Swans Commentary » swans.com June 17, 2013  



George Saunders's Satire For Soft Hearts


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Saunders, George, Tenth of December: Stories, 2013, Random House, ISBN-13: 9780812993806, 272 pages


"It's the freaking American way -- you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole. And finally maybe you get a mansion."
—George Saunders, Sea Oak, Pastoralia.


(Swans - June 17, 2013)   Good satire doesn't weep for its victims. It states a bleak case, grotesque and hilarious, and moves on. Check out Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, Voltaire's Candide, or even Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. It's up to the reader of satire to make with the morality, the articulating of which, should any strike him, takes place in his mind. This laconic dynamic runs into trouble in a country where looney optimism, identified with patriotism, is de rigueur. American writers can do bleakness. They are masters of overkill inspired perhaps by their belief in their nation's exceptionality. However, before sending their storm warnings they can't resist adding a little beam of sunshine. They go mushy.

The excellent George Saunders is no exception. Since the stunning surprise of his Civilwarland in Bad Decline of 1996 he has continued to give us delightful short fiction that's unhurried, lapidary, and very funny. The collections Pastoralia appeared in 2000, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil in 2005, and In Persuasion Nation in 2006. Saunders's mix is original. The view is from below, at mortgage-default level, whence the clueless try to see through the haze of delusion created by ad-speak and their own vacuity. Saunders operates mainly within the enclosure of "realism," occasionally enlivening his cocktail with a pinch of the fantastical and unreal. Blurb writers dub him "surreal" or "postmodern," but such terms, approximative at best, are irrelevant. The leaps that Saunders makes beyond realism are best seen as imaginative flights that allow him better to show where current trends are leading.

In Tenth of December, brief romps like Sticks and Exhortation kick up themes to come. Saunders is much concerned with the parent-child connection, especially paternal guilt, and jailers schemes cogitated by CEOs in their ergonomic seats of power. In Victory Lap a fifteen-year-old girl builds fantasies of her future from TV commercials. Saunders's characters, young and old, daydream on amid the detritus of a degraded popular culture until reality knocks on the door. Here the visitor is a rapist done up as a meter reader. We have also been let into the dreams of a schoolboy neighbor, a skinny scaredy-cat smothered beneath control-freakish parents. He witnesses the abduction underway and is torn between intervening out of decency and retreating in obedience to his father's voice in his head. Breaking free, he ends a hero. Though his thoughts are as trivial and violent as everyone else's, he redeems us.

In Puppy the author contrasts the respectable (monied and reputation-minded) and the struggling (broke and disorganized) that live only neighborhoods apart. A winner, the neurotically perfectionist middle-class mom, can't digest a visit to the losers. Her need to rid her mind of their imperfection makes her panicky and cruel. Parenting saturates the story. Al Roosten examines a loser from the inside. He's a spiteful Walter Mitty who can't understand his failure because he shares the same casino values as the winner he would like to be. The infernal American dream leaves him no space for awareness as his thoughts stumble from one cliché to the next.

In Home a marine returns from one of the Homeland-Security wars where he has been court-martialed for an act of violence in excess of duty. He's the product of a broken home and finds his mother and a lover in one of those domestic messes that fill Saunders's work. Numb with suppressed rage, the veteran is not merely nonjudgmental but in total disconnect with the life around him. His fellow citizens keep thanking him for his service and otherwise ignore him. Many don't know that any wars have been waged. His wife has left him and taken his children to live with another man whose family has prospered. Saunders shows us rich and poor at close quarters, often in the same family and sharing the same shallow values. Our ex-marine is the hero here, not for his military exploits, whatever they were, but for his acceptance of victimhood without returning a blow.

The title story, Tenth of December, begins in the mind of a frail boy busily replaying the adolescent fantasies that are everywhere skewered in the author's work. The boy's inner life will be one story segment; the thoughts of a decrepit old man the other. Both are much involved with their respective families and prove to be heroes. Satire and humor are edged out by etched description of their thinking as they plod over a winter landscape. The etching will include raw sentiment. The action turns on the decision of an ailing man to commit suicide by exposure, thus hoodwinking the insurance company by passing the event off as an accident. He discards his coat and climbs a hill in subzero weather. The boy dreamily comes along, picks up the coat and sees the old man in the distance. The only way to overtake the coatless man is to cut across a frozen pond. The boy falls into the freezing water. The old man looks back and sees him struggling. His essential goodness makes him renounce suicide and help the boy. Two good deeds complement each other. The boy makes it home and his mother returns to save the would-be suicide who decides life is worth living after all.

