It's been a good year for George Saunders fans. In September 2005, Saunders published a novella, The Frightening Reign of Phil. Then in April came Persuasion Nation, Saunders's third collection of short stories.
Saunders is a writer's writer. Though not widely read by the general public, he is beloved by other scribes. His career has followed a unique trajectory. He's never written a novel, and he had a distinctly un-literary career into his late 30s (he worked as a technical writer and geophysical engineer until 1996). But he's won two National Magazine Awards for his stories and is published regularly in The New Yorker.
His first two story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000), were named New York Times notable books and established him as the revered writer he is. The slim volumes include only about a dozen stories, but they are some of the freshest, most stylish works of fiction written in the past decade and a half.
Saunders's unique style is a mixture of simple sentences, often associated with realists like Ernest Hemingway, and distinctly unreal plots. Saunders has a thing for amusement parks, and a number of his stories are set in apocalyptic ones, where employees - usually disgruntled - play-act for the viewing public.
The title story of CivilWarLand takes place in a mock pioneer village in one such park haunted by the spirits of an actual pioneer family that once lived on the land. The amusement park has financial difficulties and is terrorized by gangs who are scaring away visitors and defiling attractions.
Saunders's characters suffer, but in a way that makes suffering seem like a new invention instead of the eternal fate of humankind.
Take this example from CivilWarLand: "Mr. A calls me into his office and says he's got bad news and bad news, and which do I want first. I say the bad news. First off, he says, the gangs have spray painted a picture of Quinn's notched penis on the side of the Everly Mansion. Second, last Friday's simulated frontier hunt has got us in hot water, because apparently some of the beef we toughen up to resemble buffalo meat was tainted, and the story's going in the Sunday supplement."
Saunders's minimalist prose unleashes the down-to-earth pathos of the American dirty-realists, while his absurdist fantasies flex our imagination and introduce an element of humor often missing from America's great story writers. Of course, Saunders's quirky setups sometimes fall prey to a problem of the so-called postmodernists like Donald Barthelme or hysterical realists - to use critic James Wood's term - like Don Delillo. Absurdity is fine, but it often comes at the expense of the human. But Saunders proves what Wood is unwilling to accept: Some truths and some perspectives would be unreachable without a pinch of hysteria.
Saunders's writing is in many ways comparable to Etgar Keret's. Keret also specializes in short works that merge straightforward writing with humor and improbable settings. Keret uses these lighter touches as a way to explore serious human themes, not to avoid them. If Saunders were to engage in Middle Eastern politics, the result would likely be similar to something like Keret's Kneller's Happy Campers. Here, two friends, Mordy and Uzi, try to navigate life (death, really) in an afterlife filled with victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As with Saunders's amusement parks, Keret's netherworld is both recognizable and utterly novel. We gain insight into the real world by taking a literary vacation in a fantastical one.
But Keret and Saunders reflect their distinct countries of origin as well. Keret's themes are weightier, dealing with political and military conflict. Saunders, on the other hand, is a more accomplished stylist who for the most part limits himself to the unique pathologies of American individualism. Ironically, the Israeli Keret might be more well-known in America than his American counterpart - just one more absurd twist. Nevertheless, Saunders is an American treasure.
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