Towards the end of the 1980s George Saunders, then in his early thirties, was employed by Radian International, an environmental engineering company based in Rochester, NY; In his spare time he wrote “Hemingwayesque” short stories that took as their material “the time I’d spent working in the oil fields in Asia”. (The work was in seismic prospecting; Saunders is a geophysics graduate.) The rejection letters were piling up. “Everything I wrote was minimal and strict and efficient and lifeless and humor-free”, Saunders recalls in A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021), his nonfiction book about the art of the short story, “even though, in real life, I reflexively turned to humor at any difficult or important or awkward or beautiful moment.” One day, while taking the minutes of a conference call, he kept himself awake by doodling a series of “dark little Seussian poems”, accompanying each with a cartoon. When he got home that evening he tossed the poem-and-cartoon pairs on the kitchen table, where his wife came across them and laughed. It was, he realized with a jolt, “the first time in years that anyone had reacted to my writing with pleasure”.
Something clicked. The following dayhe began to write a story in a new, comic mode, “allowing myself to be entertaining, setting aside my idea of what a ‘classic’ story sounded like, and my usual assumption that only things that happened in the real world were allowed to happen in a story”. The result was “The Wavemaker Falters”, a darkly satirical tale set in a theme park and narrated in a jargon-heavy, slightly brutalized corporate voice (“Through a federal program we offer discount coupons to the needy, so sometimes our clientele is borderline ”), which ended up in his first published collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996).
Since then Saunders has achieved a staggering level of success for a writer whose primary mode has remained quirky short fiction. All of the stories in his second collection, Pastoralia (2000), first appeared in the New Yorker; following the publication of his third, In Persuasion Nation (2006), he received Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. His fourth, Tenth of December (TLS, January 25, 2013), won the inaugural Folio prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award; that yearTime magazine named as one of the hundred most influential people in the world. Four years later he received the Booker prize for his first (and so far only) novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). A Swim in the Pond in the Rain was, like its two immediate predecessors, a New York Times bestseller – pretty astonishing for a book derived from a university course (one that Saunders has been teaching for twenty years at Syracuse) and consisting of the full text of seven classic Russian stories, each one followed by twenty or thirty pages of close technical analysis.
Saunders turned out to be a surprisingly enthusiastic, attentive and insightful reader of the major Russian realists, including Chekhov, Tolstoy and Turgenev. I say “surprisingly” because, if there’s a nineteenth-century author his own work tends to resemble, it’s Dickens, with whom he shares a comic relish for the more awkward, outlandish registers of the English language, a weakness for deploying children to sentimental effect, a relaxed attitude towards the supernatural and a satirical vision of society as starkly divided between the complacent rich and the exploited poor. The remaining element in a typical Saunders story is some kind of zany science-fiction premiss. His wealthier characters might purchase for their infant children animatronic masks that make them appear to be talking; His poorer characters might find employment as garden ornaments, wafting in the breeze while attached to a row of others via a “microline” drilled through their brains.
Most of the stories in Saunders’s new collection, Liberation Day, hinge on a moral (or quasi-moral) choice of some sort. The title story is narrated by a man whose memory of his early life has been wiped clean. He and his two colleagues spend their days pinioned to the wall of a rich family’s house, their limbs fixed in rigid poses (spread in the letter “X”, or with one hand raised over their eyes as if gazing into the distance), performing Lengthy speeches on topics programmed into them by means of electrodes attached to their skulls. An opportunity arises for the narrator to free himself and his fellow Speakers, and to recover his lost identity. The only snag is, he actually quite enjoys his work:
It is a special feeling one gets when Mr. U. has sent your Pulse but it has not fully arrived. Like a pre-dreaming or dejà vu is how Craig and Lauren and I have described it on those rare occasions when, risking Penalty, we have spoken among ourselves. Once the Pulse is fully upon you, here will come your words, not intended by, but nevertheless flowing through, you, built, as it were, upon the foundation that is you, supercharged by the Pulse, molded to the chosen topic, such that, if Mr. U. has dialed in, say, Nautical, whoever he has decided to go first will suddenly begin Speaking of things Nautical in his or her own flavor, but far more compellingly than he or she could if unPinioned.
This is classic Saunders: the comedy wrung out of clunky jargon and wonky syntax, the blend of high and low registers, the revelation of a peculiar world by means of a peculiar voice. Two of the other stories in Liberation Day are written in this mode: “Elliott Spencer”, which, like “Liberation Day”, is built around a character whose memory has been wiped clean; and “Ghoul”, which, like several of the stories in Saunders’s first two collections, is set in a diabolical theme park. But the remaining six stories continue a phase of Saunders’s writing that was beginning to emerge in Tenth of December: a turn away from fantasy and satirical excess towards a sort of offbeat domestic realism. These stories are a good deal more conventional, both in terms of language and scenario, than anything in his earlier books.
“The Mom of Bold Action” follows a suburban mother’s desire for vengeance after her young son is pushed over in the street: when he can’t be sure which of two suspects is responsible, leading to both of them being released, she encourages her husband to take matters into his own hands. (“Put both in the slammer, you’d be fifty percent right. Now? One hundred percent wrong. And who was suffering? Her little guy.”) “A Thing at Work” details the conflict between two women who are both stealing from their office: each regards the other’s behavior (taking home paper towels and coffee pouches from the break room versus billing romantic assignations in restaurants and hotel rooms to a client) as reprehensible and their own as entirely justified. “Mother’s Day” describes what happens when two neighbors, one of whom once had an affair with the other’s husband, meet up in old age. The heroine of “Sparrow” bears a resemblance to that of Chekhov’s “The Darling”, one of the stories featured in A Swim in the Pond in the Rain:
She was small and slight and her eyes were dark beads on either side of a beaklike nose. She moved quickly, head down, as if, we sometimes joked scanning for seeds. She had a way of seeming to dart from place to place. She had a way, too, of saying the most predictable things. When a truck went off the road in front of the little store where she worked, she said, “That’s too bad. I hope no one was hurt.” When it started to rain, whether drizzling or pouring, she’d say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” When someone said the sandwich she was eating looked good, she’d say, “It’s a good sandwich.” If someone said the sandwich didn’t look good, she’d say, “Yeah, not great.”
Like “The Darling”, “Sparrow” follows the ways in which the heroine changes when she falls in love, but, unlike the Chekhov story, it ends on a note of unbridled optimism. It is, along with several other stories in this collection, psychologically deeper and emotionally richer than anything Saunders has previously written. It is also less funny, less strange and less distinctive – more “classic”. He is close to having come full circle. Don’t be surprised if his next collection features a story set in the oil fields of Asia.
Edmund Gordon teaches creative writing at King’s College London. He is the author of The Invention of Angela Carter: A biography2016
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