to Dubai, and instead of the usual decrying of the ultra-rich he is surprisingly charmed by all the vacationing middle-class families), but that has an equal amount of throwaway pieces done for highly specific commissions; and then there's the only stand-alone fiction book of his career so far, the 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which I have to confess is the only thing of Saunders' career that I actively disliked -- written in the middle of the Bush atrocities, it's obviously an attempt to do an Animal Farm-style satire about those years, but is labored in its execution, too on the nose, and in general has too much of a "quirky for the sake of being quirky" vibe, the exact thing that can most quickly kill a piece of bizarro fiction. (But then again, we perhaps shouldn't blame Saunders for this; as I've talked about many times here in the past, it seems that no indignant artist was able to write satirically about Bush in the middle of the Bush Years without producing an overly obvious ranting screed, whether that's Saunders or George Clooney or Michael Moore or Robert Redford. No wonder no good books about Nazis came out until after World War Two; as we all learned in the early 2000s, it's nearly impossible to actually live under a fascist regime and also be subtle and clever in your critique of it.)

But those are all small quibbles, of course; Saunders' bread and butter is in his short fiction, and I'm convinced that he will eventually be known as one of the best short-fiction authors in history, joining a surprisingly small list that includes such luminaries as Cheever, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, GK Chesterton and more. Plus, as a fan of edgy and strange work, I'm thrilled that a guy like Saunders is out there, serving as a gateway of sorts between mainstream society and an entire rabbithole of basement-press bizarro titles that's just waiting for newly inspired fans to tumble down. If you're going to pick up your first Saunders book soon, go ahead and pick up the newest, Tenth of December, because it's just as good as all the others and particularly easy to find right now; but I also encourage you to dig deeper into this remarkable author's career, and to see just how far he'll pull you into the murky depths of ambiguous morality before coming bobbing back to the surface. It's been a true treat to become a fan of his work this year, and I urge you to become one as well.

Out of 10 (Tenth of December): 9.6

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:45 PM, January 16, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |