The Puritans proved their worth in the New World by achieving worldly success that, they hoped, demonstrated God’s love. But since the Bible told them the meek shall inherit the earth, wealth was an uncertain sign. God could be ambivalent. Failure, like the Devil, could masquerade in a wicked variety of disguises. Anxiety and guilt drove the Puritans, and those were their psychological gifts to America’s future. It is this punishing legacy that shapes the wacky world of George Saunders’ story collection, Pastoralia.
Saunders’ exuberantly weird stories recount Americans’ mostly futile attempts at self-improvement, the terrible dread of failure—or damnation. His stories appropriate behaviors and institutions that already seem parodies of themselves. They respond to an America where men running for president cite Jesus Christ as their favorite philosopher, either to curry votes or because they haven’t actually read any philosophy, and where women vie to marry a multimillionaire on television. They speak about the most prosperous nation in the world, whose citizens don’t have adequate health insurance and worry about being too fat to be loved but not about being too self-involved to consider the pain of others.
Saunders showcases Americans’ fears, shames and need to be accepted—all resonant reminders of this country’s neurotic origins. In Pastoralia, his frantic characters move through defamiliarized terrain. They anxiously await punishment for nonexistent crimes and imperfections, suffering for the strange sin of wanting to be happy. His losers are threatened with losing even more— jobs, sexual attractiveness, their illusions, just about everything.
In this collection’s title story, a woman named Janet and an unnamed male narrator worry about losing their jobs playing cave people in a historical theme park. The pair are not allowed to speak English: ‘‘I make some guttural sounds and some motions meaning: Big rain come down, and boom, make goats run, goats now away, away in high hills.’’ Janet speaks English anyway, among other rules she breaks, and the narrator protects her from the boss. The boss punishes him by withholding their daily food. ‘‘I go to the Big Slot and find it goatless.’’
In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his first collection, Saunders also represented America as a kind of Disneyland and relied on repetitions and other stylistic devices to hammer home the poverty of a simulated existence. He stripped down his sentences to convey the inadequacy of language to capture the zeitgeist. His insistence on these effects sometimes turned smart into merely clever, inventive into predictable.
But in his new collection, Saunders’ tales cover larger, more exciting territory, with an abundance of ideas, meanings and psychological nuance. Saunders can be brutally funny, and the better his stories are, the more melancholic, somber and subtle they are, too. Pathetic contradictions underlie the ruthless drive for success in love and work, and Saunders weaves them into artful and sophisticated narrative webs.
In ‘‘Winky,’’ a desperate character named Yaniky is prey to self-help and New Age groups whose philosophies fault the individual for not having it all. Yaniky attends a meeting where people wear white paper hats that mean ‘‘Beginning to Begin,’’ or pink ones meaning ‘‘Moving Ahead in Beginning’’; they are labeled ‘‘Whiny’’ or ‘‘Self-Absorbed’’ and are taught there’s ‘‘A Time for Me to Win.’’ Their leader tells them: ‘‘I was once exactly like you people. A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless . . . simply because he’d had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold.’’ He exhorts the group not to let others, as he puts it, relieve themselves ‘‘in your oatmeal.’’ Suddenly Yaniky realizes that his sister, Winky, has been fouling his. This dismal epiphany provokes a series of deluded interior monologues that describe yet another geek who won’t realize the American dream. But what makes the narrative truly unusual is Saunders’s introduction of Winky, whose voice he juxtaposes with Yaniky’s in a tragicomic duet for codependents.
“Sea Oak’’ is the sick tale of a man who works in a strip club but who doesn’t want to show his penis, even though he’d earn more in tips. After giving the ladies (almost) what they want, he returns home to his dysfunctional family. Saunders mocks that overused generalization in stupefying exaggerations that recall Theodor Adorno’s dictum, ‘‘Today only exaggeration can be the medium of truth.’’ The stripper’s sister, Min, and cousin, Jade, are barely literate single mothers who watch bizarre television talk shows and converse in monosyllabic curses. Their Aunt Bernie, an optimist—or ‘‘optometrist,’’ as Jade calls her—acts as a foil to their sullen negativity. But when this Pollyanna dies, Saunders transforms their home into a neogothic haunted house. Aunt Bernie returns from the grave. ‘‘Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?’’ she asks. ‘‘Why? Why was that?’’ Through the undead Bernie, Saunders unleashes the fury of the unfulfilled, the yearnings of America’s damned.
In ‘‘The Barber’s Unhappiness,’’ an aging bachelor who was born without toes lives with his mother (in Saunders’s world, this always signals male abjection). He spends his time ‘‘ogling every woman in sight’’ and fantasizing about each one. An uncle’s cruel comments about his bachelorhood spark even more obsessive thoughts, which are both hilarious and miserable.
Saunders crosscuts between the lives of two anxious men in ‘‘The Falls.’’ There’s Morse, who is ‘‘too ashamed of his own shame,’’ and Aldo Cummings, ‘‘an odd duck who, though nearly 40, still lived with his mother.’’ To Cummings, Morse is ‘‘a smug member of the power elite in this conspiratorial Village’’; to Morse, Cummings is a nut he fears will ‘‘collar him. When Cummings didn’t collar him . . . Morse felt guilty for having suspected Cummings of wanting to collar him.’’
Saunders pulls out all the parodic stops in ‘‘The Falls.’’ Cummings, a secretive writer, concocts rhapsodies in his head and also corrects them, hoping to remember and write it all down later. Morse, a family man, carries Saunders’s version of the paradigmatic American disease. ‘‘His childhood dreams had been so bright, he had hoped for so much, it couldn’t be true that he was a nobody.’’ Both wind up at the falls, witnesses to an accident, where they fear taking action and dream of heroism, two solitary fighters in an ethical boxing match. Uncharacteristically, both ‘‘The Falls’’ and ‘‘The Barber’s Unhappiness’’ end ambiguously— with hope, maybe. Given Saunders’s generally ironic stance, it’s hard to tell but intriguing to consider.
In all of his unsentimental stories, Saunders commiserates with the disspirited, the weak, the flawed. His engagement with have-nots is a kind of return, like Aunt Bernie’s, a visit to the worlds of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder and the Theodore Dreiser of ‘‘An American Tragedy’’—small-town, small-city, little-people writers. Impoverishment in Saunders’s work includes economic inequality, but he focuses more on deprivations that foreclose possibilities for expansive experiences, limiting perception and imaginative thinking. His eccentrically poignant fictions speak, in part, to the concerns Max Weber raised in 1921 in ‘‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’’: ‘‘In the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport. No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.’’
Saunders avoids righteousness and pleading. He understands Mary McCarthy’s observation in ‘‘A Charmed Life,’’ ‘‘Nobody can have a permanent claim on being the injured party,’’ and his earnestness and seriousness propel him instead, as they did McCarthy, to satire and parody. Imagine Lewis’s Babbitt thrown into the back seat of a car going cross-country, driven by R. Crumb, Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Harvey Pekar or Spike Jonze. That’d be a story Saunders could tell.