George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (RH, 2021)

We are going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art – namely, to ask the big questions: how are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seemed to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

I haven’t read much Russian literature, and the little I’ve read hasn’t really stuck with me. Out of the seven stories Saunders investigates in this book, I’ve read two of them before. I didn’t get much out of them the first time; this was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d missed.

The book is a 400-page encapsulation of the MFA course on the Russian Short Story that Saunders has taught at Syracuse University for the past 20 or so years. Each story gets an individual approach, since each story has its own way of unfolding.  Although the audience of the course is the emerging writer, each chapter first examines a story as a reader would, and only then brings in ways to incorporate the findings into writing. The first entry actually had me thinking, “I wonder if I could write a story using this kind of approach.” But then I came to my senses. It doesn’t matter which side of the page you live on; it’s worth reading.

Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

This might be why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s approach to stories was similar to my approach in this blog. I always feel bad when, in September and January, I see page views climbing, knowing students have been assigned stories from the latest BASS and need to answer questions like: Who is the protagonist? What is the theme? What is the initiating event? Those students will be disappointed when I start rambling about what the story reminded me of, and why it might have made me side with one character or dislike another. It’s not that the technical elements are extraneous – they’re very important – but there’s a much more organic way of recognizing them. You can’t help but talk about them when you’re encountering a story as an experience, rather than an assignment. Saunders helps connect the two approaches.

We start off with Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”   

And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the janitor, of the school board; and when the wind brought her the sound of the receding carriage these thoughts mingled with others. She wanted to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness that would never be… His wife? It is cold in the morning, there is no one to light the stove…. And at night she dreams of examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life has aged and coarsened her, making her homely, angular, and clumsy, as though they had poured lead into her. She is afraid of everything and in the presence of a member of the Zemstvo Board or of the Trustee, she gets up and does not dare sit down again. And she uses obsequious expressions when she mentions any one of them. And no one likes her, and life is passing drearily, without warmth, without friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. In her position how terrible it would be if she were to fall in love!

I ran into a challenge off the bat. Saunders begins with a brief preface asking what makes a reader keep reading. Then he proposes to answer that question by giving us the story one page at a time, followed by a pause in which we will consider “what has that page done to us.” What? No, no, that’s ridiculous, I’m going to fish out the separated pages and read the whole story… except I didn’t, because he knew what he was doing, he knew what questions to ask at the end of the first page. This is how I learned to trust George Saunders.

It was a remarkable reading experience, to find that the questions raised were indeed answered. Saunders calls it “a kind of call and response” and that’s a good a description as any. How did this sad, depleted woman get that way? I expect the story will serve up some situation that will challenge her current frame of mind, and she will either respond to it, or not. In fact, the story offers up a bit of a bluff at first, then, in the closing pages, shows what it is when someone becomes something else, even if just for a moment. Had I read the story for myself – had I read it all at once instead of chapter by chapter – would I have had the same experience? I doubt it.

I was even tempted to try to write a story using this kind of guide, this “set up a question, answer it but set up another one, keep an overall question going” kind of atmosphere. Don’t worry; I wasn’t tempted for long. I realized pretty quickly that’s a stupid reason to write a story, though it’s probably a great way to actualize a story that’s already in one’s mind, begging to be written.

Though that chapter-by-chapter approach was highly effective, Saunders returned to the more traditional read-then-analyze with the second story, “The Singers” by Turgenev. 

“What shall I sing?” asked the contractor, with mounting excitement.
“Anything you like,” replied Blinker. “Just think of something and sing it.”
“Yes, of course, anything you like,” added Nikolai Ivanych, slowly folding his arms across his chest. “We have no right to tell you what you should sing. Sing any song you like. Only, mind, sing it well, and we shall afterward decide without fear or favor.”
“Aye,” Booby put in, licking the rim of his empty glass, “so we shall – without fear or favor.” “Let me clear my throat a little, friends,” said the contractor, passing his fingers along inside the collar of his coat.
“Come now, don’t waste time – begin!” the Wild Gentleman said forcefully and dropped his eyes. The contractor thought a moment, shook his head, and stepped forward. Yashka stared fixedly at him.
But before proceeding with the description of the contest itself, it may be as well to say a few words about each or the characters of my story.

In the margin next to that line “But before proceeding…” I wrote, “WTF??!?” Seriously, you spend eight pages setting up a singing contest in a remote country bar, and then you stop to describe your characters? What kind of writer are you, Turgenev, anyway? And that turns out to be the focus of Saunders’ analysis:  “I teach ‘The Singers’ to suggest to my students how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.” Maybe he realized he wasn’t great at incorporating description into plot; maybe he didn’t realize it until he read over his draft, and he decided, not to fix it, but to capitalize on it. Maybe sometimes a reader’s WTF moment is an important part of the story experience.

