Reviews of Books I Haven’t Finished: George Saunders

15 Jan

Title: Pastoralia
Last page reached: 32

In my defense, I tried very hard, putting the book down and picking it up again twice before resigning myself to failure. Still, 32 pages isn’t much of an effort, especially for someone like this author. I bought the book because of, one, the general buzz about the author, and two, a short story called “Puppy.” I read the story in an edition of The Best American Short Stories, where it stood out among the other selections, not just for its basic excellence, but because it bucks the current trend of realism in the published stories we are pleased to call “literary.” Saunders is a throwback in terms of technique, to the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the so-called post-modern era of fiction, when authors started with an assumption that readers were too smart for conventional narratives, and so their stories would mock themselves, winking at the wise readers as they moved along toward their fabricated conclusions. Some of that stuff is pretty fun to read and intellectually gratifying if you get the joke (which pretty much everyone does), but that stance, that smartass voice, grew tiresome after a while, and it was replaced by a return to various attempts at the illusion of authenticity. Saunders updates this post-modern mood in one important way: he is, essentially, a moralist. Instead of using the tongue-in-cheek, cartoonishness to discuss the limits of storytelling and literature in general, he’s here to tell us about right and wrong. Good for him. “Puppy” (not in Pastoralia, incidentally) is about a confluence of two women. One is a wealthy housewife with a spoiled son and a hard working but absent husband. The other is an impoverished “redneck” with a mentally disabled son and a hard-working but abusive husband. The characters are flat, stereotypes, but the final message is devastating. In short, the wealthy woman, who means well and who most of us would consider a “good” person, ruins the lives of the poor woman and her son, even getting a puppy killed along the way. Her problem is an old one: pride. Or to put it another way, a sense of superiority (the word “privilege” is the current term) that she isn’t aware of makes it impossible for her to empathize with the poor woman. It’s a great story.

Pastoralia is the titular novella that opens a collection of short fiction. It’s the first-person account from a man who works–in a curious alternate universe, it seems to me–in a kind of museum populated with live humans. His job, and his less-enthusiastic partner’s, is to act like pre-verbal cave man and woman in a little exhibit that gets pretty much zero visitors. They aren’t allowed to speak English, and spend their time hopping around, making fires, honking and grunting and roasting fresh meat. It’s a strange world and not a happy one. I was into it for a while, but then I wasn’t. It seems to me, the story–a thin conceit really, without what we’d call “characters” or setting for that matter–just goes on too long. Whatever dystopian message is on the way just doesn’t feel worth the trouble of forging on. So far I get that corporations are soulless. Our jobs are pointless. Soon we’ll be obsolete. We’re all probably doomed.Tell me something I don’t know! I just wished he’d got on with it.

Or perhaps my rejection of the book is more personal. At the point that I finally lost all patience, the female character’s drug-addict son arrives. In that comic-strip technique, the character shows himself to be utterly selfish, utilizing the psychologizing-victim-babble of the day to justify his horribleness, to demand more privileges and deflect all responsibility for his own horrible acts. I sense the author is going for laughs, but for me, whose brother is a deeply troubled addict, it just wasn’t funny. Perhaps others disagree.

In closing, I’ll likely give this book another try sometime, probably skipping ahead to the next short story in the collection. I have found that the skills it takes to write a novel and a short story aren’t as overlapping as most assume. Some writers just don’t do long very well, and others aren’t very good at short. And hey, there’s no shame in that. Most of us aren’t too good at either.

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