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George Saunders’ Rebel Yell

Who's the perfect writer for America in the Age of George W.?
by Published on

In these strange and scary times overseen by our native son George W., it’s appropriate that the most politically sensitive fiction writer publishing today is a Texan: George Saunders—the master of the surreal, satirical short story.

Saunders was born in Amarillo in 1958, but moved with his family to Chicago soon after. He returned to Texas each summer to spend two weeks with his grandparents and extended family, an experience he says “seemed very exotic—just the whole idea that everything about a place could be subtly different from your home—the climate, the accent, the availability of Dr Pepper.” After graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a bachelor’s degree in geophysical engineering, he joined an oil exploration crew in Sumatra. During his years abroad he watched women in saris excavate roads. And as he later told Salon, he “learned that there was oppression.” Upon returning to the U.S., he worked a variety of odd jobs, including doorman in Beverly Hills and knuckle-puller at a West Texas slaughterhouse. In the late 1980s, Saunders, who had been writing fiction all along, was accepted into the graduate school at Syracuse University, where he is now a professor of creative writing.

He has published three collections of short stories: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation, published in April by Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group. He has also published a fable for children, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (recently reprinted by McSweeney’s Books) and, in 2005, the novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The title story in Pastoralia offers as good an introduction as any to his extraordinary body of work. In the story a pair of theme-park employees live during the workday as Cro-Magnon cavemen, communicating via grunts and combing through each other’s hair for bugs. A fresh, dead goat is shoved through a “Big Slot” each day, which the faux cavemen then skin with a flint and roast for food.

Meanwhile, management communicates by fax; the cavemen, in turn, fax Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Forms to a supervisor named Nordstrom.

All is well in their little prehistoric Garden of Eden until Janet, the female re-enactor, begins having trouble at home and starts drinking. When complaints from customers reach Nordstrom about Janet’s unauthorized behavior, he begins hectoring the anonymous narrator to demonstrate loyalty by ratting out his partner. Sadly, under pressure from dwindling goat supplies, the nameless caveman eventually relents, and order is restored in his ersatz paradise.

George Saunders, photo by Caitlin Saunders

The quirky scenario turns the Genesis story into a version of Orwell’s 1984. Saunders’ vision of the future—nearly all his stories are set in an alt-America just ahead of our time—is a dystopia paved over by amusement parks, experimental labs, and corporate-sponsored suburbia, peopled by “kooks” suffering from anomie and working miserable jobs.

It’s not quite cynical, nor is it entirely serious. And it may be difficult to tell from this small sample—Saunders’ stories are so elaborate and so phantasmagoric, they are almost impossible to summarize—but the stuff is really funny.

A practicing Buddhist, Saunders tries to apply pacifist, lateral thinking to our political problems. This endeavor has been on full display in a series of provocative, tongue-in-cheek think pieces for The New Yorker, where he published most of his fiction, and Slate (See www.inpersuasionnation.com for a downloadable booklet of his nonfiction).

His “Manifesto: A Press Release from PRKA,” for example, posits the existence of a political party named for “People who Refuse to Kill for an Abstraction.” Elsewhere, the essay “Flooding the Zone: A New Approach to Global Democracy” suggests that the best way to bring peace to Iraq is to force all 300 million Americans to go there and win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis through constant and vigilant overfeeding (think of an ethnic grandmother’s meals), which would induce lethargy and keep the insurgency at bay. Meanwhile, Canadians will renovate the Holy Land, while Kosovars, Palestinians, and Israelis enjoy a vacation in now vacated North America.

“The hardship will be great, but so will the reward,” Saunders writes.

Indeed, these unusual times call for unusual fiction.

The most radical of Saunders’s books is the stand-alone novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, published last year. Part Dr. Seuss, part Kafka, it’s a surreal political parable about a pair of nations, Inner Horner and Outer Horner, populated by men, machines, and plants all fighting over limited land resources.