As we read a story (let’s imagine) we’re dragging a cart labeled “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing” (TICHN). As we read, we’re noticing — surface level, plot type things (“Romeo really seems to like Juliet”), but quieter things, too: aspects of language, say (“Tons of alliteration in the first three pages”), structural features (“It’s being told in reverse chronological order!”), patterns of color, flashbacks or flashforwards, changes in points of view. I’m not saying that we’re consciously noticing. Often, we’re not….
What we are adding to our TICHN cart are, let’s say, non-normative aspects of the story — aspects that seem to be calling attention to themselves through some sort of presentation and excess.
….A good story is one that, having created a pattern of excesses, notices those excesses and converts them into virtues.

Another thing that endeared this chapter to me was the title: “The Heart of the Story.” It’s a phrase I’ve used from time to time for the focus of a story’s meaning; not necessarily the climax, or the theme, or a moment, but the overall lifeforce. I thought I’d invented that phrase. It’s not all that unique, so I’m not surprised to see it elsewhere, but it’s comforting, like a slight pat on the back, that maybe I’m not totally crazy when I fumble around trying to convey my story experiences.

Chekhov’s “The Darling” is next.

She was always enamored of someone and could not live otherwise. At first it had been for Papa, who was now ill and sat in an arm chair in a darkened room, breathing with difficulty. Then she had devoted her affections to her aunt, who used to come from Bryansk every other year. Still earlier, when she went to school, she had been in love with her French teacher.

Saunders uses this story to examine patterns and what makes them work: “What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.” He brings out charts (“The Various Loves of Olenka”) and a diagram of the five-act structure, for those who just can’t live without technical details (I learned that he was an engineer before he was a writer; not the first time I’ve heard of someone making that transition, though we usually think of it going the opposite direction).

I think of this entry as more writerly than those preceding it, because the story itself is a bit easier to read and recognize its technique. Producing such a story is, of course, another matter.“Master and Man” by Tolstoy is the longest story included in the book, and, for me, the hardest to read.

Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line — shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat — fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.

Hard in that I felt like I was missing a lot conveyed by unfamiliar references; Saunders’ discussion of wormwood confirmed that for one element. Also hard because… well, it seemed too long, like there were points of interest but they were far apart, separated by long descriptions. And hard because I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I was finished. That’s why this book was written, of course: to help readers like me figure out how to make something of a story that eludes us.

I learned that Tolstoy is considered a writer who incorporates Christian morality and ethics into his work (though perhaps less so in his life); maybe he’s the Russian analogue of Flannery O’Connor (or she him, since he preceded her by a century). This made the “Eye of God” viewpoint particularly interesting to me. I also appreciated how all this morality was conveyed with the usual explicit epiphany, and I loved Saunders’ interpretation:

Vasili does not launch into a soliloquy or internal monologue describing his changed feelings about master/ peasant relations or his radical new understanding of Christian virtue as it applies to the treatment of the less fortunate…. He just acts…. Vasili has changed. We know this because of what he’s just done. It’s kind of a miracle of writing. Without narrating the logic of the transformation, Tolstoy has made Vasili do exactly what the story made us believe he could never do….
Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.

A brief digression: When I read Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December” a few years ago, I used as header art a photograph by artist Riitta Päiväläinen: a laundry line full of frozen clothes. This was in response to the story’s use of a frozen coat in the snow. Now I see frozen laundry as an image in this story, and read Saunders’ interpretation of it, and feel like I was ahead of my time.     

The story still feels tedious and hard to read (possibly the side-effect of too much contemporary fiction, when tends to be more streamlined) but I can now admire what it does. Worth a book, right there.

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” is one of the stories I’d read before.

Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov woke up rather early and made a “b-rr-rr” sound with his lips as he was wont to do an awakening, although he could not have explained the reason for it. Kovalyov stretched and asked for the small mirror standing on the table. He wanted to have a look at the pimple which had, the evening before, appeared on his nose. But to his extreme amazement he saw that he had, in place of his nose, a perfectly smooth surface. Frightened, Kovalyov called for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel: indeed, no nose! He ran his hand over himself to see whether or not he was asleep. No he didn’t think so. The Collegiate Assessor jumped out of bed and shook himself – no nose! He at once ordered his clothes to be brought to him, and flew of straight to the chief of police.

A decade ago, when I was still harboring delusions that I could write stories, I wrote a flash I titled “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room.” A reviewer in an online workshop dismissed it as derivative of Gogol’s “The Nose,” which I hadn’t read but had someone copied. I found it online and read it, and couldn’t see anything in common with my story except the word “nose” (the nose in my piece was an advertising symbol from a closed-down bakery, which a homeless man took to a house he sometimes broke into for shelter and invited a woman from the soup kitchen to join him… the similarities in the story elude me still). I regarded Gogol’s nose as something of a novelty piece, fun to read but not sure why it was considered great literature. So I was glad to have Saunders teach me.

…[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened (it’s only language after all, with somebody at the other end of it, making it up) but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.

This opened up worlds to me, not just for this story but for all the stories that include fantastical elements. Reginald McKnight’s “Float” came to mind, since, unbelievably, I’d actually  made that connection back when I wrote about it: it’s not about the shoe, it’s about how everyone regards the shoe. Again, I’m really excited that I stumbled across something that happens to be a real thing (and please don’t tell me if I’m misinterpreting, I don’t get to be excited about my own writing that often).

