A Drop of Concentrated Empathy: On Brokenness and Beauty in the Stories of George Saunders

By Charles YuFebruary 28, 2013

A Drop of Concentrated Empathy: On Brokenness and Beauty in the Stories of George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders

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 character's view of the events, the way that view has been formed for each by his or her personal history, their respective lives to that point. Saunders can, with a devastating line or two, suggest volumes of pain occurring just off the page — can make you understand that for every one of these characters, there are whole histories floating just under the surface of the story. And he can do this with just a drop of concentrated empathy. From the mind of the attacker: 

Melvin appeared in his mind. On Melvin’s face was the look of hot disappointment that had always preceded an ass-whooping, which had always preceded the other thing. Put up your hands, Melvin said, defend yourself.

This is, in three sentences, an origin story for a monster. It does not, of course, justify or excuse the attacker for what he has done. It does, however, remind us that there are two parts to that equation, that a person is defined both by what he has done and what has been done to him. Saunders widens the field of vision, showing us not just what the monster does, but who the monster is. And later, when the attacker’s plan begins to unravel, the specter of past abuse is still there, taunting him: 

Figures you’d blow the simplest thing, Melvin said. 

This is Saunders at his most brutal and tender — even his violent predators are racked by self-doubt. But what really makes “Victory Lap” stand out is the larger structure of the story, the elegance of how the three characters’ stories are braided together. Just as we allow ourselves to exhale a little after danger seems to have been averted, the predator stopped by the hero, we are caught off-guard by a late story turn. Excess heroic energy is a volatile and potent substance and, in a moment, hero can be become attacker, predator can become victim, and victim can become hero, an interlocking triangle of shifting roles, a model of the world, of people, the range of what we are capable, not just within a lifetime, or even a day, but from moment to moment.

Just as “Victory Lap,” “Puppy,” and “Tenth of December” are descendants of the Winky genetic strain, most of the other stories in this new book have elements that are traceable to previous collections. “Exhortation” has bits of DNA from the title story of Pastoralia: the deadened falseness of corporate memo-speak, the human inside the memo, straining to stay in character, that tension between the two evidencing itself through occasional ruptures, a stray word, a break in the diction here or there.

These bits of DNA come up again and again, the language of self-improvement and self-comfort, for Ma, the mother of the protagonist in “Home,” who tries hard, but not that hard (“Beep you”) to keep the cussing to a minimum. This is a recognizable Saunders trope — Ma is not the first of Saunders’s characters who, in all of their brokenness, are still trying hard to do something noble, to be better in little ways, even if that means just trying (and mostly failing) to avoid using the f-word.

In “Home,” a character says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it […] Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse,” and it seems this could have served as a general thesis statement/worldview for many of Saunders’s characters over the years — the male stripper in “Sea Oak” perhaps, the title character from “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” and this new collection, the title character from “Al Roosten.” These people are usually well meaning, but not always. Al Roosten is a good example of another subspecies of Saunders’s character, the underdog who is somewhat hard to root for because he also happens to be a jerk, a guy who feels he deserves love and adulation and civic recognition but doesn’t have the capacity to know why he doesn’t ever get it. These are Saunders’s people, and we have met some of them before in Saunders’s work — or if not them, their neighbors or cousins. 

Which is not to say, or suggest, or in any way even quietly imply, that Saunders’s new work is any less rewarding or remarkable than his old work. It’s true that I will never again get to experience Saunders for the first time, that moment of incongruously opposing sensations: recognition and shock, simultaneously understanding that I had stumbled upon something eternal and completely new. The guy discovered (or invented) a whole new quadrant of possibility space. If the fictional world were a magical kingdom theme park, George Saunders would be the mad genius who designed and engineered and perfected FrontierTomorrowland, pretty much all by himself. So maybe it’s not quite as surprising anymore — when I start a Saunders story now, I am fully expecting to have my brain tickled and my heart punched in the balls. The fact that I do expect this, and that his work still delivers that punch, is nothing short of amazing.

What’s more: because of this very slight diminishment in novelty (and I don’t mean a diminishment of the originality of what Saunders does — it would be unfair to penalize Saunders for being exactly as original as he always has been), that is to say, in the novelty of my experience as a reader, having now learned to expect to be wowed every time, because of this acclimatization to the power and strangeness of Saunders’s fiction, I can now look past some of the stuff that is initially eye-catching and mind-catching, the clever dioramas and laugh-out-loud dialogue, and see how his experiments in fictional engineering, the selective recombination of alleles has resulted in some new species altogether, narratives that have blossomed, ripened, taken different shapes, more varied, more twisted, some opening up to the light and others reaching into darker, more tangled spots that might not ever seen the sun. 

This most clearly comes to fruition in “Escape from Spiderhead.” I first read this story, like the others, in The New Yorker, and although I certainly enjoyed the hell out of it then, it wasn’t until I read it in the context of an entire collection, against the backdrop of several others collected in this latest period of Saunders’s work, that I fully appreciated the story for what it is. Its subject is a Stanford/Milgram-like experiment, with a dark, pharmaceutical twist: cruelty and punishment to prison inmates, inflicted by other prisoners against their will, compelled by experimental drugs. Not that all the drugs seems so bad — there are some that enhance verbal articulation, or create feelings of intense love and sexual attraction. Saunders imagines the experience of the prisoners as they cycle through the psychological effects of drugs delivered directly into their bloodstreams and nervous systems, and in doing so pulls off a neat, almost recursive trick: Saunders is the virtuoso of compassion and language, writing about people trapped (in prison, in their own heads) who are briefly tantalized (and tortured) with heightened psychological acuity and linguistic faculties, and compelled to take one step above their own limitations and look down at and fully empathize with themselves and their own situations, the way Saunders does with them. The effect is of Saunders riffing on his own style: Saunders-squared; reading it is a heady, heavy experience, like if you went to see a White Stripes cover band and the guitarist shows up and it’s Jack White, playing his own songs.

While “Escape from Spiderhead,” like “Home” and the novella-length “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” hints at darker, more open-ended new directions, the title story closes the new collection in the classically convergent structure of “Victory Lap”— or of its even closer cousin, “The Falls,” the final story in Pastoralia. Like “The Falls,” the characters in "Tenth of December" are in danger, and the danger involves water, although whereas the water in the earlier story was a rushing river, here the water is frozen. Things have changed in SaundersLand between the years 2000 and 2013 — things have grown more intense, hardened, colder. The stakes feel higher, the damage more real, the scenery more extreme, the world harsher, and what we get is what Saunders gives us in a way that no one else can. In “The Falls,” it was a man deciding who to save, but now, in “Tenth of December,” we have not just one man trying to save someone, not the mere hope of saving, but people, saving each other — lost people, saving each other with their lostness.


LARB Contributor

Charles Yu is the author of four books, including his latest, Interior Chinatown (2020), which won the National Book Award for Fiction. He lives in Southern California with his family. He has been a superfan of George Saunders for a really long time. 


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