A GEORGE SAUNDERS STORY compresses the absurdities we face every day into manageable, cathartic barbs aimed at aspects of contemporary American society. A George Saunders story ennobles the seemingly futile attempts of flawed human beings to find pleasure in a life that may not offer it up willingly. A George Saunders story is filled with numerous ideas, all of them working beautifully in concert to paint a picture of American life at once fanciful, recognizable, and illuminating. George Saunders knows how to be funny, and he knows that isn’t enough. Although his stories have always been flavored with uproarious comedy, they are propelled by characters so rich with human feelings and faults as to emotionally engage a reader as few other contemporary writers are capable of doing. That emotional engagement marks Saunders’s new book of stories, Tenth of December, even more distinctly than his previous collections.
Saunders recently spoke to LARB about the themes and ideas that animate his stories, and in so doing, provides us with a master class on the craft of the short story.
Casey Burchby: Although the stories in Tenth of December are not without humor, the tone of this collection is more somber than that of your previous collections. Was this a conscious choice when putting this collection together, or have you noted an overall tonal shift in your work?
George Saunders: It wasn’t conscious, really, no. I try not to make any big decisions like that outside the context of an individual story. So at some point near the end of the book I might read it all at once and notice some things about the tone and so forth. But to me, a book is a collection of thousands of micro-decisions that you make on the fly, on the basis of taste. And then you keep coming back in revision and remaking or reversing those decisions. So over time the story starts to get shaped in ways you couldn’t have anticipated, and the ideas and themes and so on get produced almost inadvertently — and yet tend to mirror what’s actually going on with you. The hope is that the finished product would outstrip any sort of aspiration or plan for it you might be able to make at the outset — that it might become more than the sum of its parts and — in a weird way — more “like you” — more reflective of your preoccupations and state of mind and so on.
CB: Many of your stories take place in suburban settings. In what ways has suburbia shaped your thinking about the world and the kinds of stories you tell?
GS: To make any kind of sense, or get any momentum going, a writer has to have a language that can be sort of overfilled and made joyous. And, weirdly, that may have little to do with his idea of what literature is or his intention or any of that — it just turns out that your prime generative language is about this or that. So — Turgenev could really get it going on when writing about Russian forests and villages; Vonnegut could make magic out of vaguely sci-fi scenarios rendered in short, tight sentences; Flannery O’Connor came alive around the topic of hubris. I am kind of in love with contemporary American landscape — the muffler store next to the pioneer graveyard and so on — and I do tend to place stories there — but by default rather than design. Or, more precisely: I am f...read more