I have to admit, sometimes I buy a Marc Jacobs top or dress for way too much money, because I love the pattern. I tell myself I’ll wear it with everything, and then do wear it with everything for three months or so, until, abruptly, I’m sick of it. Yes, the pattern that once looked great to me suddenly looks hideous. I flinch when I imagine picking up the top. Is it me? Is it Marc? And what does this have to do with George Saunders, maestro of characters consumed by first-world trivialities, and usually busy hanging self with own rope?
Here’s the beginning of the title story in Pastoralia:
“I have to admit I’m not feeling my best. Not that I’m doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about. Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No. Because I’m Thinking Positive/Staying Positive. I’m sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke their heads in.”
The strategic employment garbage-vernacular is genius, and since I’m on my third Saunders book of 2013, it’s also starting to affect me like a Marc Jacobs top—I’m getting tired of it, despite that I started the year with a frenzy of Saunders love.
The style is so distinctive that it wears out. The stories start looking too much like each other. That garbage-slang becomes too painful to read.
I say this despite agreeing with Saunders on almost everything, and thinking that he does a perfect job of exposing a particular kind of modern evil.
In the story quoted above, a man who works as a Cave Man at a failing theme park is manipulated to create termination-for-cause paperwork on his Cave Woman coworker, in order to help the corporation downsize. The story beautifully exposes the carrot-and-stick methods that management uses to force low-level employees into unethical corporate initiatives.
This is a great topic—a scourge on contemporary society. The people who benefit the least, who have the least power, are intimidated into doing the dirty work in a way that allows the powerful to remain unaccountable. Every job I’ve personally had has had elements of it. As a writer/ reporter, one is often being bullied to make the story what the editor/ publication wants it to be, without admitting that that’s what’s happening, in order for the editor/publication to continue to pretend to uphold its own standards. No one in charge will tell you to do that—they’ll tell you not to, if you ask—but the employees who thrive are the ones who catch on and do it without being told, while pretending that’s not what they’re doing. Saunders’s story about the Cave Man (First Corporate Man) discovering this is hilarious and perfect.
I get it, I like it, but I can’t spend this much time inside people without spiritual texture.
And as soon as I’ve concluded that, Saunders pulls out something so funny, novel and striking that I fall for it all over again. In Pastoralia, it’s the story Sea Oak, which is about a hapless and financially strapped worker in a theme restaurant (see a theme?) whose dead aunt returns as a zombie to try to help the family avert catastrophe. The aunt, named Bernie, can see the future and knows that if the family doesn’t move to a safer (richer) neighborhood, one of the children will be killed in a drive-by shooting.
The premise is a brilliant, ironic pastiche of different genres and cliches. In Marc Jacobs’ case, the genres and cliches are visual things like 50s prints or big buttons or moon boots; in Saunders it’s Weekend at Bernies, zombies, drive-bys and innocent children. The dead aunt rots, grotesquely. I shriek with intellectual glee. The pattern is just too darn likable to resist.
And, still, I want something more.
A recent issue of One Story ran a piece by a writer named Douglas Watson called “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero.” It’s Saunders-ish, in terms of having a somewhat flat, allegorical premise, this one about a messenger to a king, whose life journey resolves into wondering what, in the end, is worth saying. I didn’t like it until the end, and then I did, when the text took a big swerve into the messenger contemplating not a symbol, but something real, human, imbued. The last lines of the story are “To attempt to ay anything about it was already to have forgotten what it was. Open your mouth to speak and you were already wrong.”
I want something like that, these days. Not stories that tell us how we lose our souls, but suggest how we might gain them.