I made the mistake of reading Joel Lovell’s profile of George Saunders in The New York Times Magazine this month. Best book you’ll read this year was the gist of it, regarding Saunders’s new collection of stories, Tenth of December. Then there’s a page of praise from the Pynchons and Zadies, Foster Wallaces and Franzens, saying, in the nicest way possible, how much they admire Saunders’s work.
Maybe the best thing to do is to join in.
If you have read the stories in Tenth of December where they first appeared, in the pages of The New Yorker and McSweeney’s, you already know how good Saunders is. And you know the symptoms that present when you read him: the pity pangs, the conscience cramp and the jaw pain associated with laughter you can’t rein in. It was all pretty obvious way back when Saunders published his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which was so clearly the best book of 2000 that I have had to reread it every year since. That’s the way it is with Saunders, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y.: Every new book adds a burden of rereading.
He still has it, the high-risk stuff he has always had. Some of the 10 stories here are merely great. Six of them are Saunders classics, which is saying something. Fully four of those, including the title story, along with Home, My Chivalric Fiasco and The Semplica Girl Diaries are up another level still.
There’s a soaring loopiness to his voice and his vision that may be the thing I’m fondest of in Saunders’s work. Although, okay, yes, I’m very much in favour, too, of the caustic class commentary of his stories, the emotional depths and the formal leaps that leave you to ponder – you’re allowed to do that? But it’s his joyful razored genius for the absurd that keeps me coming back. I don’t know that it has an analogue – maybe Indian Uprising-era Donald Barthelme? Which is convenient, since I would like to return to him, later on.
For now, let’s briefly celebrate Al Roosten, shop owner, who finds himself strutting his sorry stuff at the Local Celebrities auction in support of LaffKidsOffCrack and their anti-drug clowns. Or Ted, in My Chivalric Fiasco, whose summing-up of the way things stand is pure high-test Saunders: “I was currently the only working person in our family, Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him. We also had some windows that needed replacing.”
I have been trying to peg the demographic to which Saunders’s characters belong and here is what I can report: His is a constituency of poor saps. Also, rubes. The awkward, the unaware, the defeated, the damaged, the not-dealing. They have bad haircuts and potty mouths. Their jobs don’t pay. Nor do their crimes. It’s not all their fault, all the time. Like a vending machine they probably should not have shaken to try to get their quarters back, the American dream has tipped over and now they are trapped underneath with no one around to free them. As it is with Al Roosten, people are always seeing through them and frying their asses.
Are they to blame for breaking Mom’s heart and ending up in the jail where they juice the inmates with experimental drugs (Escape From Spiderhead)? Or for, due to circumstances, keeping their boy Bo harnessed and chained to a tree in the muddy yard (Puppy)? For returning from the war with all that anger left over from having massacred those poor civilians (Home)?
It’s a hard trick that Saunders pulls off, every time, and it’s this: He does what he does without ridicule or cruelty. His characters get to keep their dignity, maybe even inch toward redemption. It is true, I think, that the edges of Saunders’s world have darkened over the years. Where once his characters tended to struggle on against awful jobs and nasty judging neighbours, there is cancer now, and other no-hope situations where death seems like the only way forward. You need a steady will to write about these things, especially if you insist on being as acidly hilarious as Saunders does.
And here is where Donald Barthelme comes in again. There is an essay, The Perfect Gerbil, in Saunders’s 2007 collection, The Braindead Megaphone; it’s a short, admiring guide to Barthelme’s masterful 1976 story The School and its many “pleasure-bursts.” The beauty of the thing is complex, as beauty always is, but in Saunders’s book, it comes down to this: Barthelme’s failure to balk. Upping the ante again and again, he might at any point bail out, blink, veer off into an easy ending. It’s what Saunders himself never does. He is the least balky writer there is.
Stephen Smith is a Toronto writer and critic.