Friday, September 12, 2014

Gazing as a form of love

George Saunders has been on my shelf since I picked up his latest collection, Tenth of December, in a small thrift shop in Grand Marais on the north shore this last January during the Polar Vortex. Tenth of December is my first introduction to Saunders who, while ubiquitously praised by critics and literary journals, is largely unknown in Britain.

Saunders is David Foster Wallace’s older, wiser, mellower relation. While Saunders replaces DFW’s frenetic braininess with wryness, both share an excellent ear for American vernacular and a fiction which confronts banality with a largely humane satire. (‘Deeply humane’ is Jennifer Egan’s phrase on the cover jacket. A future project in this blog may be a close reading of jacket puffery in general).

In the ten stories of the collection, Saunders takes the flat, cheery-hollow prose of American speech and, by an effective use of ellipsis, turns it into style. This is particularly notable in my favourite story in the collection, ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, in which a forty-year old husband and father of three writes about a life which – for all his American dreaming – can’t help getting worse:

‘Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad. Went in happy, not mentioning bumper, squirrel/mouse smudge, maggots, then gave Eva extra ice cream due to I had spoken harshly to her.’

Saunders imagination is not restricted to the middle-aged man, however. In the first story in the collection, ‘Victory Lap’, Alison Pope has just turned fifteen and prances around at the top of the stairs:

‘Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}? Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package? Oops. Had he said small package? And just stood there? Broad princelike face totally bland of expression? Poor thing! Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}.'

He uncovers the manipulative pressure built inside of American nice. His story ‘Exhortation’ takes the form of a managerial memo, and begins:

‘I would not like to characterize this as a plea, although it may start to sound like one (!).The fact is, we have a job to do, we have tacitly agreed to do it (did you cash your latest paycheck, I know I did, ha ha ha.)'

The rest of the story is an exercise in the oppression superficially polite language forces on those whose economic circumstances require them to be subservient to it. Saunders is utterly aware of the coercive power of punctuation. His use of exclamation marks and parenthesis is razor-sharp.

This collection presents a society in which products and processes are strange – dystopic chemical experiments or third world immigrants rented as luxury goods – but the motivations of the people who suffer or use them and the superstructure which allows for these to become normalized are entirely familiar. Saunders has found the contours and significance of first world banality: longsuffering status envy, petty rivalries, the fantasies which enable the average man or woman or child to continue living. This is not without humour. Tenth of December prompts both laughter and twinges of discomfort.

Saunders’s June interview for Page-Turner, the New Yorker's books blog, disclosed two critical observations which illuminate his fiction. First, criticizing the idea that compassion is always tender, Saunders suggests that satire is ‘a sort of bait-and-switch. You decide to satirize something, so you gaze at it hard enough and long enough to be able to say something true and funny and maybe angry or critical—but you first had to gaze at it for a long time. I mean, gazing is a form of love, right?...In either case, it’s attention.’

For Saunders, seriousness and comedy aren't mutually exclusive. ‘Comic, for me,’ says Saunders, ‘means that there is always a shortfall between what we think of ourselves and what we are.’

You can find the whole interview here: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/george-saunderss-humor

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