Saunders also discusses skaz, a Russian storytelling tradition that I’ve come across before in connection with Toni Morrison and in my second person study. It’s described as the blurring of lines between narrator and narrated, but Saunders makes it seem a bit more encompassing than that.

What really struck me was his comment about ‘…[S]omething troubling (a missing nose, a hateful political agenda) is met with polite, well-intentioned civility — a civility that wants things to go on as usual.” Don’t tell me 19th century stories have nothing to do with contemporary society. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.

“Gooseberries” is another story I’d read before.

Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting his arms out wide; he raised waves on which white lilies swayed. He swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept on diving, trying to touch bottom. ‘By God!’ he kept repeating delightedly, ‘by God!’ He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain. Burkin and Alyohin were already dressed and ready to leave, but he kept on swimming and diving. ‘By God!’ he kept exclaiming, ‘Lord have mercy on me!’ ‘You’ve had enough!’ Burkin shouted to him.

Note that this is the passage from which the book takes its title, a book which joyfully splashes about in stories. On my prior reading, I’d come away with the idea (perhaps harvested from googling resources and analyses) that the story is about the guy who has to be happy eating his sour, hard gooseberries, even though they’re obviously not edible, and the kind of self-delusion (or self-will) that requires. Joy didn’t enter into it. Thank you, George Saunders, for bringing the joy.

Because, in addition to examining another digression in great detail, he points out how every instance of joy – whether the swim or bathing for the first time in months or the new house or the drowsiness that leaves a pipe uncleaned – requires a balance of misery: someone’s impatient to get on with the walk, filthy water that pours off the bather, the gooseberries themselves, the stench in the next room. And this brought me to Le Guin, and Omelas: if every joy depletes someone else, is joy ethical? Saunders’ point is that the story takes several viewpoints at the same time and refuses to fully endorse or disavow any of them.

Tolsoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” the shortest story in the book, finishes things off.

[S]uddenly, in the second half of the second year, something happened to him that had never happened before in his life. This something was that he found out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections: not a person having to clean boots or take a parcel somewhere or harness up a horse, but a person who was in no real way necessary to another person could still be needed by that person, and caressed, and that he, Alyosha, was just such a person. This he learned from the cook, Ustinya…. Alyosha felt for the first time that he – he himself, not his work – but he himself was needed by another person.

This too brings in a great deal of morality and Christian virtue: is humility a good thing, or can it be overdone? Saunders spends a lot of time on the amazement issue, how it relates to the final few sentences in which Alyosha is again amazed, and how the amazements could be connected.

— —

The book ends with an Appendix containing three writing exercises: editing, escalation, and translation. I haven’t done any of them. Yet. I’m trying to resist, because who knows what will happen if I get it into my head that I should try writing stories again.

Since this is a new book – brand new, just published this year – it may not seem to fit into the “re-reading” theme of this In-Between-Reading period. However, two of the stories Saunders discusses are stories I’ve read before, so I’m slipping it in (besides, I said I’d be doing some new reads, so it fits there, too). However it fits in, I’m very glad I read it; it’s a delight to read, and I hope it will give me more ways to think about stories as I read forward.

A final digression: I ordered the book online from my local independent bookseller for shipping to my apartment ten blocks away, as that’s how these things are done during pandemics. When it arrived, I saw that it was a signed copy. It may be the only signed book I have, and I got it by accident. I’m very glad I did.

* * *

  • Indiebound Book Link
  • LARoB review
  • Reginald McKnight’s short story “Float” online at Georgia Review.
  • My blog post on “Float”.
  • Riitta Päiväläinen photograph “Vestige: Ice and Wind”
  • Zin Kenter’s flash fiction “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room” online at FriGG.

Pushcart XLII: George Saunders, “Taut Rhythmic Surfaces” (nonfiction) from Southampton Review, Winter/Spring 2016

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

I didn’t know James Salter well at all, personally. I only spent part of one day with him….
But actually he had been a dear friend of mine for many years before that, and will continue to be a dear friend to me as long as I live through his prose. He did for me, and does for me, what any dear friend might do. He helps me sustain my sometimes faltering faith in an idea I base my life on: namely, that there is something sacred about working in prose; that purifying one’s prose style is a form of spiritual dedication; that working with language is a beautiful and noble way to spend one’s life. Every time I read his work I feel a kindred spirit there and am convinced all over again that the way we write a sentence can be everything: exploration, devotion, celebration. A person is never more himself than when he’s writing a sentence he’ll later stand by.

When I read tributes like this one (delivered by Saunders at a speech following Salter’s death in 2015) I’m acutely aware that I don’t have a “favorite author”, and I worry that there’s something wrong with me. I don’t even have a “favorite story” or “favorite novel”, or for that matter a favorite movie or song. Instead, I have a cluster of songs/movies/stories/songs that I love, often for very different reasons, and at various times one or the other is preeminent in my heart; but that’s because of the circumstances of the moment, where my head is at as we used to say, not because of the work itself.

