Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not The Best Book You'll Read All Year

This year, events have conspired to force me to finally, at long last, find out why this George Saunders guy is considered such hot shit. The entirely obnoxious headline to Joel Lovell's January 3 New York Times Magazine profile of the writer, "George Saunders Has Written The Best Book You'll Read All Year," referring to his newest story collection Tenth of December, did not incline me towards generosity, but a couple years ago I actually had read Saunders's story "Sea Oak," considered one of his best, and had, in fact, enjoyed it pretty thoroughly (and in fairness, Lovell's actual piece, when I finally read it, was pretty endearing, if a bit much) (also, while I'm adding parentheticals, more on Tenth of December in a moment), and anyway, all of this amounted to "George Saunders is big news!" and I knew almost nothing of his work. So beginning at the beginning, I pulled CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his debut collection, off the shelf, and I read it. I can't remember if I saw these comparisons before or after I'd read anything by him, but Saunders' fictions is regularly aligned with that of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon (who even blurbed Saunders once), and it turns out this grouping is about as accurate as such things get. More specifically, the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline read to me as if Pynchon had written the funny parts of Vonnegut's books. This is my way of saying that I liked the book, though you shouldn't assume from this that I'm at all well-versed in Pynchon. However, what I have read of Pynchon, Saunders' humor has a similar rhythm, or the rhythm of the Pynchon jokes I remember best, which is to basically suddenly descend from some high-falutin' thought -- either put on or otherwise -- or darkly bizarre situation into a slangy, blunt sort of trailing off that, when done well, I, for whatever reason, find very funny (David Foster Wallace did this, too, although curiously he was also in the habit of beginning high-falutin' thoughts -- rarely put on, in his case -- or darkly bizarre situations this way; I find this also very funny, and quite, in my case, insidiously influential). Pulling an example from Saunders is a lot easier at this particular moment, not to mention far more to the point, so here's something from "The Wavemake Falters," which is about a guy who works at a theme park, and was responsible for an accident on a water ride that killed a young boy:

It gets very awkward and quiet. Me at the controls is a sore subject. Nothing's gone right for us since the day I crushed the boy with the wavemaker. I haven't been able to forget his little white trunks floating out of the inlet port all bloody. Who checks protective-screen mounting screws these days? Not me. Leon does when he wavemakes of course. It's in the protocol. That's how he got to be Subquadrant Manager, attention to detail. Leon's been rising steadily since we went through Orientation together, and all told he's saved three Guests and I've crushed the shit out of one.

So that should give you some idea, maybe. As it happens, "The Wavemaker Falters," along with "The 400-Pound CEO," which is also from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, is probably my favorite Saunders story I've read so far, yet in my experience neither of those gets talked up too much. From that first book, it's usually the title story or maybe "The Bounty," the closing novella that takes up half the book, that people mention; from his follow-up collection Pastoralia (which I haven't read, save for one story), it's either the title novella or "Sea Oak." But "The Wavemaker Falters" and "The 400-Pound CEO" never seem to get a look in, and I wonder why. In both, Saunders does what he's best at, and what Vonnegut was very good at (Lovell's piece reveals Saunders' first encounter with Vonnegut's fiction to be a life-changer, and this is not exactly a shock), which is to create an entirely absurd version of our own world, just truly and utterly ridiculous, but ridiculous in a way that the reader is immediately aware of the source, and then unspool a story that takes you from comedy into total heartbreak. At his best, Saunders can make this turn on a dime, and it's very impressive. Also like Vonnegut, Saunders is often operating on some hazy plane of science fiction; sometimes the use of genre is explicit, other times a story seems to be taking place today, or even yesterday, but weirder. I very much enjoy this brand of "I'll do whatever I want" inventiveness, and it's what originally drew me to Vonnegut. So basically what I'm saying is, I mostly enjoyed CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, even if, for such a slender book, Saunders apparently had a strange tendency to repeat himself: out of just seven stories, four of them involve theme parks or "edutainment" facilities. Which would be one thing if this was clearly the the thrust of the whole collection, if it seemed to be a group of stories all tackling the same idea, but it's not. Still, I found it strange, as I say, but I also didn't much care. The collection wasn't entirely bereft of variety, in any case.

This is all in the aftermath of Lovell's story, and so I will admit to a certain "I bet I hate this" kind of attitude towards CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. I was pleased that I didn't, not least because this proved to me that I am a man of integrity. But the main point was to have some firm grounding before taking on the new Saunders collection, the one of which the Lovell piece and all the other recent Saunders-based hype, was in aid, Tenth of December. Which I have now read. Now, the other thing about CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is that, had it not been titled after one of its stories, it could have been called Hey Guys? The Economy. The economy of the 1990s, and either way, fine. I begin to object a bit when Tenth of December could be called the same thing. Obviously, 2013 is rather more open to such a collection of stories, but when once again many stories deal with theme parks, or lower-middle-class families whose patriarch makes moral compromises in order to provide, in some typically outlandish way, for his family -- not in terms of basic necessities, either, but in terms of status -- I think I'm allowed to ask "What, again?" Or am I? Because, you know, in the world of films, major directors are expected to thread a small handful of interests or obsessions or what have you throughout their movies, and this is said to tie everything together into a complete body of work. So goes the theory, anyhow, which I think even has a name. So what's good for the film director should be, and is, good for the short story writer, because why not? But this does not open the door for repetition, exactly, though on the surface it would seem to. I would feel better about all this, in short, if "My Chivalric Fiasco" from Tenth of December didn't feel like an exhausted "Why'm I writing this again?" retread of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," or if the new book's centerpiece, "The Simplica Girl Diaries" didn't read like half of the stories in that earlier book, but stretched to novella length and not as good, or not very much good at all. Or if Saunders could imagine a lower-middle-class character acquiring something which itself, or the act of acquiring, didn't in some way stomp his morals into the dirt. Not that Saunders is without empathy -- many, many people will assure you that he's positively bursting with it -- but that he believes people only do things one way, and for one reason.

