It's a theme-park life

In George Saunders' savage, soulful satires, ordinary people face real crises in a disturbingly artificial America.

By Chris Lehmann
Published April 26, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

History has blasted right through the fictional world of George Saunders, leaving little but mordant comedy and the brute mandate of survival in its wake. The motley characters Saunders sets loose in this world can only feed on a fatally placeless, ersatz approximation of history. They set up shop as theme-park imagineers, docents at battle reenactment sites and vendors of repurposed desires, dutifully tending to the conditions of their own humiliation. It always feels like a global environmental catastrophe or a horrible nuclear accident is just offstage in Saunders' grimly satirical, neo-futurist stories -- even if they're about something as simple as the aftermath of a self-help seminar or a boy on his bicycle.

It all sounds (and often feels) horribly bleak. Nevertheless, Saunders is also a tremendously funny writer. Like all great humorists, he understands and mines the close kinship of the horse laugh and the morbid shudder, grasping the truth in Dawn Powell's famous dictum that "true wit should break a wise man's heart." There are precious few wise men in Saunders' jesting dispatches, but there is ample heartbreak -- and that, especially in his new collection of stories, turns out to be a distinctly saving grace.

Saunders' blurred, amnesiac vision of the American future first gained attention in his accomplished 1996 debut collection, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." There, Saunders ably captured the alternating moods of resignation and (mostly unintentional, usually unforgiving and always dark) humor that overcame the inhabitants of a surreal, hollow and conglomeratized America of the near future, where things are simultaneously more fastidiously designed and more hopelessly decrepit. Ghosts roamed the grounds of prefab history exhibitions, obese executives crushed their rivals to death, thrill seekers downloaded the memories of others and mutants fled futuristic theme parks that had devolved into brutal medieval city-states.

In "Pastoralia," Saunders takes up briskly where "CivilWarLand" left off: The lead (and title) story here concerns a pair of imagineers confined in an outdoor theme park diorama depicting primitive life. They are forbidden to speak English to each other, to interact with park visitors or to conduct much of anything in the way of a recognizably private life. They grunt, yowl and pretend to catch and eat stray insects. They are paid in goat carcasses and communicate with park management principally by fax.

These communiquis perfectly capture how the unseen, paternalistic park managers have miniaturized employee autonomy to a vanishing point: "Don't talk crazy," one worker-baiting fax memo reads, "Times are hard, entire Units are being eliminated, the Staff Remixing continues ... please, only remember that we are a family, and you are the children, not that we're saying you're immature, only that you do most of the chores while we do all the thinking, and also that we, in our own way, love you."

The story's never-named narrator is a decent enough soul, but gradually grows more and more unnerved, first by dwindling supplies of goat meat, then by cheery managementspeak faxes hinting at impending layoffs and (most of all) by the increasingly surly and dysfunctional conduct of his diorama mate, Janet, who is assailed by unsightly bouts of bitter workplace resentment, family grief and alcohol abuse. Not only does she speak to park visitors in English, she calls one middle-aged Ned Flanders-type dad a "suckass." And that tears it; our narrator, who had heretofore refused to fink out Janet under mounting pressure from the park's management, finally succumbs. He is promptly rewarded with lavish supplies of new food and an attractive new female diorama mate.

Like all of Saunders' stories, this one reads at a deceptively simple level, like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" or an illustration from a situation ethics casebook. But as Saunders' stories often do, it stays with you, and your own sense of its meaning gradually shifts -- until you realize that this one seemingly mundane act of betrayal has fatally encased our protagonist in his primitive persona. As we leave him, he is foraging with renewed vigor for imaginary bugs, at a loss to say or think much of anything -- particularly since his comely new workmate is the very model of officious rectitude, silently reproaching him for deficiencies in his performance technique.

