Monday, May 01, 2006

George Saunders' 'Pastoralia': A Brief Review

Normally I'd say that Mutt Ploughman is our "resident" book reviewer here at The Secret Thread, and an accomplished and excellent one he is... as his recently published review of Stephen Wright's The Amalgamation Polka in the April 10 issue of America magazine proves for the umpteenth time. (Here is a link to that review online for anyone who may have missed it, by the way:

However, this time around I would like to write a few words about an outstanding collection of short stories I just read, by an incredibly talented American writer named George Saunders. Saunders is one of these very rare writers that seems to be wildly praised and appreciated by other accomplished writers, as well as by average American readers of all stripes. He's got a real gift for satire and humor, but he's also got a decidedly softer side, and writes some of the saddest lines I've read in a long time. He's been called everything from a dark futurist, to a cynical liberal satirist, to the heir apparent of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pyncheon. But I don't really know about any of that. That's just stuff I'm repeating that I've read in articles and such. Here's what I can tell you, what I do know, after reading his second short story collection, Pastoralia, for myself.

This is one of the funniest, most original and most interesting short story collections I've read in years. One of the main targets of Saunders' satire is corporate America, whose twisted logic and absurd, euphemistic language is hilariously skewered in the title story "Pastoralia." For a hint of Saunders' outlandish style, this story can only be described as a strange mixture of Quest for Fire and Office Space, if that can be imagined. Perhaps my favorite story of them all is "Winky," a spot-on parody of the ridiculous influence that self-help charlatans (you know, the Tony Robbins and Dr. Wayne Dyer types, "personal power" and all that crap) have on the down on their luck in this country. The way it reveals how hollow their snake-oil promises are in the face of even the slightest challenge from actual, real life is both uproarious and heartbreaking.

"Sea Oak" is memorable on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that it's not every day that you read a story told from the point of view of a male stripper working in an aviation-themed restaurant, whose beloved old aunt happens to visit him as a foul-mouthed zombie (her postmortem advice to the main character on how to solve his financial problems: "Show your c**k."). And yet, against all reason and logic, there is a powerful emotional undercurrent to this story as well. How can this be? There's no way to explain it, except to note that Saunders, in his own words, has "a sentimental streak a mile wide," and he seems to favor honest, hardworking, down and out characters that are trying to get by and make a better life for themselves despite numerous (and usually funny as hell) financial, familial and romantic challenges. Despite the fantastic settings, you recognize his characters -- they are the people you work with, stand in line with, and/or commute to work next to every day.

Saunders works his strange, powerful alchemy again in "The Barber's Unhappiness," which is the story of an utterly unlikeable barber, a blatant ogler of pretty women and unwilling participant in a driving course to remove points from his license. He meets a woman he think he might have a chance with in the course, but backs off his advances when he realizes she's not nearly as attractive as he first thought. What's to like in a story like this? Plenty, in Saunders' hands. The scenes in the driver's course are wickedly funny (with their ridiculous cast of offbeat characters), and somehow again by story's end, despite all inclinations to the contrary in your brain, you realize with a start that your heart is rooting for the sad sack.

Two other stories have a more somber, tragic tone, with the final story, "The Falls," packing a real wallop at the end, as a man plagued by indecision all his life (it seems), failing in his career and struggling to support his young family, finds himself in the unlikely position of being the only one who could possibly save a pair of drowning girls. His whole sorry life seems to have been building up this one horrible moment of combat between his hesitant nature and the moral imperative of potentially life-saving action.

The level of talent immediately apparent in Saunders' brilliant sophomore collection is obvious from the first few paragraphs of the first story. With the exception of the immortal work of Flannery O'Connor, I can't think of a short story writer who has been able to make me laugh so hard, while also stirring my heart and soul with a depth of emotion that doesn't seem possible in the context of such wicked satire. And while Saunders' work doesn't offer as much spiritual depth and symbolism as O'Connor's, it would be a mistake to say that it does not touch upon that realm. His characters stumble and struggle through an America that has traded the Church of Christ Crucified for the Church of Consumers Incorporated, and that seems to be condemned now to search the lonely suburbs and crumbling blue-collar towns for the soul it lost in the bargain.


Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke: smart, pithy review. Loved that concluding sentence. Definitely makes me wanna read this collection. Fortunately, I do have his other collection, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline", waiting in the wings, thanks to you......

Aura McKnightly said...

Sounds interesting Duke.

One of the great Mutt picks for me to read was Paul Auster. That guy's a nut. What you wrote reminded me of him.

Duke Altum said...

I would definitely recommend Saunders to you Aura... he's hilarious on many levels, but also, surprisingly humane (as I tried to point out in my review). If you want to get a taste for his writing style, check out this more recent story (which will appear in his new forthcoming collection, Persuasion Nation, from the New Yorker magazine. Talk about nuts!

There's a real benign heart of a Midwesterner beating through these stories, though, that I think you would appreciate. Saunders is like Auster, Philip K. Dick and the Dilbert comic strip thrown into a blender turned to "brain souffle."

Duke Altum said...

Guess that link didn't work... just Google "George Saunders New Yorker CommComm" and you'll find it. Thanks for reading (and commenting)!

Aura McKnightly said...

Duke, I read through CommComm and the other one listed. Really funny stuff. The guy is obviously both certifiable and dead-on.