Maybe that’s the difference between me, as a reader, and someone like Saunders who spends his days crafting that which I read. A workman knows fine workmanship. A baker can tell when someone properly proofed the dough, added the yeast at the right temperature, because the baker has thrown out so many failed loaves. A dancer can tell when another’s pointe is just a little off; a pianist knows when a passage isn’t as clear as it should be. A writer, someone who cares about sentences and phrases and syllables and how they fit together into paragraphs and works, knows writers.

What James did so magnificently is make the case for desire, reminding us of how good it feels, how essential it is for us, how wonderful, how unavoidable, an inevitable and happy result of simply being alive – while at the same time reminding us that it’s dangerous to desire. Or, maybe, dangerous to simply desire, to believe that the satisfaction of desire is sufficient for a human being.
We can’t live with desire and we can’t live without it, we say.
Correct, says the Salter story.

I don’t think Saunders is saying there’s one right way to form prose. I think he’s saying that there are many approaches, many styles, but each one has potential for excellence. A writer who hits excellence consistently, whatever her style, deserves notice.

I’ve never read Salter’s work, which maybe hampers my appreciation of Saunder’s comments. But it doesn’t hamper my appreciation of appreciation; there’s no more beautiful thing. Though I’m no Saunders, I hope, along the way, I’ve expressed appreciation for various works I’ve read, because we give what we have.

Reading Matters: Public #Respect for Writers

I went to my Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore on Friday evening for a reading by Maine resident Eleanor Morse, author of the recently published White Dog Fell From the Sky. Typically, about 25 to 40 people attend these readings, and most show up at the last minute. The reading at 7pm was to be preceded by a half hour of what was billed as “Zimbabwean music” which could’ve meant anything from a recording to the Maine Marimba Ensemble (none of whom are Zimbabwean but they specialize in traditional and contemporary Zimbabwean music). I figured I’d listen to the music, snuggle into a corner seat out of the way of latecomers, and if the music was canned, I could always, ahem, find something to read.

It didn’t work out that way.

At 6:32 the main room of the store was jammed. Forget sitting – there was barely room to stand. The instrumentalist and vocalist were indeed playing and singing from the side room. I wandered back and thought I’d snagged a reasonable spot to stand.. but they kept coming, and coming, and coming… I ended up on the steps to the basement. I couldn’t see the table where the speaker would be, or the musicians, or, really, anything other than a wall of people in front of me. I had to leave; I was getting claustrophobic, and I wasn’t going to be able to see or hear anything from where I’d ended up.

Now, it might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not – I’m rejoicing! On this Friday night in January, in Maine, at least 100, perhaps 150 people came out to hear a 62-year-old female author talk about her novel set in Botswana during South Africa’s Apartheid. It helped that Oprah listed it as a Must-Read for January 2013. It helped, of course, that she’s a local (she’s from Peak’s Island, and the store owner said the latest ferry had deposited half of the island’s winter residents in time for the event). And I suppose it helped that we’re in our January Thaw and it was well above freezing. But still, the enthusiasm of that attendance, the mellow intensity in that store, more than compensated for any disappointment I felt at missing the talk.

This is good news.

Skip to Saturday morning, with me working on calculus (yes, I’m taking yet another math course) and half-listening to UP with Chris Hayes, part of the weekend-morning liberal porn block on MSNBC. I could’ve sworn I heard him say George Saunders would be at the table next, which, of course, would be silly; UP features political, economic, and social policy wonks, activists, commentators, and academics, not fiction writers, not even fiction writers known for their anti-consumerism viewpoints.

But it was indeed George Saunders, whose recently-published collection Tenth of December includes several terrific stories I’ve read from TNY and BASS, like the great title story, the truly astonishing “Semplica Girl Diaries” and the heartbreaking “Home.”

But it wasn’t just George Sanders. It was also Ayana Mathis, whose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie I started last week. And Victor Lavalle, who I’m not familiar with (but perhaps I should be; The Devil in Silver looks interesting), and Michael Chabon whose name I seem to have been mispronouncing all along.

Four literary fiction writers. On a political commentary show? Yes – discussing President Obama’s political narrative, multiple voices, a foot in two worlds… politics and literary theory collide.

It’s all available online [addendum; no, it isn’t, just one segment is still available here] in four six-minute segments. Yes, it is political. Yes, everyone there likes Barack Obama. Yes, there are some places they could’ve gone, maybe should’ve gone, but didn’t. But the storytellers are gathered around the Pastry Plate (which is so popular to viewers, it has its own Twitter account with 2000+ followers; no, not me, I have enough trouble following people, let alone carbohydrates) to talk about storytelling, and they do.

