Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Brief and Terrifying Stories of George Saunders

This isn't exactly a review, but I feel compelled to give an extended shout-out to George Saunders. I've been seriously digging his writing for a few years now, and he's one of those rare authors I enjoy so much that I try NOT to immediately read everything by them - I think it would be depressing to not have any more Saunders left to look forward to. Unlike most of my favorite authors, though, Saunders has the advantage of being alive and still writing, so I can delight in what should be many more years of great stories to come.

I first stumbled across Saunders while sitting in an airport. As I often do, I'd brought along my most recent issue of the New Yorker - they're meaty enough that I can get a lot of reading out of them, and the magazine form factor is very appealing when you're camping out by a gate. Anyways, if I hadn't been traveling that week, I might not have read that story. I tend to enjoy fiction in the New Yorker, but only in a distant way, and it's usually at the bottom of my list for things I'll read from an issue. The stories tend to be more moody or character-driven than I personally prefer, so unless I recognize the author, see that the story is very short, or am waiting in an airport with very little else to do, I'll usually keep on flipping.

Boy, am I glad that I read it, though. It grabbed me within the first paragraph. At first I was just kind of amused - "Heh, what an interesting voice." I rapidly became engrossed - "Whoa, this is getting intense." Ultimately, I was simply amazed. "Wow. This is incredibly good." I simply sat there after I was finished, staring into space, while the bustle of the airport around me receded in the distance.

I tend to not be much of a short fiction guy. I like novels, I like worlds, I like elaborate constructions, I like self-supporting visions and systems. Don't get me wrong, there are individual short stories that I dearly love, but most of them were gems I was exposed to in one of my many English classes; given the chance for independent reading, I'll almost always seek out a good novel instead. Just to give you a better standing of what I consider "good," here are some of my favorite pre-Saunders stories, in no particular order:
1. "Araby" by Joyce
2. "Orientation" by Daniel Orozco. (I can't find the text online, but it's well worth seeking out. When searching for the text, I found that This American Life had a piece with it a while back - click on "Full Episode" and start listening around 50:30.)
3. "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" by Borges.
4. "In the Penal Colony" by Kafka.
5. "The Vane Sisters" by Nabokov.

Oooh, the New Yorker has CommComm online. Good for them!

Didn't I mention that before? The story that so captivated me was called CommComm. I eventually realized that, in fact, it had NOT been the first Saunders work I'd read. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and there were a few Shouts & Murmurs pieces that I had greatly enjoyed, without recognizing the author's name. After reading CommComm, though, I became Saunders-primed, and every time I receive a new New Yorker issue I'll scan the Table of Contents, hoping to see his name or Malcolm Gladwell's by an item.

How to best describe Saunders' writing? It's really hard - I'm very tempted to say "indescribable" and hope that you'll try it for yourself. If pressed, I'll use adjectives like "funny," "dark," "smart," and "sinister." More than anything, though, it's just really good. The stories are always fresh and surprising, and he does amazing things with his narrators and points of view. Thematically, he is solidly rooted in the American experience, and he regularly returns to the themes that have the greatest impact over our daily lives: our consumerist culture, the breakdown of the family, facile politics, and unrewarding careers. Obviously, I love him, but he definitely isn't for everyone. Most people will be able to decide quickly whether to follow his career or not. (The one exception I'll make: it's probably possible to like his fiction while disliking his essays, or vice-versa. I love them both, but there is some difference there.)

My brother Pat started getting into Saunder at almost exactly the same point that I did: unbeknownst to each other for several months, we had both read the same CommComm story, in both cases while we were at airports. Needless to say, this is freaky and I don't like thinking about it much. We'd tossed some Saunders pointers back and forth, and then he surprised me with two excellent gifts: the only two story collections he then had in print, Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline. These books did a few things for me. First, they reaffirmed that Saunders is an excellent writer, and has been so for some time. I hadn't realized how long he's been turning out excellent work. Second, they reminded me why it's probably good that I'm not reading all of his work at once: too much Saunders in too short a space can make someone feel depressed about humanity and life in general. Saunders is stylistically very different from Vonnegut, but they're both satirists, and both have that special skill for inflicting pain when they make you laugh.

Over the last couple of years, the Saunders "scene" has expanded, as he has gradually become more and more well known. This is fine by me - as much as I enjoy being among the elite group who knows of this totally awesome author, I think it's better for the world to spread his gift as far as possible. Probably the single biggest boost he got was winning the MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 2006.

As you might be able to guess, only a handful of writers in America are able to make full-time careers out of it, and as a short story writer, Saunders wasn't one of them, and he has somehow made time for writing while maintaining a day job. Upon hearing the wonderful, surprising news, I was optimistic that the fellowship money would help free him up and give him more time to write... including, just maybe, someday, a novel.

We haven't gotten the novel yet, but the grant has already proved its value, as his output has recently accelerated. The Braindead Megaphone has brought Saunders' extremely sharp essay-writing skills to the fore, establishing him as a thinker and commentator in his own right.

As a side note: George Saunders has also written a children's book. It's called "The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp," and is illustrated by the same person who drew The Stinky Cheese Man and James and the Giant Peach. Not being a child, I'm probably not authorized to comment on how good it is, but I will say that it has what may be the best final sentence in the English language.

The reason why I'm writing this post today is because I recently started reading through In Persuasion Nation, and fell in love all over again when I read "Jon." This pulls off the jazz technique of producing bad writing and making it sound good: the whole story is a series of mistakes, but they're purposeful mistakes, and the story as a whole is even better and more effective than it would be if it was written "correctly".

As in most of Saunders' stories, there is a first-person narrator. In this case, the narrator is a teenage boy, a trend-setter in the future. Saunders breaks all the rules you can think of even within the permissive realm of short fiction: he uses passive voice, poor grammar, and violates my Creative Writing teacher's one absolute rule: he uses brand names. Copiously and constantly. And you know what? It all WORKS. The semi-literate run-on sentences talking about KFC and Pfizer and MetLife become oddly beautiful by the story's end.

Just wanted to share. If you're ever in the market for some mind-blowing fiction that you can finish in a quick read, you could do much, much worse than picking up Saunders. Enjoy!

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