• George Saunders
  • Riverhead
  • 2001

Finishing the book I’m reading and placing it on the white plastic seat of my white porcelain toilet, I exhale loudly. I run my fingers through my damp hair, shake my face free of water, touch the sore on my lip, and stare at the book as if it were a fast-paddling and panicked beetle sharing my bath or a clutch of hairs left on the blue and white tiles by my girlfriend after her shower a few weeks ago.

Towelling myself dry, my skin flakes and spirals to the bathroom floor, I think of the slight shift in emphasis from Bounty, the last story in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, to the title story of Pastoralia, Saunders’ second collection. This time, the theme/amusement park is caveman-based, disgruntled employees scrabbling and scratching for food and meaning. The paranoia here is gentle, the comedy an admixture of Freud and Benny Hill.

“This morning is the morning I empty our Human Refuse bags and the trash bags from the bottom of the sleek metal hole where Janet puts her used feminine items. For this I get an extra sixty a month. Plus it’s always nice to get out of the cave. I knock on the door of her Separate Area.”

Saunders’ language here is more controlled, the hysteria hypodermic rather than armorial, the dialogue sparklingly crystallized. The characters in Pastoralia, constantly assessed, reviewed, and monitored, are docile subjects inhabiting sentences and paragraphs that move from truth to emotion via humour and humility. We’re all sitting on our log waiting for the goat to be dropped in the Big Slot. Saunders’ characters are ordinary. Very ordinary. Their dialogue is human. Very human.

Martin Amis has written something about the history of literature and how literature’s earliest texts were about gods, then about kings and other royalty, then courtiers, and then landowners, and then the middle class, and then tradesmen, and then the working class, and then the underclass — thieves and murderers. Saunders writes about the losers, the lost, and the lonely. If Martin Amis has his Keiths and Johns, Saunders has his Lens and Phils — the dispossessed, the not-ever-possessed, possessed with making their lives better, fuller, more meaningful. Language and character strive to be different but are fundamentally simple. Saunders has written (I found this tucked inside the back cover of my English edition of Pastoralia, the one with the Raquel Welch-like fur-bikinied woman on the front cover, surrounded by smoking bones under a red and mordant sky, a supine man at her feet, and she’s holding a flint tool or a very primitive vibrator).

“Certain kinds of language walk hand-in-hand with falseness: vague language, humourless language, sloppy language, language that strings together code words, language that eliminates the doer and the done to, that shuns people and things in favour of the abstract.”

Damn that’s good. “The doer and the done to.” Exactly. And now my essay is a sloppy soup of words, sloshing around the bowl of my brain, staining my keyboard, messing my iBook’s dusty screen. “That shuns people.” Uh-huh. Saunders never shuns people. He embraces (Argh! Argh! Argh!) the disabled, the abled, the unable. He writes about people who spend the best years of their lives swearing at photocopiers. In ‘Winky’ — great title — conventioneers, labelled with their own shortcomings, reify being and identity with the (small) world. Look at the seven dwarfs. We are the seven dwarfs. We are the seven dwarfs with multiple-personality disorder. All of the time I am always and forever Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful, Dopey, Sneezy, and er… Doc. Reify. That’s what Saunders does, he reifies our hopes, our disasters, our dreams. But he would never use a word like ‘reify,’ it’s too abstract, man, too loaded, uncompassionate.

Is Saunders Funny? You bet. Read ‘Sea Oak.’ Read ‘Sea Oak’ and try not to laugh.

“Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn’t look good. Jade says “regicide” is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn. I offer to help and they start yelling at me for condescending.”

And, thank God, he even makes bad jokes. Auntie Bernie has returned from the grave and is rotting away in the parlour:

“What a nice day we’ve had,” Aunt Bernie says once we’ve got the babies in bed. “Man, what an optometrist,” says Jade.

He is also, I would argue, sometimes blissfully unaware of his humour. This is from ‘The Barber’s Unhappiness’ and the barber is attempting to achieve and sustain an erection.

“It wouldn’t be easy. It would take hard work. He knew a little about hard work, having made a barbershop out of a former pet store. Tearing out a counter he’d found a dead mouse. From a sump pump he’d pulled three hardened snakes.”

Empathy and sympathy. Emancipation and seduction. Eros and sloth. Entertainment and seriousness. Saunders has a toe fetishism — see Bounty and The Barber’s Unhappiness. His characters are fully dimensional and are so within the space (fourteen pages) and time (immemorial) of the story. Observe the indecisive decisiveness of Morse and Cummings in The Falls,’ a masterful short story, something like T.C. Boyle’s Heart of a Champion and nothing like Joyce Carol Oates (in a good way, that is. I have nothing against JCO. In fact, I own — hold on, let me count — twenty-five books by JCO). Saunders makes the Happy Man feel uncomfortable and the Uncomfortable Man feel happy. (I could make a bad seven dwarves joke here — but I won’t. My god! The restraint.)

If this is adding up to an arse-licking exercise in criticism — two points. (Two? Only two?) See the Barber’s Unhappiness pages 140 and 172: “wank Brit. Vulgar slang — verb [no obj.] (typically a man) masturbate.” You don’t wank it, George. You just wank. In the essay I found in the back cover of Pastoralia, Saunders writes,

“The movements from vagueness to precision, from generality to specificity, length to brevity, passivity to activity, involve, mysteriously, a corresponding movement from falsehood to truth.”

And quotes Esther Forbes, “On rocky islands gulls woke” against “On structures not unlike rock masses, it was observed that certain animals perhaps prone to flight slept somewhat less aggressively than previously.” Yet in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, SAUNDERS COMMITS SELF-HERESY in “after which they wrestled about which one of them sang the best and there was the sound of some wooden thing breaking, possibly a piano bench” — vague, general, and passive.

Injecting myself with 20mgs of insulin, I admit that these are quibbles — mere quibbles. Not Tribbles (that’s Star Trek) and thinking on it, the goat-loving Gappers of Frip do resemble Tribbles — albeit with multiple eyes and a severe case of capriphilia — oh, capricious, capri pants, Capri. Although marketed as a children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is an extraordinary prose work, documenting prejudice, outbreaks of NIMBYism, snobbishness, falsity, and hypocrisy in a political fable stinking of Swift, ponging of Pynchon, and reeking of Rabelais. The Gappers have to be the most (that was moist in the pre-edited text) lovable parasites in literature — I want to see the Mattel toy along with accessory goat or fence. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip shows Saunders at his most playful and compassionate (that word again). Here’s Capable — the heroine of the story.

“And she soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.”

And here the Gappers are deciding what next to love:

“So the gappers took a vote. And though they were not in perfect agreement — one believed they should begin loving wadded-up pieces of paper, another believed they should begin loving turtles, particularly turtles who were dying, particularly dying turtles who nevertheless kept a positive attitude — the gappers still very much admired and trusted that less-stupid gapper, and voted to begin madly loving fences.”

How can you not love them? How can you not love Phil, the titular despot of Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”?

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