Still, the main point worth making has to do with whether or not these stories are any good. As I've implied, I don't really think so, or not much good, or mostly not much good. Tenth of December's first story -- having nothing at all to do with money, as if to refute three quarters of what I've written so far -- is "Victory Lap," about a teenage boy witnessing his female teenage neighbor being accosted by a potential kidnapper, and trying to figure out if he should do something about it, which would fly in the face of certain rules set by his over-protective parents. And to be blunt, it's kind of appalling. The writing, I mean; the jokes. The boy comes home from school and finds instructions from his dad regarding a new geode he's brought home:

Gar, Dad, do you honestly feel it fair that I should have to slave in the yard until dark after a rigorous cross-country practice that included sixteen 440s, eight 880s, a mile-for-time, a kajillion Drake sprint, and a five-mile Indian relay?

Shoes off, mister.

Yoinks, too late. he was already at the TV. And had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten.

Part of the deal with this kid is that he's been trained, essentially, to never swear. Okay, but this "way verboten" dogshit sounds like an R. L. Stine take on those sassy teens. Surely there was a middle ground that could have been struck.
Anyway, this story, the collection's worst, made me quite nervous, and while the letter of my nervousness wasn't confirmed, the spirit was. It will behoove me now to focus almost solely on "The Simplica Girl Diaries." There's a kind of spoiler in this one, which I'll spoil, fair warning, and that is that in the world of this novella a sign of suburban (of course) prosperity is the purchasing of women from the Third World, who are hung in people's lawns by a wire that runs through their temples. This is very expensive, but the narrator, or diarist, of "The Simplica Girl Diaries," wins $10,000 in the lottery, and sets about gussying up his home in this way. Now, quality aside, for now, this is a rather interesting story, because as Saunders points out in the New York Time Magazine piece it actually took him over twelve years to write. The idea, the image of the immigrant women dangling over a suburban lawn, came to him in a dream, which he describes this way:

I went to a window that didn’t exist in our house, and I looked into the yard, and I saw a row of what I understood in the dream logic to be third-world women who had a wire through their heads,” he said. “Instead of horror, my reaction was like, ‘Yeah, we did it.’ Just like if you’d gotten a new car or a kid into school or something, that feeling of, I’ve come such a long way, I’m able to give these things to my family. And there was a sense that there was an alleviated shame.

And the horrible block he experienced in writing it came about because:

Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it — and so things have to be ramped up. . . . These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language. So, in this case, I just started out by trying to get the guy to that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling.

Now I would say, as an outsider viewing his dilemma objectively, this makes a great deal of sense to me. However, the story does not display a successful solution to the problem. For one thing, instead of a trio of immigrant women, it could have been just about anything strange, unpleasant, and surreal, just as long as its presence makes the reader, hopefully, think "Oh he shouldn't want to own that." In actual practice, it is strange, unpleasant, and surreal object with a half-assed "The Third World, am I right?" subtext. Not even subtext, and in fact, not even text. It's just a plot element. Stripped to its altogether, the Third World commentary of "The Simplica Girl Diaries" amounts to simply saying the words "Third World." And so the Third World is, in fact, a Maguffin. As, I must add, it so often is in contemporary "socially conscious" First World literature. Perhaps most importantly, Saunders doesn't actually depict his protagonist "get[ting] that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling." He has the feeling, but the whole "getting there" process is completely absent, because the world of the story, a world that allows for guilt-free Simplica Girls, exists and has existed, and anyone -- which seems to be everyone, save a child or two, who are shown as being capable of moral discomfort over the whole ridiculous thing -- who was going to become morally acclimated to the idea has already become so. So there's no "getting there." He got there long ago. He just needed the money, so Saunders let him win the lottery.

The two best stories in Tenth of December are rather different from the rest, and rather good. "Escape from Spiderhead," really a full-blown science fiction story about prison, crime, guilt, and pharmaceuticals, is actually excellent, somewhat funny, genuinely moving and pretty clear-eyed, too, about its subject. The title story isn't funny at all, not so's I remember anyway, but it confronts Saunders' other big theme, death, far more bluntly and beautifully than probably any other story by him I've read. So this is all actually cause for me to hope, I guess, that Saunders can pull back from whatever it is he has going on here in Tenth of December. No writing produced by someone as talented as he is is effortless, but in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline he sure made it seem like it was, as did Vonnegut before him. The simple hilarity of his prose must have been honed and pored over. By all accounts, that honing is still going on, but frankly the hilarity is gone, at least for now, and it's not because he's not trying. Also gone is his appreciation of the absurdity of the worst things in the world. That's why he was funny, and that's why he was good. Though that use of "was" sounds harsh. I hope it's simply my natural pessimism taking over.


Roderick Heath said...

Urk, the prose excerpted there is the sort of stuff that more and more makes me wanna claw my eyes out these days.

bill r. said...

In the context of the story, the quote from "The Wavemaker Falters" made me laugh. The one from "Victory Lap" is fairly terrible, in or out of the story.

Josh Ralske said...

I found it a mixed bag, as you did, but there wasn't anything in it that made me want to throw the book down in disgust. I thought the good ones, yes, "Escape from Spiderhead", "Home", "Tenth of December" were special and memorable, while the lesser ones were at least what I would describe as "well-written". I think they capture a sense of place and of character.

Gonna read In Persuasion Nation next. Thanks, library!

Josh Ralske said...

Re: Persuasion Nation, it is so much more of the same that I think I shan't be reading this author again.