He must make grunting noises and skin goats with a flint.
He must chase bugs, work on pictographs, and spend long hours pretending to sharpen a spear.
And he must never speak English in the cave, in spite of the fact that his cavemate, Janet, sings pop songs, smokes cigarettes, hoards mints, and “sometimes puts on big ugly glasses in the cave and does a crossword: very verboten.”
It’s all very funny–except for the fact that the protagonist’s real-life son is sick with an unnamed illness, Janet’s got a bundle of problems of her own, the two can only communicate with family by fax, and, by way of this very same fax, memos are coming down from headquarters about a “Staff Remixing.” The best our narrator can do to protect his job is to be honest about Janet’s shortcomings in his “Daily Partner Evaluation Forms,” yet he cannot bring himself to say much more than the following:
“Do I note any attitudinal differences? I do not. How do I rate my Partner overall? Very good. Are there any Situations which require Mediation? There are not. I fax it in.”
The allegory in this cave is one of loyalty and corporate culture: As circumstances deteriorate, the narrator’s dilemma increasingly becomes whether or not to rat out Janet. George Saunders masterfully explores the question of whether one can exist in this, or any other, corporate cave and still be a decent human being.
In his prior collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders had a field day with the backdrop of the American theme park–from the historical park of the title, to water parks, fairy castles, and the briefly-alluded-to Center for Wayward Nuns, “full of sisters and other religious personnel who’ve become doubtful.” With the title story of Pastoralia, Saunders again chooses the theme park setting, and once again it’s the trials and tribulations of wayward American Dreamers that are on display. Yet the terrain in this second brilliant, bizarre, and ingeniously funny collection has shifted. Pastoralia is peopled by a much more complex cast. Even the shlubbiest of individuals is in some way a caregiver, mired deep in the dilemma of how, and how much, to be responsible for the next guy in line. In all six of these stories, each originally published in The New Yorker, responsibility is a predicament that weighs heavily on Saunders’ characters.
All that worry amounts to a lots of escapist fantasy. In CivilWarLand, Saunders evokes troubling weirdness in the proliferation of theme-park kitsch; here it is the proliferation of despair, and all the fantasizing done as distraction from it, that infuses his stories with a surreal edge. Yet these stretches of fantasy are perhaps the funniest sections of the book. Not only do characters desperately dream about a better a life, they dream of better dreams, guiltily and neurotically editing their own thoughts, aspiring to a better life even in fantasy. In “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” a barber fantasizes about making it with every woman he sees–not only loving her tender, but bringing her to the home he still shares with his mother, where the three can enact an unlikely scene of domestic tranquility. Yet even in his dreams he can’t get it right. “He wondered how Miss Hacienda would look in a silver bikini in slow motion. Although if she was knocked up she shouldn’t be riding a horse. She should be sitting down, taking it easy. Somebody should be bringing her a cup of tea.”
Saunders’ characters practically disappear from the present moment into fantasy, where they aspire to greatness, enjoy themselves for a moment, and then neurotically and masochistically second-guess themselves back into the reality of their distress. But Saunders isn’t out to mock any of our efforts at emotional or moral bootstrapping. Rather, just as he mocked the workplace so effectively in his last collection, this time he comically condemns the people and places we turn to for salvation.
In “Winky,” Neil Yaniky lives with his crazy sister, a deluded zealot who horns in on his dates and depends on him for rent. Neil attends a motivational seminar run by the self-esteem guru, Tom Rodgers, who, to a packed conference room at the Hyatt, analogizes the unfettered soul to a bowl of oatmeal. He tells his rapt group of conference attendees:
Now, if someone came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say? Would you say: ‘Wow, super, thanks, please continue crapping in my oatmeal?’ Am I being silly? I’m being a little silly. But guess what, in real life people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time–friends, co-workers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids!–and that’s exactly what you do. You say, ‘Thanks so much!’ You say, ‘Crap away!’ You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, ‘Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?’
