COMPRESSION TRANSFORMS A SUBSTANCE. The fundamental properties of the object can undergo such radical change that it is no longer recognizable. George Saunders does this to language: he takes words and feelings and presses them together until they reach some kind of thermodynamic phase change, a critical point in the empathy of the system, near which the distinction between self and other starts to melt, giving rise to a completely new kind of thing.
Some writing approximates the way people talk. What Saunders does is capture the way people think, representing thought in its purest form: the artfully imprecise, clumsily inventive, and cryptically private shorthand of a mind talking to itself. First in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1992), and then again in Pastoralia (2000), Saunders revealed something essential about how we talk to ourselves, talk ourselves into things, or out of them, how proficiently we deceive ourselves, and how, despite the self-deception, the truth always bubbles up through the chatter and babble in our heads, eventually finding its way to the surface. Saunders has given us the slash (“thinking positive/saying positive”), the slightly insincere exclamation point of motivational speech, the colloquial “ha ha” of social awkwardness, and the self-directed rhetorical question, as if spoken by some inner bureaucrat. Individually these are clever and revealing tics of the contemporary interior monologue. Collectively, they form a kind of internal grammar of logic and self-persuasion — the connective tissue of thought.
He has also given us the phrase, etched for all time now in the annals of literature, “large comfortable butt,” and I am not kidding when I say that this butt is exactly what makes Saunders a genius. This is him, wielding his sharpest, lightest sketching pencil — could any other writer have gotten us from A to B quicker? Have there ever been two more perfectly chosen adjectives for “butt”? Can’t you already picture that butt, covered in a nice soft pair of mom jeans? Saunders often works in this mode, a close third person that is so close, it’s almost not third anymore — he has found some kind of harmonic of both first and third person, a frequency in which you can hear both voices at the same time.
Saunders is probably most famous for his theme park worlds and absurdist corporate vignettes, but there is another distinct strain of the Saunders story: characters, each moving, either by compulsion or by some newfound resolve, toward some critical life moment, suddenly and unexpectedly converging on a single point in space and time. “Winky” from Pastoralia was previously my favorite of this type, but in “Victory Lap,” the opening story of Tenth of December, Saunders may have perfected the form for all time. Basically, we are shown the structure of one event, one human interaction between two, or sometimes three people, each one a vector of will and doubt and pain and love and need and fear. “Puppy” and the title story are also built on this frame, but it is in “Victory Lap” that Saunders might have achieved perfection. The architecture of this story is a marvel — nothing wasted, every piece of it fitting exactly into the piece before it and the piece after. Alternating in point of view between a violent predator, his would-be victim, and the teenage boy who comes between them, the story cycles through each chara...read more