Outer Horner is a spacious country that surrounds Inner Horner, a country “so small it could contain only one Inner Hornerite” at a time. As one Inner Hornerite occupied the country, the remaining six Inner Hornerites would wait their turn in the nearby Short-Term Residency Zone, an area borrowed from Outer Horner. One day Inner Horner is struck by an earthquake that makes it three-quarters smaller and forces three-quarters of the sole Inner Hornerite in residence into Outer Horner proper. Phil, a middle-aged, “slightly bitter nobody,” rallies the Outer Horner militia to view the flow of Inner Hornerites as an invasion and push them back.

Urged on by sycophants, including a media described as “squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles,” Phil soon seizes power and imposes martial law. He surrounds Inner Horner with a “Peace Encouraging Enclosure” and begins “disassembling” all who are disloyal to him. It’s genocide.

As Saunders wrote in an Amazon.com essay, the novella was inspired by “our tendency to turn our enemies into objects, so that we can then guiltlessly destroy them.” The inspiration for Phil, he added, was “some Greatest Common Denominator for tyrants. I had in mind, at various times, Rwanda, Bosnia, the Holocaust, and because the above-described method of composition sometimes leaves a story becalmed or confused for long stretches of time, Islamic fundamentalism, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, red states vs. blue states, Abu Ghraib, Shia vs. Sunni, as well as smaller, more localized examples of Us vs. Them.”

It’s indeed strange, but somehow it makes sense. That may well be Saunders’s true gift as a writer: making the strange make sense.

Written with his signature imaginative aplomb, his latest collection of stories, In Persuasion Nation, is even more acerbic than earlier works. The collection is divided into four sections, each prefaced by excerpts from a fictional neocon rant, “Taskbook for the New Nation.” This book-within-a-book opens with Chapter 1. “New Man, New Growth-Community”:

Our enemies will first assail the health of our commerce, throwing up this objection and that to innovative methods and approaches designed to expand our prosperity, and thus our freedom. Their old-fashioned clinging to obsolete ideas only signals their extinction. In the end, we must pity them: we are going forward with joy and hope; they are being left behind, mired in fear.

These little snippets provide the sense of paranoid forces at work behind the façade of Saunders sleek, futuristic world.

Chapter 3, “Are We Not We? Are They Not Them?” offers up this advice about our unseen enemies:

They will attempt to insinuate themselves into the very fabric of our emotional lives, demanding the dissolution of the distinction between beloved and enemy, friend and foe, neighbor and stranger. They will, citing equality, deny our right to make critical moral distinctions. Crying peace, they will deny our right to defend, in whatever manner is most expedient, the beloved. Under the guise of impartiality, they will demand we disavow all notions of tradition, family, friends, tribe, and even nation. But are we animals, forced to look blankly upon the rich variety of life, disallowed the privilege of making moral distinctions, dead to love, forbidden from preferring this to that?

Such vapid political platitudes appear in the stories themselves as well: “My Flamboyant Grandson” portrays a grandfather-grandson trip to a Broadway show in a futuristic New York City as little more than an orgy of advertising. When a Citizen Helper discovers that the grandfather has sabotaged the strips on the bottom of his shoes (the strips control the types of advertising he sees), he gives the grandfather a citation that forces him to watch a corrective video called “Robust Economy, Super Moral Climate!” There’s a distinct echo in the name of that video to the “Go Shopping, or the Terrorists Will Have Won” diktat extolled by the White House in weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The title story, “In Persuasion Nation,” depicts reality as if it were a nonstop television ad, peopled by amorous Ding-Dongs and larcenous, talking polar bears, terrorized by the Godlike “green symbol.”

“The Red Bow” is an allegory for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. After a pack of wild dogs kills a young girl, her father, wielding his dead daughter’s little red bow as a totem, lobbies fellow citizens to pre-emptively eliminate all the pets in town to prevent further attacks. There will be no mercy: “Kill every dog, every cat,” advises the grieving mother of the young victim. “Kill every mouse, every bird. Kill every fish. Anyone objects, kill them too.”

