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Must Reads from George Saunders

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Posted by Mary Ann

bardoGeorge Saunders is a surrealist and satirist, but he has a big heart. His incredibly fertile imagination can generate some confounding and even disturbing images, and he can be savagely funny, but the shining thread through his stories is a sort of idealism, a belief in humanity’s potential for tenderness. He once was asked: what moves you most in literature? “Depictions of goodness that are not fraudulent or sentimental,” he said.

Saunders has been compared to the great science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut, but here’s another author he made me think of – Dr. Seuss! Dr. Seuss also used bizarre images and strange creatures to tell a story, but the best creatures had big hearts. Remember the Lorax, the shaggy creature who says “My name is the Lorax, I speak for the trees”? I thought of the Lorax as I read the testimonies of the dead in Lincoln in the Bardo, who despite being dead, retained great tenderness for the living.

Saunders’s career is also evidence that a writer with a fantastic imagination and a very unusual prose style can become a best-selling author. Here’s a sample of his body of work:

in-persuasionSaunders made his name as a short-story writer; Lincoln in the Bardo is his first full-length novel. One of his notable short story collections is In Persuasion Nation.

Because story collections are hard to summarize, I’m going to stick with the title story. The earth has been completely taken over by the forces of advertising and industrially processed food – giant Twinkies and Ding-Dongs run amok, and a very sinister package of Doritos holds a weird power over all it surveys.

Saunders aims to make us realize how saturated our culture is with the message of selling and buying, and how it’s sucking our humanity, not to mention our attention spans, dry. Abraham Lincoln, apparently a preoccupation for Saunders, makes an appearance in this story. I’m not going to guarantee that everything turns out okay. Not buying any Doritos in the foreseeable future.

tenthThe collection that vaulted Saunders into the national consciousness was Tenth of December – it was a National Book Award finalist and named as one of the ten best books of 2013 by the New York Times.

The title story has an entirely different feel from the surreal fantasies of In Persuasion Nation. It’s the story of a young boy, maybe 9 or 10, a solitary misfit who is out for a solo adventure in the snowy woods. Saunders does a wonderful job of entering his head, from his heroic fantasies to his recollections of being bullied in school.

Then the story shifts perspective to that of an elderly man, also wandering the woods, who has a terminal disease and has decided to spare his loved ones the indignity of caring for him in his last days by freezing to death.  Then the old man drops his coat, the boy picks it up and off the story goes. If you don’t choke up a bit at the end of this story, you are a more detached reader than me.

Unsurprisingly for someone with such a flair for the bizarre, Saunders has written a children’s book. The first thing to know about The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is that that it’s illustrated by the same artist who created the images for The Stinky Cheese Man, a classic children’s book that was pretty surreal in its own right.

In this story gappers, spiky little creatures with multiple eyes, feed on goats grazing in the backyards of three houses in a village by the sea. One day the gappers decide that they’re going to prey on the goats of just one house, inhabited by the girl Capable and her widowed father.  The inhabitants of other two houses start telling themselves that they have been spared the gappers’ onslaught because, you know, they are really better folks than Capable and her father.

Those gappers sound pretty sinister, don’t they? But think of other children’s classics like Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch That Stole Christmas – that critter was pretty awful, when you think about it. This being a children’s book, it turns out okay.

megaSaunders’ essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone, continues his preoccupation with the surreal, only in this case, it’s nonfiction. In one story he visits the thoroughly surreal city of Dubai and watches both a group of Dubai natives and 15 members of the U.S. Navy plummet down a waterslide, one after another. He speculates that “Given enough time,” he writes, “we will all be brothers. … The old dividers — nation, race, religion — will be overpowered by crossbreeding and by our mass media, our world Culture o’ Enjoyment.” Maybe. In “Arabian Ice City,” Arab children slip and slide on artificial snow as their desert-dwelling parents record the moment on video recorders. “If everybody in America could see this, our foreign policy would change,” writes Saunders.

Finally, his novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a political satire. It tells the story of a place with two countries, Inner Horner and Outer Horner. Inner Horner is so small, only one Inner Hornerite can fit in it at one time – the other six inner Hornerites have to wait their turn.

Inner Horner is surrounded by Outer Horner, and the Outer Hornerites are worried about having enough room for themselves in their own territory. They begin to follow a fascist leader who accuses the inner Hornerites of trying to invade outer Horner.  This story has a lot of ridiculous aspects, but I recently read a history of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, justified by the Nazis’ belief that they needed more Lebensraum (living room). The plight of inner Horner sounded all too real. Saunders may be capable of sublime silliness, but some of his stories are no joke.

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