Much has changed in the world between the publication of George Saunders’s first short story, A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room, in 1986, which got him into the Syracuse University writing programme, and his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which won him the Man Booker Prize this year.
The American author has been busy in the interim years, writing several acclaimed short story collections, a children’s book and a collection of nonfiction essays. Through it all the one constant remains a seemingly impossible fusion of the otherworldly and the realistic in his work.
A realist dystopia
Take, for instance, the short story Escape from Spiderhead that appears in his seminal book, Tenth of December. The central character Jeff is a prisoner at a high-end facility that tests all kinds of wonder drugs on its inmates. Verbaluce™ makes Jeff sense “the eternal in the ephemeral” in the most ordinary of gardens. “It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea,” he says. Things go further south very quickly though and by the end of the story Jeff is faced with a life and death situation, the reader realising that this could all end badly.
Escape from Spiderhead is set in a dystopian future quite similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and Saunders’s writing shares a fantastical madness and dark humour with Vonnegut’s work. In seemingly far-fetched versions of realism, you find yourself rooting for characters who think and feel like a regular person would.
It’s a fine balance that Saunders manages to strike in other stories like Pastoralia and Sea Oak. The former is set in a Neanderthal amusement park where employees have to adhere to a strict company policy of behaving like cavemen. English is forbidden and the main character and his cave partner need to kill and roast a goat over a fire for food. All of this in order to provide visitors with an authentic experience of what life used to be like for our ancestors. Problems arise when the park begins to make personnel cuts and everyone is worried they might lose their jobs.
Sea Oak is the story of Aunt Bernie who comes back from the dead, flesh rotting, in order to whip her awful family into shape. Her nephew is a stripper and her two nieces are too lazy to work. The zombie Aunt Bernie warns them of impending doom in their rundown neighbourhood and stays around long enough to force them out of their ruts.
Sensitive and intuitive
It would be easy to slot Saunders as a science fiction writer with a fondness for dystopia based on the above stories. But with stories like Sticks and The End of FIRPO in the World he reveals a sensitivity stemming from a heart of gold.
The End of FIRPO in the World features a teenager, Cody, daydreaming and cycling furiously around his neighbourhood. He thinks about how he should exact revenge upon the Dalmeyer kids who once called him a “rectal shitbrain”. He thinks of his mother’s boyfriend, Daryl, who constantly insults him with the term “firpo” and his mother, who is doubtful about her fat “nosehole snorter” son getting a prom date. All of this plays on his mind as he races across the street on his bicycle and doesn’t notice a white car tearing down the street directly towards him.
Saunders’s story Sticks bears a strong emotional resemblance to David Foster Wallace’s Incarnations of Burned Children. At just under two pages, the compact story is about the narrator’s father who has a deep-rooted, senile fixation with a metal pole crucifix in the front yard. In just two paragraphs, Saunders masterfully captures how the father’s dressing up of the pole becomes increasingly over-the-top with time. When he eventually dies, the new house owners casually yank out the metal pole and leave it by the garbage.
All of Saunders’s stories hold a deep affection for the human spirit. His characters, and the situations they find themselves in, are results of plain bad luck, monetary and emotional deficiency and/or that veritable bully, capitalism. As Saunders puts it, “we’re all part of a grace-erosion system.”
His stories may be set in an uncouth America that is stripped of thoughtfulness, yet there are universal emotions swimming just below the surface. The under-achieving dad who wants to provide for his children in The Semplica Girl Diaries (a story that took fourteen years to complete); the balding, middle-aged brother who wants to be rid of his kooky sister in Winky; or the male chauvinist barber with no toes in The Barber’s Unhappiness. The reader relates, empathises and finally roots for them to come out on top even though Saunders knows that life doesn’t always turn out perfectly.
Not just short stories
His collection of nonfiction essays, The Braindead Megaphone, is deceptively simple and straightforward. While commissioned to write a piece on the most luxurious hotels in Dubai, Saunders writes, “A human being is someone who wishes to improve his lot…Dubai is capitalism on steroids…” His childlike excitement at being given an opportunity to stay in these places is tempered by an awareness of the deep chasm between the workers who have built Dubai and the people who can afford to enjoy its ultra-lavish lifestyle. “I imagined a whole world of people toiling in the shadow of approaching ruin, exhausting their strength and grace, while above them a whole other world of people puttered around, enjoying the good things of life, staying at the Burj just because they could…Paucity = Rage,” he writes.
In his nonfiction, Saunders calls a spade a spade but in his fiction, a spade is anything but. His writing combines traces of Hemingway’s economy with Philip K Dick’s terrifying futures and a sprinkling of Chekhovian bleak tenderness unlike any other writer of today. All of which makes for a wholly unique style that is constantly shifting gears and is slowly coming into its own.
It comes as no surprise that his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, just won the 2017 Man Booker Prize. The novel form allowed him to experiment on a wider canvas and the resulting story has an eccentric beating heart. Based on the tiny fact that Abraham Lincoln visited his eleven-year-old son Willie’s grave during the Civil War, Saunders creates a graveyard-world populated by “ghosts” trying to help Willie pass on from the bardo, the Tibetan stopover for souls awaiting rebirth. Large chunks of the novel resemble the script of a play with different voices pitching in. This audacity to reinvent the novel never once takes away from a story that is expertly laid out. Lincoln in the Bardo establishes George Saunders as a writer who seems to be telling us: Look here, I have a story to tell you, it isn’t something you haven’t heard before, but you’re going to love it anyway because you’ve never heard it like this.
P.S: If you haven’t read George Saunders yet and are looking for a reading order that would be the perfect introduction, begin with the short story collection Tenth of December, move on to Pastoralia and finally dive into Lincoln in the Bardo.