The phrase “when we need it most” seems to be showing up on a lot of dustjackets lately, though in response to exactly what is hard to say. We are simply living in dark times – and whatever political crisis is currently festering in America, it couldn’t hurt to salve the wound with a little literature.
George Saunders’ new story collection, In Persuasion Nation, has two such blurbs on its dust jacket. As it happens, Saunders’ work is likely to outlast the political era that spawned it. Several of these stories brush up against current events, and a political sensibility underlies the writing. But at their core these stories are concerned with ancient themes – love, pity, experience – whose reconciliation offers an alternative to the shouting match of contemporary culture.
Saunders is primarily an absurdist in the tradition of Samuel Beckett; the worlds he creates on the page are prisons of narrow logic. Some of his characters exist in surreal settings – sitcoms, failing theme parks, corporate orphanages – and their exposure to the outside world is limited to brief, filtered moments. Others live in more realist states punctuated by elements of the absurd (ghosts, living corpses). Saunders isn’t technically experimental but he’s not a strict realist either. His worlds are saturated by free-market culture, in which humiliation trumps tenderness, and history is repackaged for an information economy.
In Persuasion Nation offers several terrifying visions of a new America where the soft sell has gone hard. In “Jon,” orphans are raised as guinea pigs for product-marketing testing; their adolescent emotions are tied, inextricably and pitifully, to market spots: ” …her hair in braids, which I had always found cute, her being like that milkmaid for Swiss Rain Chocolate.” In “My Flamboyant Grandson,” characters are forced to watch commercials in public spaces (chips in their shoes call up personalized ads). When the narrator opts out, he is compelled to pay a fine or make up for lost time with his shoes on, “thus reclaiming a significant opportunity to Celebrate My Preferences.”
Saunders’ signature style is choked with product names, giving his fiction a texture of both familiarity and weirdness. In the title story, a bag of Doritos, a “MacAttack” Mac & Cheese-loving grandson and an “innovative edible plastic product” called a “Slap-of-Whack bar” are confronted by the characters they’ve abused in their drive to sell. The unrelenting awareness of marketing culture (i.e.,”persuasion nation”) makes for a humor that is raucous and terrifying in its proximity to our own.
Readers with a sweet tooth for cultural satire will get their fix here, and yet none of these pieces, save “My Amendment,” a riff on the 2004 same-sex-marriage-ban initiatives, is strictly political or humorous. Saunders’ settings, which are at least half the fun, nonetheless support weightier subjects. Satirical polemics turn, on a dime, to existential meditations. In “CommComm,” a military PR hack destroys evidence of an archeological site to secure a job at Homeland Security and discards the subsequent emotions as “Useless Guilt” – visualized as a pack of dogs running off a cliff. Meanwhile, the ghosts of his dead parents constantly relive their murder in his house. Behind the PR gags and Christian fundamentalist jokes runs a story about our relationship with grief.
The players in these dramas are often confronted with insane choices: Put your Everly shoes back on, or watch “Robust Economy, Super Moral Climate!”; get happy, or get written off the show. And yet Saunders’ stories, generally, work themselves out by finding a third option. Characters find grace and tenderness on their way out of the cave.
Saunders exploits the ground between our daily reality and the hyperactive nightmare of commercial culture, in which common-sense ethics no longer function. The humor in these stories is more horrific than comic, and our response to it, which tends more towards a grimace than a belly-laugh, comes with a pang of guilt.
In “Brad Carrigan, American,” which takes place on a TV show, a shock aesthetic has replaced the canned-laughter world of the title character. Brad lives between two arcs in the plot: in one, excess is the reward for individual and national accomplishment, while in the other Brad is haunted by the products of Western negligence and selfishness. Quite literally, in fact: Brad has dialogue with the charred corpses of Balkan civil-war victims as his neighbors have genitals implanted in their heads, for a bit called “Extreme Surgery.” The story comes close to preachiness, but Saunders follows through gracefully. The loud humor of the story is underpinned by a wash of shame and pity, from which one gets the sense that something else – something other than the crass calculus of have fun or fuck off – is possible.
In a 2004 Believer interview with Ben Marcus, Saunders wondered, “Are we writing as big as we need to write? Are we just spoiled-brat sneering aesthetes who are masturbating while looking away from the big questions of our age?” American writing, he claims, is stuck in a mode that privileges a narrow form of realism, precluding new approaches. “Life came brutally knocking at our door,” he said, “and now we are reconsidering the venture.”
That same year, much ado was made over the National Book Awards, whose fiction shortlist notably excluded books by Phillip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, John Updike and Annie Proulx but included two books of interconnected short stories, one by Joan Silber and the other by Kate Walbert. Irritated critics snarled “experimental” and pointed to the authors’ Manhattan addresses and their books’ poor sales figures. But the 2004 Awards had touched a nerve, igniting a discussion among critics and writers about experimental writing, the awards process, and publishing in general.
Saunders is hardly an overlooked writer. He appears regularly in Harper’s and the New Yorker, and Ben Stiller has optioned one of his screenplays. Nor is his writing breaking into new territory. But it’s a writing against a staid form, loosely experimental, imaginative, humorous, political, and deeply humanist at once. The 2004 nonfiction NBA went to The 9/11 Commission Report, which concluded that those terrorist attacks were due in part to a “failure of imagination.” Saunders, whose boundless imagination is alternately dark and bright, may be the writer we need now.