The independent bookstore was packed, standing room only, with people standing outside the doors and watching from behind glass walls. Another glass wall overlooked the bay, giving us a glimpse of open space while being crammed together in a room full of strangers who were on a common wavelength known as George Saunders.
I am a late arrival to his work. Dave Eggers said “For ten years I’ve urged George Saunders onto everyone and everyone.” There is even a blurb from Thomas Pynchon telling us that Saunders has “an astoundingly tuned voice… telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times.” The voice was here in person, but I was ready for him. I had read a few stories and a long interview. His physical presence was a smooth continuation of those. He comes across as very American, which may be one reason for his popularity, but a decent and intelligent version which seems harder to come by these days – especially when combined with a demented imagination. He admits to having been an Ayn Rand kind of guy in his younger years. But then while working in Sumatra and coming across an open pit full of old women moving rocks, he started to rethink the white man’s burden of controlling others. This awareness of the class struggle is reflected in his stories.
Initially he wanted to write like Hemingway, but it didn’t work. His life or surroundings were too suburban. It was not until he added a futuristic theme park to his Hemingway fixation that things started to click and fall into place and have a frisson of originality, if not polite dementia. His writing is another angle on modern life with its increasingly authoritarian milieus, like a shopping center meets “No Exit”. Another reason he is popular: his prose is very accessible, however absurd, and often floating in an artificial future. It reminds me of “1984” — as written by John Updike. He is a whiz at generating a phony corporate pep-talk in situations which are vaguely disturbing (for example, “Exhortation”). He has internalized an office voice mentality, and then turns up the moral distortion and adjusts the existential reverb.
He does this while coming up with lines like “… he always remembered walking exultantly in the woods after the liberating realization that he was no more attracted to guys than to cats, just happily kicking the tops off mushrooms in a spirit of tremendous relief.”
Reading “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut helped him get out of the shadow of the masters. “He sent the trained dog that is his talent off in search of a fat glorious pheasant, and it brought back the lower half of a Barbie doll. So be it.” (From his preface to “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”.) He prefers the spare style, plucked of every kind of “literary filler”, and yet it is whimsical as hell. You would think he was making it up as he goes along, like a father (maybe a little stoned) telling a bedtime story to an offspring who is mature for his or her age. He said he prefers ugly writing to pretty writing. That and his class consciousness and a drop-dead sense of the human condition make me wonder what his favorite punk bands are.
I prefer a more aesthetic approach to writing, particularly if it leaves the shopping centers and trashy proper nouns in the shadows. Apparently that makes me a Romantic of some kind, which writers like John Updike are not. Not surprisingly, he won an award for the worst sex scene of the year.
Saunders read for 10 or 15 minutes from his current collection, “Tenth of December”, then took questions for 3/4 of an hour. There was the usual question about his writing habits. He said he is always trying to cut, condense, revise. I asked him about the influence of Vonnegut, and mentioned one of my professors in college who questioned the fatalism of “so it goes” as being defeatist and succumbing to the status quo. He said it was a good question and it made him pause. You could sense the dialectic wheels turning in his head. He knows about opposing forces and incongruities, the string quartet in the concentration camp. He said there were uncertainties he couldn’t resolve. I think that makes his writing unpredictable. He mentioned an article he tried to write about illegal immigration and the border with Mexico. As he traveled along the border, speaking with various people and hearing their conflicting stories, his perspective kept changing until he didn’t know whether he was for or against closing the border. His stories often have a moral suspense, like things could pivot in one direction or another at any moment. Turn on a dime and give no quarter.
Following the Q & A there was a long line for signing books. My wife bought a book and we were near the front, but the line moved slowly as he took the time to talk to each person. He has taught at Syracuse for 16 years, so he is used to addressing a room full of people (there were 500 applicants for six openings in his writing course). When it was our turn he opened the book and saw a note with our two names. I said it was ok, we’re married. I mentioned the artificial environments in some of his stories which I find a little disturbing – maybe from having been on acid in Disneyland many years ago. He seemed to sympathize, and we had a nice talk for a few minutes. A man in his 50’s with a short beard, an inquiring mind, and an x-rated sense of humor that is fine with the New Yorker.
[A positive linkfest]
- Listen to Saunders read two short stories on This American Life
- Read the NYT review titled “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” – published on January 3rd | Read the Sunday Book Review
- Read an excerpt from Tenth of December
- Read a short story in The New Yorker (read another one here, and there’s more if you subscribe — and articles by Saunders freely available — even if not — right here)
- Read interviews: BOMB | Missouri Review
- Three great articles at Slate: a faux manifeso | an author/editor interview | a 2004 strategy to leave Iraq
- Read more reviews: Paste | three on NPR | Vice
- Watch Saunders on the state of the union
- Watch Saunders on The Colbert Report
- Listen to an interview and some of Saunders’ favorite songs over at Soundcheck
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).