In "Winky" the scene shifts to a nominally more familiar, but no less surreal, setting: a daylong motivational seminar, led by an earthier, dumber Tony Robbins figure named Tom Rodgers. The proceedings hinge on the unlocking of spiritual potential, of course -- but they drip with all the casual, simplistic condescension of a fax from Pastoralia's management:

Trumpets sounded from a concealed tape deck. An actor in a ripped flannel shirt stumbled across the stage with a sign around his neck that said "You."

"I'm lost!" You cried. "I'm wandering in a sort of wilderness!"

"Hey You, come on over!" shouted a girl across the stage, labeled "Inner Peace." "I bet you've been looking for me your whole life!"

"Boy, have I!" said You. "I'll be right over!"

But then out from the wings sprinted a number of other actors, labeled "Whiny" and "Self-Absorbed" and "Blames Her Fat on Others" and so on, who draped themselves across You and began poking him in the ribs and giving him noogies.

You get the picture; it comes as no surprise that when the venerated Rogers stands up to pronounce the moral of the story, his main exhortation is for the assembled You's in the crowd to confront the psychic tormentors in their lives responsible for "crapping in your oatmeal."

Struggling valiantly to take all this to heart is the story's hapless protagonist, an archetypal low-level striver named Neil Yaniky. He works at home with his demented, fundamentalist sister, Winky, and the none-too-subtle seminar persuades him to turn Winky out on the street so that he can lay claim to something resembling a dating life. To head off any pangs of conscience that might overtake Neil, Rodgers stages a pitiful 30-second psychodrama in which his client can have at a Winky effigy with a baseball bat while intoning the Rodgers Seminar slogan, "Now is the time for me to win."

Yet this time, the cheery Hobbesian call to unlock the inner caveman comes up short. Winky is too plainly helpless and pathetic and Neil too frail: "Oh shit, oh shit, he was weakening, he could feel it, the speech he'd practiced on the way home seemed now to have nothing to do with the girl who stood wet-eyed in the doorway, rubbing her bald spot. He wasn't powerful, he wasn't great, he was just the same as everyone else, less than everyone else, other people got married and had real jobs, other people didn't live with their fat, clinging sisters, he was a loser who would keep losing for the rest of his life."

We know from the title story of "Pastoralia" that this bout of despair is, all things considered, a redemptive portion of self-knowledge -- even if it does make Neil mutter insults under his breath as his chest tightens with rage. Much like Flannery O'Connor -- another master of gruesomely comic, spiritually minded short fiction -- Saunders locates at the outer extremities of his characters' grotesque and shameless lives the unnerving, saving logic of the parable. And like parables, Saunders' fiction usually manages to visit a moment of unbidden grace on a scorned and undeserving protagonist.

"Sea Oak" mines the most hallowed of spiritual consolations -- the hope of bodily resurrection -- for the most gruesome of laughs. Bernie, a self-sacrificing maiden aunt, is matriarch to a lumpen household where two single-mom cousins gape at daytime TV (featuring such fare as "How My Child Died Violently") while the breadwinner narrator works as the male equivalent of a Hooters waitress at a restaurant chain known as Joysticks. Until, that is, Aunt Bernie -- herself a career cashier at a pharmacy chain who is demoted to greeter in her dotage -- drops dead one day when an intruder ransacks this sad hearth for loot.

But before long, Aunt Bernie has tottered out of her grave and returns to her living-room couch to reclaim her place at the head of the family. However, she is no longer her shrinking earthly self: She becomes a sort of Tom Rodgers from beyond, barking out such no-nonsense financial strategies as "Show your cock!" to the Joysticks waiter and making plans for the sexual conquests denied to her in life even as she continues to decompose and spray body parts about the premises.

Eventually, she expires again, leaving the unnamed narrator to ponder the meaning of it all. The lurid episode finally comes to rest on Aunt Bernie's most insistent post-resurrection complaint -- "Some people got everything and I got nothing." The simple injustice of this childlike grievance is left hanging in the air at the story's end, deflating the grandiose first-shall-be-last mythology of the Christian resurrection with the knowledge that the last only realize that they've been had.