Some highlights:

Section introduction (Chris Hayes):

Perhaps more than any other national political feature in recent memory, Barack Obama has used speeches and big rhetorical set pieces to define his character, tell his story, and propel actual political events….
Given Barack Obama’s remarkable gift in storytelling and the impending second act of the drama of his presidency, we thought it would be enlightening to invite some genuine experts in storytelling to give their thoughts on the narrative President Obama is creating.

George Saunders:

What he’s really doing is saying to the listener, ‘I trust you deeply. I’m going to be as honest as I can, I’m going to tell you the weirdest marginal truths, and because you’re as smart as I am, you’re going to lean forward.’ In fiction that’s an important principle, to assume the best of your reader, don’t puppeteer, don’t condescend.

Ayana Mathis:

It is this question of creating a narrative of yourself… and it is a combination of public perception and his own perception of himself.

Victor Lavalle:

People who are drawn to fiction are asking the writer, “Do a good enough job to help me become invested in someone else for a time, so I can see our common humanity, our common pain, our common everything, and maybe come out of here with the sense that I’m not the only one feeling this loneliness, this sadness…” that’s part of the pact of writing fiction vs nonfiction.

Chris reads a quote from the January 2010 Junot Diaz TNY essay, which may have inspired this whole angle; even Flannery Connor gets a quick mention as an aside.

Then there’s the usual closer of the show, “Now We Know,” a report of something each guest has learned this week. Mathis talks about her discovery of the use of a blossoming pear tree in two disparate works, Saunders comments on the value of humor thanks to some galley proofs he read, Lavalle bemoans the poor quality of bootleg DVDs, and Chabon worries about this giant thing scientists just discovered floating around out there in the universe, a cluster of quasars so huge it can’t possibly exist. It was the most fun Now We Know segment in a long time. That’s what happens when you talk to writers.

Two public displays of affection for books and writers: What a great start to the weekend.

George Saunders: “The Semplica-Girls Diary” from The New Yorker, 10/15/12

New Yorker art by Martin Ansin

New Yorker art by Martin Ansin

Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really?

Most of the time, when a story is impossible to discuss without spoiling, I give the warning, then continue. Not this time. It’s available online. Read it.

Well, maybe I’ll continue a little. 😉

It’s slightly longer than most TNY stories (10 online pages) but that’s because of the short sentences and frequent single-line paragraphs. It’s in diary form, which rarely works for me, though in this case I was more annoyed by the abbreviated language – like slang, only worse. But I understand, even if I don’t particularly like, the style.

I trust Saunders. And he delivered. In fact, he delivered past the point where I thought he delivered. So in addition to really, really liking the story, I learned something about what makes a story. A gradually-dawning surprise, a horrifyingly ironic icon, isn’t enough.

There’s a reference you probably won’t get at first. Don’t worry about it, even if you’re an old fart like me and worry that you aren’t up on your twitter-ese (though it turns out it doesn’t matter), and especially if you’re internet’s out like mine was as I read this, because you won’t be able to google to find out what it refers to (or doesn’t – and again, it doesn’t matter). And that’ll turn out to be a good thing, because if you trust Saunders, he won’t leave you, um, hanging.

It’s vintage Saunders, with all his favorite themes, starting and ending with consumerism but delving into class warfare, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, those jobs Americans don’t want and the stories we tell ourselves about who wants them and why. And it’s a funny story – maybe predictably in places, as when our narrator breaks his vow to write daily in his diary by the second day.

It stays funny even as it turns macabre.

The familiar situations – dueling birthday parties – with unfamiliar details (go ahead, read it) let us laugh at him without squirming about our own behavior (she writes on her computer made who-knows-where-by-who-knows-who while a chicken plucked and gutted by please-don’t-tell-me roasts on carrots picked by I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it, none of which has anything to do with the crazy stuff in the story, of course). And when the narrator finds himself understanding a little bit more than he bargained for about parents and children sacrificing for each other, courtesy of his six-year-old, maybe we will, too.

In his Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, Saunders says one scene from the story, including all the, um, unfamiliar details, came to him in a dream, and he had to write a story “to get the guy to that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling.” I love where he went with that.

Like I said: read it.

[addendum: I am thoroughly delighted to see this story in Best American Short Stories 2013]

BASS 2011: George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead” from The New Yorker, 12/20/10

New Yorker art: Bill Armstrong, “I MODI” (2009)

New Yorker art: Bill Armstrong, “I MODI” (2009)

It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this comtemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

Hello I am Zin! I seem to be on my own here so I will take on the mantle of responsibility and talk about this story as well! The idea was to complete this anthology by January 1, and although that did not happen, now is not the time to stop short. I hope things will get back to normal in the next day or two.

I like George Saunders. I like his general outlook and I like many of his stories! I liked this story. But I liked it when he wrote it in Persuasion Nation and I liked it when I saw Clockwork Orange and I liked it when I read 1984 too. It is just a little too been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt-saw-the-movie-learned-the-theme-song-played-with-the-action-figures. Still, it was gripping. And it took a while before I realized I had read it before.

