It was also feeling that old dilemma a fiction writer feels in the middle of a crisis: how to write something that honors that which a short story is designed to do (show the reader how hard it is to live correctly in a fallen world by putting her on the horns of a true dilemma) while not somehow, via its neutrality and its focus on the long view, serving as a sort of enabler for evil. In particular, I was wondering what I personally should be doing at this moment of crisis and was noticing that I wasn’t doing much. And since writing is the only thing I’ve ever been able to do that has the slightest whiff of power about it, I decided to write a story “about” (that is, “out” of the moment I found myself in.)
George Saunders, Contributor Note
How fitting this should be, by pure coincidence, the last story I read in this year’s BASS. Or how terrifying. It comes straight to the heart of exactly why I feel, underneath everything else, a sense of inevitable doom, and a deep wish that I not survive long past November 2022 and, god forbid, not see November 2024 at all. I will take the responsibility for taking Saunders’ story, so clearly a call to action, and turning it into a reason to sink into despair.
It’s a story in the form of a letter from grandfather to grandson, a response to some potentially dangerous situation the grandson finds himself due to the activism of some friends. The details are not clear, just that the grandson is asking something along the lines of, Should I join the fight or keep my nose clean? and the grandfather is answering in two different modes. As a citizen: Do what needs to be done! As a loving grandfather: Keep yourself safe and be ready to emerge when things improve.
But how will things improve if no one every enters the fray?
Seen in retrospect, yes: I have regrets. There was a certain critical period. I see that now…. Every night, as we sat across from each other, doing those puzzles, from the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adult or adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives. We had taken, in other words, a profound gift for granted. Did not know the gift was a fluke, a chimera, a wonderful accident of consensus and mutual understanding.
The grandfather is writing from a country that’s already gone, where cops pull him over to threaten him because he’s written Letters to the Editor protesting certain government stances, where the the lawyer who used to take on noble causes now mows the lawn. Some of the details are clear, but the overall structure of the present is vague, a technique that lets us draw the lines ourselves. It’s terrifying, because it’s all so familiar.
One of the most terrifying things about this letter/story is the first line: the date.
February 22, 202_.
First of all, for those of us who were around before the Powers that Be decided to consolidate Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays into President’s Day on a convenient Monday, that date used to be known as Washington’s Birthday. I don’t think he chose that date by accident.
And then there’s the year. Today is 2021, two weeks from now it will be 2022. The story takes place some time within the next 8 years. Not in the distant future, if he’d written 20__. This is what puts the chill in my heart, that single character, that 2.
But here’s where I turn ambivalent. Is this a story, or is it an essay in a more palatable form? If this had been written by anyone other than George Saunders – or any Big Name author – would it have been published, or would it have been returned with a terse, “Not what we’re looking for”? Or, has he in fact captured the searing anxiety of the moment – an anxiety that seems mostly absent from those with any power to do anything to prevent it – in a way that personalizes it, as fiction often does when confronting larger issues? I flip back and forth on this with the speed of a beating heart, or a trembling hand.
Ward included this in her “time” category, citing the tension between present and past. I also see tension between those at the beginning, and those at the end, as well as a laser-like focus on the present moment, which has now been going on for a year. This time-confusion shows up when the grandfather wakes after a dream:
Lying there, I found myself wondering, for the first time in a long while, not What should I have done? but What might I yet do?
I came back to myself, gradually. It was sad. A sad moment. To be, once again, in a time and place where action was not possible.
How we view where we are in this possible/not possible timeline may determine the course of history. Now that’s a story about time.
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- Story available online at The New Yorker.
- Jake Weber has a lot to say about this story at Workshop Heretic: ” Some theorists of narrative feel that “theme” in fiction isn’t really about an answer, but about phrasing the problem in a powerful and novel way. That’s certainly how the logic of “Love Letter” by George Saunders operates.”
- Read another take on this story by Edwin Turner at Biblioklept
- Ben Walpole of Short Story Magic Tricks shares his analysis.