In the final story, “CommComm,” an Air Force public relations officer is forced to spin atrocities into tolerable news. He is then murdered by a co-worker. His unexpected death, which turns him into a ghost, allows him to liberate other murder victims from a kind of limbo.

No it’s not subtle, but it is sophisticated and almost entirely sui generis.

Or nearly so. Saunders does have literary forebears, two of whom can be traced to Texas.

The claustrophobic milieu of “CommComm” immediately brings to mind Terry Southern’s screenplay for the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, and the paranoid tension on Burpelson Air Force Base as it braces for nuclear holocaust. And there are echoes of Donald Barthelme, a writer Saunders has described as “a god.” Though the satire in Barthelme’s absurdist stories is often intellectual or social rather than political, both writers employ a collage-like structure and esoteric, enigmatic plot lines. Juxtapose Barthelme’s grimly funny “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” with “The Red Bow,” and the resemblance in tone—as well as the twisted logic of its genius—is unmistakable.

Like Saunders, who has been consciously influenced by the Bush White House, much of Barthelme’s work was at least a partial reaction to another event deeply disturbing to the American psyche—the Vietnam War.

Like Barthelme, Saunders has also received a rare imprimatur—a baton if you will—from another ground-breaking, radical, anti-war fiction writer: Thomas Pynchon, who has called Saunders “an astounding tuned voice—graceful, dark, authentic, and funny—telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times.”

Too true.

All this means it is important to invite Saunders into the pantheon of great, innovative, and rebellious Texas writers. He’s one son of the Lone Star State of whom we can all be proud.

Edward Nawotka is a writer in Houston. He can be reached at [email protected].

Five Questions for George Saunders (sidebar)

Texas Observer: How did the time you spent in Texas affect your literary sensibility?

George Saunders: First, my family down there is very vocal and funny and warm. That worked its way into my fiction just in the sense that humor was always seen as desirable, and as a valid way to work out problems or just enjoy yourself. My grandfather—who traveled around the Panhandle as a salesman—was a big influence, as were my uncles. They all knew how to convey joy via stories and jokes, etc., and in fact gave you the feeling that this was the whole point of life—this conveying of joy.

TO: Did literature give you a sense of life being different beyond the conservative outlines of our Lone Star State?

GS: Actually, when I was growing up I never thought of Texas as a conservative place at all. In Amarillo there was a good sense of what I’d call Steinbeckian wisdom—this sense that ultimately the big companies and bosses were, of course, feeding on the little guy. My grandfather worked all through the Depression—he had, at one point, four jobs at once—and so when I first read The Grapes of Wrath it was people I’d met in Amarillo that I imagined …

TO: Do you find Texas inherently “weird”?

GS: I think it’s inherently great—huge and outsized and bold and all those other adjectives people use. So yes, weird too—the one thing I loved about Texas when I was there in my 20s and trying to learn how to write was how oddly sci-fi and strange it was—the cowboy stuff, the countryside—and then those all-glass buildings and expressway-dominated cities, multinational cities … for somebody who was, at the time, trying to channel Hemingway, it was a great reminder that literature has to be big and weird itself if it’s going to give us even a taste of the real world.

TO: Politically, how has it influenced your fiction?

GS: Well, I guess it taught me that behind a label like “right-wing fundamentalist” are real people, some of whom I love. Many of my friends and relatives from Texas are located way to the right of me. And that’s a great political lesson: Any group identity is at best an approximation, and a real artist (or a decent human being) would be hungry to go behind the Broad Characterization and try to understand everyone as a complex, evolving, work-in-process.

TO: I also understand that among your unpublished fiction is a novel set in a Wal-Mart in Amarillo—true or rumor?

GS: Well, not really. But there was a long stretch there where I was trying to “do” Amarillo in the voice of Hemingway, which just doesn’t work.