THE LITERARY MILLS of George Saunders grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly weird.
The year 2012 marked the twentieth anniversary of such early attention-grabbing stories from his pen as “Offloading for Mrs Schwartz” (appearing in The New Yorker in 1992). Since then, Saunders has amassed four full volumes of stories (Tenth of December being the latest), two standalone novellas, and an essay collection. Hardly an output of Oatesian dimensions. But the compact, fevered, nonpareil intensity of his fiction is so striking and impressive that his receipt of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 — the “genius award” — raises no quibbles.
Saunders’s fiction revels in both the outré and the mundane, two inseparable aspects of the existential condition. As such, its tone alternates between deadpan affectlessness and hyperkinetic farce. He anatomizes yammering insanity and bland conformity with equal relish and acuity. Id and ego parade through his tales chained together, each embarrassed by the other’s presence, yet half affectionate toward their yoked sibling. The smiling masks of administrators are ripped aside to reveal grinning skulls, while the bones of murder victims sprout redemptive, life-affirming jungles. Not literally, yet — but it could easily happen in the Saunders-verse.
The first tale in the new collection, “Victory Lap,” demonstrates Saunders’s flair for inhabiting his characters deeply from within, almost in an authorially unmediated, eavesdropping, I-am-a-camera fashion. Two teens, a boy and a girl, are at home in suburbia on an average afternoon, and we perceive everything through their alternating idiosyncratic streams of consciousness. With a keen ear for demotic, trendy syntax and vocabulary, Saunders tells us everything we need to know about the characters of these two kids without explicit linear backstory, conjuring up their naïve daydreams and fantasies that will intersect shockingly through the intermediary of an intruder. Once the crisis is reached and dispatched, echoes of the drama ping-pong in a mental house of mirrors.
“Sticks” is a mere two pages that deliciously limn the self-centered egocentricities of a father figure, conjuring up memories of Donald Barthelme’s work (an affinity exists between the two writers). The theme of misguided parenting supplements that same riff in “Victory Lap,” and anticipates similar contingencies in “Puppy,” the following piece. Again, as in “Victory Lap,” “Puppy” is powered by the near-random intersection of several lifelines. In this case, a privileged Mom with her kids in tow visits a “white trash” household of Gothic reality-show messiness and sadness. While both adults are presented as deluded, the trailer-park gal emerges as the nobler.
“Escape from Spiderhead” represents Saunders in his science-fictional mode, a territory he’s intimately and extensively familiar with. (His story “CommComm” picked up a World Fantasy Award, bestowed by genre professionals.) In this near-term future, convicts are utilized as test subjects for a variety of intensely mind-altering drugs that might have arisen out of Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress: Verbaluce™, Darkenfloxx™, Vivistiff™. Our protagonist is a prisoner who discovers his personal moral limits when it comes to cooperation with the state, and takes heroic measures to escape. About the only quality that makes this intensely dystopian tragedy bearable is Saunders’ acid drollness. “I noted that Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised.” Here Saunders approaches Mark Leyner’s surreal neighborhood, and also shows himself simpatico with another great black-humor tragedian, the late Thomas M. Disch.
The segue from “Spiderhead” to “Exhortation” is nimble, as the Orwellian pep talk being given by the narrator of the latter might very well be addressed to the jailers in the prior story. Saunders’s major accomplishment in this tale, as in others, is to take Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about “the banality of evil” and dress it in the language of advertising and civic boosterism, Entertainment Weekly and the fashion industry, Big Pharma and self-help gurus. It’s the toxic mix we encounter every day, just amped up to eleven and applied to life-or-death scenarios.
If James Thurber had partnered with Nathanael West on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the result might have resembled “Al Roosten.” Saunders shows us his impeccable skills of deep-cover character immersion, as he charts the average stumblebum day of the owner of a frowsy vintage store, full of impossible daydreams of revenge and self-glorification. And while Saunders always empathizes with his hapless, self-defeating characters, he is hardly sanguine about their prospects, or those of a society composed of such self-absorbed dimwits.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is the longest piece, central to the book in so many ways. What seems, at the beginning and through the midpoint of the narrative, to be a straightforward contemporary taxonomy of lower-middle-class frustrations is gradually revealed to be a day-after-tomorrow scenario involving abuse of Third World underprivileged women. But the story magnificently fulfills its original vector as well. Our husband/father diarist (again, the familial dynamics are paramount) is a paragon of wan misplaced virtue and off-kilter ambition. With his writing, he also enacts the role of the mediocre talentless artist, in an era when “creativity” is deemed an equal endowment amongst all. Somewhat in the manner of the movie Idiocracy, Saunders illustrates what happens when limited, untutored intellects run up against the practical and ethical complexities of a postmodern world.
The Coen Brothers should consider filming the Raising Arizona-like “Home.” Mike, a returning war veteran from some unspecified future conflict, comes back to his natal town to find his mother shacked up with an ineffectual ne’er-do-well, his sister ensconced in a haughty new lifestyle, and his ex-wife and her new partner determined to keep Mike from seeing his own kids. Even consumer products bedevil him. One mishap cascades into another, until the story ends with a familial intervention scene that teeters on the edge of disaster. Commingling the damaged postmodern soldier vibe from Lucius Shepard’s Life During Wartime with Marx Brothers routines, the story inhabits an uneasy zone of tragicomedy.
The mind-altering drugs from “Spiderhead” surface again in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” which finds the protagonist — a lowly costumed extra in a medieval theme park — tricked into acting ethically and with disastrous consequences, due to a dose of KnightLyfe®. Saunders’s recurrent portrayal of various simulacra, such as this theme park, calls up resonances with the work of Philip K. Dick. But Saunders actually represents an evolution of Dick’s tropes. Whereas Dick’s characters ached for authenticity and longed to discern the true nature of their reality — fake or organic? — Saunders’s protagonists all too often already know they are consigned to simulations and are willing victims, fully resigned to their fates, without much hope or desire for change.
The final story, “Tenth of December,” bookends “Victory Lap” with perfect symmetry. Once again, two lifepaths — that of a daydreaming nerdy kid and that of a terminally ill middle-aged man — intersect with potentially mortal consequences. Saunders portrays each mentality exuberantly from within, investing his unlikely pair with a depth that makes their interaction all the richer, since they exist at widely separated points of the human continuum.
In this closing tale, Saunders gives us his ultimate sparse prescription for any shot at redemption in our current botched world full of mislived lives and a superfluity of crap. Pay mindful attention to what’s outside you, strive without ego, and never give up. Results not guaranteed. Patient might still go under, but with a clean conscience and no fear.