Although the upbeat Tenth of December closes the collection, it stands midway in the transition to the more fanciful stories. My Chivalric Fiasco takes place in one of those commercial parks where history is reenacted by live actors for gawking spectators. Saunders returns repeatedly to these enterprises whose kitschy phoniness apparently best portrays for him American life at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The story begins realistically enough but moves into fantasy by way of a pill one of the actors swallows to encourage his loquacity in the antique lingo the figures must speak as part of their job. The actor turns out to be a hero who, speaking out in the folkloric tongue, reveals a sordid crime behind the scenes. The boss raped an employee but shut her up with a cash bonus and bribed the only witness with a promotion. The stoned young whistleblower loses the job that had kept his ailing parents afloat. Times are always tough for our author's wage earners. Here it's the boss's use of his position of power that's held up for contempt.

The Semplica Girl Diaries is a monolog in diary form. For the second time in the collection the author makes a sally beyond realism. To start with he delineates a situation that's a favorite with him. A young father in a mediocre job grieves because he hasn't the means for his children to keep up with their better-off schoolmates. The fond parent's guilt comes from a common trait of Saunders's adult Americans. They share their children's childish values and fantasies. "Lifestyle" promotion aiding, these touch more than toys, clothes, and birthday parties. The kids here yearn for an ornamental front yard around their middle-range ranch house.

A windfall allows their dad to do-over the yard and -- here comes the fantastical -- even to install the latest prestige item. This is a grouping of immigrants from the poorest countries who through a breakthrough in corporative science are able to serve as live ornamental garden statuary. They are an advance on passé inanimate garden gnomes.

The flaw in the arrangement is an eight-year-old Saunders's hero. Her empathy for the indentured lawn furniture makes her liberate the captives. What's satirized here is the rationalizations of her father and his society. Both argue that while it may be a hard life out there among the flowerbeds for the guest workers, it's much more comfortable than what they would enjoy in their home countries. However, shooing the immigrants out of the garden gate doesn't make for a happy ending. Business logic shows its teeth. Dad has contractual obligations to the agency that supplied the escapees and must pay penalties. He's left more crushed by his credit cards than he was in pre-windfall days.

The fantastical in Escape from Spiderhead is pure dystopian sci-fi. Shades of A Clockwork Orange, delinquents are enrolled under pressure in experiments with mind-altering drugs. The results prove unspeakably cruel to the participants who are, at the same time, somewhat coddled. When things go wrong, causing death, the official justification is that the common good of scientific advancement has been served. The reader might be put in mind of a parallel with the "collateral damage" of imperial military adventures that include torture "to save lives."

"Being good in small ways is easy," says the scientist in Pentagon idiom. "Doing huge good things, that's harder." He's speaking to a delinquent who refuses to inflict intense pain and possible death on an individual he sees before him. "Huge good things" could be removing Saddam Hussein at the cost of $2 trillion, hundreds of thousands dead, and millions more displaced. It could include water-boarding individuals, Homeland Security disfavors, or sending out drones hit or miss to dispense death for the sake of "peace." The author, like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell before him, foresees a nation drugged with "happiness" pills. For the moment the chemical formula for mental coercion isn't perfect and a George Saunders hero pops up. He's a delinquent who can't bear witnessing extreme cruelty and sacrifices his life to stop it.

Stripping George Saunders and his stories bare shouldn't make us forget his skill at shaping them and the perfect pitch of his prose. At the same time, it does reveal that satire isn't his strongest suit. As dark as his palette may be, he can't altogether escape the gaga optimism of his compatriots. He may mock it on occasion but regularly calls in a dollop to brighten pictures he fears are painted too somber. Sunshine isn't always illuminating. Looking on the bright side is what the Jesus-lovers-and-savers do, likewise the deniers of climate change and the planners of costless invasions and no-problem regime change abroad.


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Published June 17, 2013