As though to decompress from the high-wire fatalism of "Sea Cliff," the final three stories here -- "The End of FIRPO in the World," "The Barber's Unhappiness" and "The Falls" -- find Saunders on what (for him) is rather experimental ground: They are more or less straight realist tales of American disenchantment, loss and, stranger still for a writer of Saunders' mordant disposition, redemption. Each story gingerly prods the possibilities for sacrifice and heroic self-reinvention for Saunders' cast of resentful losers relegated to the backlot of history.

This is especially true of the final story, "The Falls." In a simple juxtaposition of dueling interior monologues, the story places a hysterically anxious suburban dad in a position of unexpected heroism when he sees two young girls clinging to a runaway canoe. He plunges into the unknown woefully and with what seems to be a completely justified fatalism, doubting himself at every point. Meanwhile, the story's other monologist, a slightly touched, fiercely self-dramatizing bohemian, dithers uselessly nearby, brooding grandiosely on his unrecognized genius.

Saunders is too smart and too agile a writer to fall back on the sort of pat dichotomies this tableau suggests: action vs. reflection; mundane virtue vs. self-serving delusions of grandeur. Instead, the story searches out the heroism possible within neurotic self-defeat, and in doing so, offers a reply to the hopeless, quiet surrender of the collection's opening story. Here is how Morse, the harried dad, contemplates his rapidly approaching rendezvous with destiny:

He was bad, that was for sure. There wasn't an earnest bone in his body. Other people were simpler and looked at the world with clearer eyes, but he was self-absorbed and insincere and mucked everything up, and he hoped this wasn't one more thing he was destined to muck up, because mucking up a rescue was altogether different from forgetting to mail the invitations to your son's birthday party, which he had recently done, although certainly they had spent a small fortune rectifying the situation, stopping just short of putting an actual pony on Visa, but the point was, this was serious and he had to bear down.

The outcome of "The Falls" sets you to rethinking the preceding pieces in "Pastoralia," which in various ways all pivot on similar crypto-spiritual resolutions, however deeply senseless the plights and sacrifices of their characters. Over the course of the collection, Saunders' grotesques gradually become more recognizably human, unloosed from the pitiless determinism of their environment. It's heartening to see Saunders putting his characters to the test in this way. Without this sense of evolving spiritual maturity, "Pastoralia," planted so firmly on the conceptual ground of "CivilWarLand," could have easily devolved into self-referential shtick.

But there's another reason to celebrate a dark-spirited writer's slouch toward meaning. Even as Saunders burrows into unfashionable inner struggles for redemption, American culture at large has gravitated toward a self-congratulatory deadpan and an irony-drenched aesthetic: call it Malaise Lite.

From the mannered, paint-by-numbers anomie of "American Beauty" to the posturing of Dave Eggers' inescapable, overpraised memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," more and more of our cultural productions are devoted to staking out simplistic existential trials. (The suburbs are antiseptic and phony; growing up without authentic parental authority is, uh, inauthentic).

And revealingly, both "American Beauty" and "Staggering Genius" glibly substitute aesthetic deliverance for the spiritual kind, as though redemption were a simple matter of better-educated taste, of savoring the flight of a white plastic bag on a windy autumn day or cultivating a multilayered connoisseurship in the form as a means of outwitting one's own ironic detachment. Saunders' devotion to the discarded freaks trapped in the byways of tract-home and theme-park America -- people who sorely lack the luxury or refinement necessary for making an Eggers-ian or Mendes-ian peace with their surroundings -- supplies a valuable corrective to this ethos of alienation for art's sake.

But the real payoff here remains a literary one: Believing in new possibilities for the souls of his characters -- and most of all in the possibility that they possess souls in the first place -- allows Saunders to undertake the sorts of risks and surprises with his creations that never occur to the practitioners of Malaise Lite. A master of distilling the disorders of our time into fiction, Saunders also has the good sense to reach for literary truths that transcend the moment. And for that very reason, we should savor the witty, arch and quietly redemptive tales of "Pastoralia": George Saunders is a better writer than the moment deserves.

Chris Lehmann

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