BY SEAN CLARK


Author: George Saunders

1997, Riverhead

Filed Under: Short Stories, Literary, Humor

 

George Saunders has one of the most recognizable writing styles today: zany, staccato, silly-serious. He is a well-known contemporary author, a regular with The New Yorker and a recipient of the MacArthur genius grant. There are some really great stories in here, emblematic of his work as a writer, and it’s awesomely entertaining to boot.

On the surface, Saunders’s stories seem downright wacky. In this collection you’ll find a 440-lb man picked on by his boss at a raccoon-disposal service, a historical reenactment village stalked by a murderous caretaker, and a post-apocalyptic picaresque novella. It would be easy to confuse the bizarre scenarios with allegory, and indeed, his stories are highly satirical. But rather than attempt to convey a lesson about obesity, corporate responsibility, or civil rights (respectively), etc., as could be easily inferred, the stories poke fun at us (Americans, mostly) through the tone and delivery.

Here’s a nice example of the world Saunders’s characters inhabit:

The Gleasons are regulars. They’ve got a tidy nest egg that allows them to patronize us three times a year. Mr. Gleason’s an undertaker. When the first wave of mass death swept over the Northeast he got rich by inventing the Mobile Embalmer. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of chemistry could preserve a loved one on the spot, and for a fraction of the cost associated with traditional methods.

The problem that arises in reading a collection of Saunders stories–this is true of all three–is that things begin to feel a bit repetitive. Namely, many or most of his stories take place in mundane-cum-absurd businesses overrun by anarchy. Things get out of control and a semi-likable doofus narrator tries to navigate the world Saunders tears down around him. They are endlessly imaginative and entertaining stories that he creates, yet they lose their freshness quicker than those of Saunders’s many contemporaries.

Still, the writing can be excellent:

We ran. We ran to the train tracks and lay on our backs, sick in our guts as the guiltless stars wheeled by. After no dance would we look up at them happily now. Norris’s soul whizzed through the highgrass. Chills broke out on my arms.

I strongly recommend any fan of short stories who hasn’t read Saunders pick up one of his collections immediately and jump right in. You’ll love it; Saunders really is a genius. I would also recommend taking your time with it. Taken on their own, almost any of these stories would indicate this book as a candidate for a Great Read, yet the collection as a whole I did not designate as such. His stories are best taken one at a time, rather than piled into a collection.

Similar Reads: Pastoralia (Saunders), In Persuasion Nation (Saunders), Welcome to the Monkey House (Vonnegut) 40 Stories (Barthelme), The Museum of the Weird (Gray)

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