The beginning of the story is very confusing. It is like coming into a conversation where people are talking in shorthand or their own jargon and I had no idea what was going on. That is exactly what was happening! Jeff and Abnesti are having a conversation, using phrases like “Drip On” and “Acknowledge” and we have no idea what that means. It straightens itself out soon enough.

Jeff is a criminal of some kind (we find out later he killed someone in a rage when he was a teenager) and is in a treatment facility testing rehabilitative drugs in lieu of prison. The drugs are not necessarily targeted to him. One drug creates the sensation of romantic love. Another bestows eloquence (one of my favorite things about this story is the change in prosody when Jeff is on this drug, as in the above quote, and then he changes back to ordinary speech as the effect wanes). And then there is the dreaded Darkenfloxx, which kindles a deep and painful depression. I wonder what kind of use that has, other than as used in the story: a threat.

You can read the story online, so I will not recap the plot. It is pretty much what you would expect: Jeff is in a position where harm will be inflicted and he can not prevent it, so he needs to escape from Spiderhead. Spiderhead is the name given to the control room of the facility. When I heard the title of the story (a long time ago; I actually read it last year) I thought for some reason it had something to do with a wilderness adventure on ski trails. I have no idea where that came from!

Thing is, Jeff is cured in that he will no longer kill ever, but his cure means his death, so it is a rather Pyrrhic cure. The stated objective of the experiment is to see if he has any romantic feelings of any kind for either of the girls he was chemically in love with, but I think it is more complicated than that! I think he is provoked into his death, thus proving his cure! Of course, it is a mess, but that is what George Saunders usually has to say about government or corporate interference.

The Book Bench interview is wonderful! He jokes about having taken a small dose of the eloquence drug, and it is funny, that is exactly what I was thinking as I read his long answers! But they are very interesting and I highly recommend you read the interview even if you are not interested in the story! Here are some of the things he says:

I am not very good on questions of intentionality, i.e., questions of the “Why did you do that?” variety. I think the writer’s main job is to provide a wild ride for the reader. So most of what I’m doing on a given day is just trying to ensure that the wild ride happens, trusting and hopeful that the thematics will take care of themselves.

In his BASS Contributor Notes, he says he does not really remember what he was thinking when he wrote the story, but he has always been interested in “who we are seems to have an awful lot to do with just simple chemistry, much as we like to think otherwise.”

… you are often more like a river-rafting guide who’s been paid a bonus to purposely steer your clients into the roughest possible water.

That reminds me of what Steve Almond said about the writer forcing the characters up against their deepest fears and desires!

…to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, who said that a writer can choose what he writes about, but can’t choose what he makes live. Somehow—maybe due to simple paucity of means—I tend to foster drama via bleakness.

Many people I respect love this story, and I enjoyed it, I just thought it was not his most original work. And George Saunders is someone who is usually so very original, I guess I have a different standard for him. That is the price of greatness!

George Saunders: “Tenth of December” from The New Yorker, 10/31/11

New Yorker art by Riitta Päiväläinen – from her “Vestige” series

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
Clean.
Cleanly.

I had a lot of trouble with this story. In fact, I only read parts of it, skipping over the fantasy sections looking for whatever was happening in the here-and-now, assuming Eber was mentally ill or drunk. That’s what I get for skimming. I only became interested enough to read it through when I found out what it was actually about after I’d read the terrific Book Bench interview with George Saunders, and comments by other bloggers, most notably Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes (always a go-to source when I’m struggling with a story). Trevor had a hard time with it, too, yet he led me right to it. So thanks, Trevor!

Still, it’s not an easy read. YMMV. It’s available online.

The principles are two:

Robin, a ten-year-old boy who’s escaping grade-school teasing by doing battle with a world of Netherlanders who live in a rock wall and “talk like that guy in ‘Mary Poppins’.” His companion, in his mind, is the lovely Suzanne from homeroom, to whom he is a hero, though in real life she doesn’t know his name. Oh, come on, don’t tell me you didn’t have similar fantasies.

And Don Eber, who is not at all mentally ill but has a brain tumor already affecting his word choice. He’s got a cast of characters in his head, too, though they’re real, if no longer alive. His dad and Kip, who abandoned him for California when he was a kid. Allen, his stepfather, who was a terrific guy until he got sick:

Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.

Again, let me thank Trevor: I would’ve missed this entirely if I hadn’t been directed back to the story, and this was worth whatever struggles I endured.

So we have a boy with Nethers in his head trying to be a hero, and a man with Dad, Kip and Allen in his head, trying to die before he becomes a burden to his current family, in the same woods. What are the odds.

Eber has left his coat near the mostly-frozen pond, as he’s decided freezing to death is the easiest way to go. Robin finds the coat and, since it’s ten degrees, decides to rescue whoever lost it. Unfortunately, he never saw the PSAs about how dangerous it is to trust ice early in the season, so he cuts across the pond rather than taking the long way around. It’s a terrific scene, both before and after he falls in. The pacing slows down to inch-by-inch action, which is perfect.