Though the seminar send-up couldn’t be funnier, Saunders still maintains great heart for Neil. It’s satire, with all of the irony–but with affection replacing the ridicule. We come to understand that Neil’s plight is complicated. As one of the collection’s many de facto caregivers, his obligation is huge. His need to free himself from his sister is absolutely urgent, which is what makes Saunders’ next storytelling move so deft. The story shifts to the sister’s perspective, and we are introduced first hand to her madness and her mad affection for Neil. The result is that we can empathize: We understand not only Neil’s determination for a better life, but also his deflation and defeat upon greeting his eager sister at the door.
Forget about the glass ceiling: Saunders’ characters are held down by the gum on the floor, all of them trapped in the nuisance of the everyday, trying to navigate a path (however mediocre) through the world without leaving anyone behind. The darkest and most resonant depiction of this is the weirdly profound “Sea Oak.” With one high school degree, one job, and two infants between them, a trio of young ne’er-do-wells are living with a beleaguered spinster Aunt (a caregiver to her own father until he died.) The narrator, the one with the degree and the job, works at a male strip club where the money is okay–as long as his Cuteness Rating doesn’t slip beneath “Honeypie” to “Adequate,” or even worse, “Stinker.” He says:
At Sea Oak there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx. Min and Jade are feeding their babies while watching How My Child Died Violently. Min’s my sister. Jade’s our cousin. How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain… Then it’s a commercial. Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying for GEDs. It doesn’t look good.
In this story, nothing looks good–but everything is still funny. The girls are funny. The TV shows are funny. It’s even funny when a toy duck gets shot up right outside the apartment. Aunt Bernie sees the bright side of everything, staying positive about her lousy life, even though she never made it onto an airplane and still works for minimum wage at DrugTown. The story comes to life when Bernie dies. From the afterlife, Bernie can see not only all the mistakes she has ever made, but also the whole future. In a burst of posthumous entitlement, she gets good and angry about her rotten life. Yet rather than finally resting a moment, Bernie is determined to save everyone she’s left behind, whether or not they’re willing. In another contemplation of transcendence and moral obligation, Saunders shows Bernie, the big-hearted Aunt, trying fiercely to rally her dependents into action. Even from the grave, she is doing her best to bring up the rear.
Despite the dark humor of the collection and the cynicism of his characters, Saunders’ stories are not without hope. In “The Falls,” the final story, Saunders suggests that we can rise above our limitations. Set in a small town along a river, this story is told in part from the perspective of a frustrated family man named Morse. Deeply moored in his own neuroticizing, he is largely unaware of the world around him as he walks home along the river. We learn: “His childhood dreams had been so bright, he had hoped for so much, it couldn’t be true that he was a nobody.” He is so lost in worry about his marriage, his son, and the kind of man he has become that he hardly registers the sight of two young girls in a canoe, without oars, heading for the falls.
He slowly, foggily, realizes the crisis at hand and, nervously contemplating action, he hopes to find “several sweaty, decisive men” already on the scene. But, alas, there are no sweaty decisive men tending to the situation. Morse, like the characters in each of these stories, can’t just shrug off responsibility and continue peacefully along his own path, however apprehensive and self-interested he may be.
They were dead. They were frantic, calling out to him, but they were dead, dead as the ancient dead, and he was alive, he was needed at home, it was a no-brainer, no one could blame him for this one, and making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water.
Not knowing whether Morse or the girls will survive, we look on as he is drawn, despite his logic, to the only decent act. Saunders seems to be offering such moral responsibility as the last hope for us all. He makes it clear that we are all horribly lost; our lawns have grown tall and confusing. But in Pastoralia, Saunders is out there retracing our steps, parting the blades of grass to find where we lost our keys.
Merrill Feitell completed her MFA in writing at Columbia University. Her fiction most recently appeared in the anthology Best New American Voices 2000.