George Saunders’ early stories came, in part, out of a deep feeling that there was something radically wrong with corporate capitalism. He had this feeling even in the exuberant 1990s and 2000s, when so many people were losing their minds over the possibilities of the ever-growing, everybody-wins, borderless, digital, amazing new economy. But in stories such as “Pastoralia” and “In Persuasion Nation”, Saunders found ways to show what the possibilities were actually making on the ground: a kind of terrible lurid sameness; a world of artificial, for-profit environments; places where everything had to be recognisable, branded, barcoded – and where there had to be a manic effort to entertain within the sameness, keep it all somehow “fun”.
Saunders’ great discovery, in trying to make stories about this, was that he didn’t have to throw away the techniques of fun altogether, to abandon fun. His instinct went against so many writers and artists who, especially in the 1990s, thought that the only way to oppose a mainstream culture crazed for fun was to be solemn, mournful, theoretical, abstract – what David Foster Wallace called “hellaciously un-fun”. Instead, Saunders worked to combine the more careful detail of the traditional short story with the cruder energies of stand-up and sketch comedy (he said in a 2013 interview with David Naimon that his influences were as much George Carlin and Monty Python as Chekhov and Isaac Babel).
In this new collection, Liberation Day (Bloomsbury), you can see Saunders beautifully back at work making stories that are both literary and like a very dark comedy sketch; stories dedicated to the cause of the good, clever fun, and against corporations’ bad, dumb idea of it. In the title story, the relentlessly excited formula of something like The Voice or American Idol is deftly, comically exaggerated into a situation where “Singers” can be kept in private homes, “pinioned” in various decorative shapes on a wall, and made to sing exactly what their master wants them to. Or in “Ghoul”, Saunders gives us an underground cavern populated by anxious people all forced to live in the sort of exciting/banal “theme” locations so beloved by corporate entertainment: “CHICAGO GANGSTER HIDEOUT”, “FIFTIES SOCK HOP”. And if anybody breaks the rules, they’re literally kicked to death.
But Saunders has always tried to see more than just the grossness, the evil, of capitalism; he’s always also tried to show our underlying basic selfishness, that animal-psychological limit in us that makes it so hard for us to care, really, about anything other than ourselves and our families. In a very early story, “Bounty”, a man refusing to share food in a crisis explains, “The time has come for me to look out for me and mine … I mean Bonnie and little Kyle and me. Period.” And again, in this collection, in a story called “Love Letter”, a grandfather tells his grandson that, in the end, only family “moments” are “real”. Though now Saunders has found new methods to display, and protest against, the narrow boundaries of our conscience. The book ends with a strange, fable-like story called “My House”, in which a man wants to buy a house, but the owner makes a gentle request: can he still come and stay, sometimes, for a few days? And then, after the seemingly reasonable refusal of that, the house starts to mysteriously collapse, sink, become “filth-packed”. There’s no comedy in “My House”, only unsettling, frustrating, inexorable ruin; and as I read I gradually realised all this might be an allegory for climate change, and how millions of small, seemingly reasonable selfish decisions are destroying the only “house” we have. In Liberation Day, Saunders has kept a lot of his funny, his conviction that comedy can be used to resist the cruelty and stupidity of corporations. But he’s getting even better at telling us a different kind of story as well, one about something more difficult, more fundamental: how we will cling, over and over, to what seems mine.
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