From there, it’s a matter of interaction, and it’s a wonderful back-and-forth of guilt and rescue. As the story proceeded, once I’d actually read it instead of skimming, it raised all sorts of feelings from me. The ending is slightly hokey, but it earns it.

The magic of this story, though, is the integration of internality and action, the very thing that so put me off at first. Per Saunders’ interview:

Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.”

….Robin’s internal dialogues were sort of voluntary—they’re little scenes that he’s consciously enacting in his mind, like when someone imagines being interviewed on a talk show, or gives himself a do-over with someone who’s insulted him. Robin is picturing Suzanne walking beside him; he’s actually “hearing” her say those words (those words that he’s giving her to say). Eber’s dialogues are more non-verbal, if you will. That is, I assign his father and Kip lines of dialogue, but I would imagine that in Eber’s mind these exchanges occur more as vague rushes of feeling that, if we could take them apart, would be attributable to long-standing and very deep archetypes in his mind. (I, for example, have a small group of inner nuns who appear now and then—also known as a “swarm” or a “mottle” of nuns.

As Trevor (thanks again) points out – this all takes place in an extremely close third person narration, which I didn’t even realize. It reads very naturally. There’s no intrusion of “he thought” or “he imagined,” it’s just a stream of consciousness of these two characters.

I’m glad I finally read this as it was meant to be read. There’s a lesson there for me.

Another interesting note: the art appearing in The New Yorker (and above) is supplied by photographer Riitta Päiväläinen from her “Vestige” series, featuring clothing from second-hand stores placed in landscapes: “By freezing the garment or letting the wind fill it with air, I am able to create a sculptural space, which reminds me of its former user. This ‘Imaginary Meeting’ represents, for me, the subtle distinction between absence and presence.” It’s so perfect for this story, I’m amazed the story and the art were created independently.

# # #

Addendum: I re-read this as part of BASS 2012, and had a few additional thoughts.

Even though I’d read it before and knew what to expect (and the payoff), it was again a hard story to get into. The reader is plopped right down in the middle of a boy’s fantasy play, complete with imaginary creatures called Nethers and the fantasy version of Suzanne, whom he’s rescuing. So it makes no sense. Then you meet Eber, who is likewise lost in thought. As Perotta says in his Introduction, their “inner lives are fully accessible to the reader” which is cool, but takes some persistence to follow. It’s worth it.

I also picked up on something else: each of them was ineffectually trying to rescue himself initially, the boy by becoming a hero in his fantasy and rescuing Suzanne, the man by killing himself before the tumor in his brain could take away his capacity to do so. Yet, it isn’t until each rescues the other that actual rescue takes place: the boy becomes a hero in fact, the man realizes suicide would be a terrible thing to do to his beloved Molly. There’s something here like the old thing about helping others being the best way to forget about your own troubles, but in praxis. When the kid sees the old man’s coat and goes to get it, he thinks, “It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.” Exactly – except by trying to rescue the man, he’s rescuing himself.

George Saunders: “Home” from The New Yorker, June 13-20, 2011-06-12

Illustration by Maximilian Bode

Illustration by Maximilian Bode

At that point, I started feeling like a chump, like I was being held down by a bunch of guys so another guy could come over and put his New Age fist up my ass while explaining that having his fist up my ass was far from his first choice and was actually making him feel conflicted.

I’ve been trying to find a way to approach a discussion of this story for a couple of days now. I can’t seem to do it justice. You can (and should) read it yourself: it’s available online. And then you can read an interview with George Saunders about the story, which is almost as powerful as the story itself. The best I can do is say if Michael Moore wrote fiction, this is the story he would write. I wish he’d make a movie of this story. Someone should.

Across the river the castles got smaller. By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts. Inside one peasant hut were five kids standing perfectly still on the back of a couch. Then they all leapt off at once and their dogs went crazy.

It didn’t make sense in the beginning. I read the first couple of columns three or four times, thinking I’d missed a character somewhere. I wrote down the character’s names (something I do often, anyway): Ma, Mikey (son, returning home from… somewhere?), Harris (Ma’s boyfriend), Alberto (ex-boyfriend, who is completely unimportant).

Mommy, let me kneel at your feet and tell you what me and Smelton and Ricky G did at Al-Raz, and then you can stroke my hair and tell me anybody would’ve done the exact same thing.

I just decided to go on reading. Good idea. Renee, Mikey’s sister, married to Ryan. A hilarious discussion of planeloads of Russian babies with harelips which is actually a dissertation on wealth and philanthropy. We learn Mikey may have done something. Aha, Mikey was a soldier.

It was like either: (A) I was a terrible guy who was knowingly doing this rotten thing over and over, or (B) it wasn’t so rotten, really, just normal, and the way to confirm that it was normal was to keep doing it over and over.

Then Mikey’s ex-wife (and her new husband) and his child come into the picture. And, well, it goes on like that. Learning new things that make the hairs stand on end. Giggle-fests. Tears.

What are you going to stop me with? Your girth? Your good intentions? Your Target jeans? Your years of living off the fat of the land? Your belief that anything and everything can be fixed with talk, talk, endless yapping, hopeful talk?

