There’s an emerging tradition of consoling dystopias, though consolation is not their primary function. The Wire is one, and so is the fiction of George Saunders, in that both brilliantly lay bare just how fucked up are human systems, and in what particular ways.
If you are the type to believe, as I am, that modern consumerism is morally repugnant, that corporations and governments punish the good and innocent and reward the selfish, vapid and evil, that comfort and privilege are shallow and implicated, that brutality is systemic, and that there’s almost nothing you can do about any of it, despite being supposedly privileged and supposedly free… then George Saunders is for you. The consolation comes in the feeling that someone else gets what’s going on beneath our surfaces, and is as angry about it. That’s the primary function, I think–moral rage–of Saunders’s books and David Simon’s oeuvre, too. God bless them both.
The book starts with a grace note story called “Victory Lap” that’s also a tour de force in terms of energy and voice, in which two young teenagers both make ultimately the right choice in a scary circumstance (I won’t reveal to avoid spoilers). They do it quickly, on instinct, under stress. The end of the story, which makes me cry every time I look at it, is this:
“A bad thing happened to you kids, Dad said. But it could have been worse.
So much worse, Mom said.
But because of you kids, Dad said, it wasn’t.
You did so good, Mom said.
Did beautiful, Dad said.”
Yet in the context of the other stories, this brief triumph is the exception. The example of people doing right is a set up in order to demonstrate how they usually do wrong or are victimized. Both teenagers in “Victory Lap” have embeds in their voices–wonderful, thrilling voices–implying that as adults they might not make those same right choices. The girl’s energy and enthusiasm (hilariously conveyed by her smattering of French vocab; is there anything more touching, dorky, human and middle-class than an American learning a foreign language?) is dangerously close to self-absorption. The boy’s escapism from his shitty, abusive (in that virtuous “hard-ass” way) parents will probably take more virulent forms as he ages. And the main action involves some kind of deliciously stupid large “geode” which the boy’s parents are using for a back-yard decoration, which is an encapsulation of Saunders’s scathing humor. A later story has suburban families using third world humans as lawn decoration. Same diff.
My favorite story in this collection is the one that probably veers closest to wish fulfillment. “Escape From Spiderhead” is about a character choosing resistance rather than making an immoral choice required of him by some vapid and faceless bureaucrats. Senseless war, senseless imprisonment, senseless firing people, senseless denying healthcare, making crappy products, destroying the environment…. This is how our world works. On every level those in power demand that awful shit be done, not even for any reason beyond the short-term, myopic and misunderstood. Just for the reason that being an asshole makes their dicks hard. (Are you listening, Marissa Mayer?) “Escape From Spiderhead” has all the correct features of how bad things happen, complete with venal middle managers and captive workers.
People will and do carp about how off-putting the genre and science-fiction elements of these stories are, which is something I’ll never understand. Saunders is working with the full palate of public language and contemporary narrative tradition, which includes an enormous amount of pulp, video games, self-help books and so on. He’s making an intelligent critique of not just how we are, but how we think. That’s more realistic than “realism.”
This book seems to have cannonballed Saunders into the mainstream, finally, which is well-deserved.