What’s killing me is that I just went on a rant, in my latest Top Chef recap, about these phony “cooking for our troops” shows they pull, and how I hope the producers who think of this and the chefs who get so emotional about these episodes – “Thank you for your service” – vote for increased funding for VA programs and other veteran support services, and for candidates who advocate same, instead of tax-cutting bills.

I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of know-nothings, thinking, O.K., O.K., you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.

I love this story. Just don’t ask me to explain it.

George Saunders – “Victory Lap” from The New Yorker 10/05/2009

Oh, my, what a story. I chose to read this because it was Perpetual Folly’s “Best New Yorker Story of 2009” (actually, one of two, and I’ll be reading “A Tiny Feast” shortly – they both ended up as Other Distinguished Stories in BASS 2010). I can see why. This is a story I wish I’d written, not just one I was glad I’d read. I’ve read Saunders before, he writes wonderful anti-consumerism stories – magical realism, alternate reality, that sort of thing – and I love them. But this is different. The basic plot is one any writer might have chosen, but the style is pure joy to read. It’s extremely internal, as close to first person as 3rd person can be. I wonder if he kept it 3rd because the transitions between characters was easier that way, or to keep from getting too deeply into the characters’ heads.

He starts with Allison Pope, almost 15 years old, imagining herself the belle of some grand ball at which she is examining and rejecting potential suitors for the smallest flaws. She segues into ballet mode, prepping for her recital that evening, a Bambi fantasy mixed with ballet lingo, and we experience the inner consciousness of a young teen who is in love with the world and herself: “Sometimes, feeling happy like this, she imagined a baby deer trembling in the woods.” It’s very internal, very disorganized, very narcissistic, and perfect. Enough playfulness to remind us she is still a child, enough interest in the world and romance and ballet to remind us she is a teen. And totally confident.

She sees her neighbor, Kyle, “the poor goof.” They grew up together but he is now not really in competition for her perfect someone. There’s a wonderful riff on “each of us deserves respect” and then the not-meter reader shows up.

Switch to Kyle. We learn of his world through his eyes: the Family Status Indicator (which is missing one status, interestingly enough), Work Notices, Shoe Sheets, Work Points, Chore Points, Major Treats – discovering this system was an amazing experience – and his wonderful game of swearing in long nonsensical bursts, in his head. Words he can never say out loud. All of them, the seven famous ones and a bunch of others Carlin never imagined at the time. One of his chores is completing a Log of cars in the church lot nearby, to aid his father in requesting a soundproof retaining wall. So he sees the van pull up. He breaks some rules, worries about that obsessively, then sees the meter reader abduct Allison. He debates what to do. The debate is totally believable, because his parents, though never in the story, are clearly depicted from the environment they’ve created.

Then we get into the head, also in third person, of the not-meter reader, who has his own problems. I love to consider how Allison now feels about everyone deserving respect, having met up with this particular guy. His craziness and his own bizarre environment are shown in the same way, through his eyes.

Then we go back to Kyle, trying to decide what to do. How can he do the right thing when the rules prohibit so many elements of that Right Thing? And what does that say about the Rules? And, finally, when he does break the rules, does that mean he can’t stop?

It’s not always easy to follow what’s actually happening – I got lost on one character transition, and there are lots of people in the not-meter reader’s life that clutter up the scene. But it’s all readable. And it’s all wonderful. The end is frightening and beautiful, and the title, the title just knocks me out. Because they all have a victory lap of sorts.

There are phrases, paragraphs, images throughout that give me goosebumps. Many of them appear in Allison’s mind: “Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.” I never thought of it like that, how do you come up with that image? It’s amazing. “There was so much she didn’t know! Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what was a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-fed, did you have to like push the milk out?” These are questions similar to those I had when I was a kid – she’s overprotected, naïve, and curious. That wonderful sense of being almost-15, glimpsing the world but not understanding it. Kyle hears his parents referring to him as “Beloved Only” which really puts the pressure on and smacks, to me, of scripture as well.

And again I want to know what happens next. Do they become friends again? Avoid each other? Does Kyle get in a lot of trouble for all the rules he broke, or do his parents recognize he was a hero (until he went overboard, at which point Allison became a hero, and her parents are shown acknowledging this). I suspect not, since he and Allison, while both overprotected, are quite different. But I’m glad it’s not spelled out. I’m beginning to think this is a place where I go wrong, I spell it out, when I should leave the last scene, the aftermath, for the reader. Or maybe it’s just this story.

What’s wonderful at heart is that these two teens confront reality poorly armed – Allison with a naive “all’s right with the world, I’ll give the disadvantaged with open sores some vaseline and we’ll all be fine” attitude, Kyle with the Rules that have been imposed on him. They have to fend for themselves when reality comes crashing through the protective layers their families have devised for them. And, bless their hearts, they do pretty well, considering. The not-meter reader doesn’t fare so well (he too has his way of dealing with reality) but then again, he’s the bad guy, so he’s supposed to lose.