George Saunders: My Strange Affliction

George Saunders, Jackson Free Press

Please, please do not tell George Saunders I have a boner for him. I would die. Seriously. Also, this picture is from the Jackson Free Press.

In his recent talk at Powell’s here in Portland, author George Saunders admitted that he, as a young man, was afflicted by a serious condition (which he believes also afflicts young women): a Hemmingway Boner.

Well, god help me. I’ve been reading Saunders pretty much nonstop for the past week, and seem to have contracted what I can only characterize as a Saunders Boner.

Saunders strikes me as the gloriously impossible lovechild of the only two other authors whose entire oeuvre I have devoured so quickly: Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan.

In his essay “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” Mr. Saunders all but admits it, at least as far as the former goes. In this essay, which appears in Braindead Megaphone, Saunders runs down how he–a young engineer, Ayn-Rand-Republican, and sufferer of the afore-mentioned affliction–discovered Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse Five while working for the oil industry in Southeast Asia.

In this essay, Saunders touches on a number of things that struck him about Vonnegut’s work that also strike me about his (and which, by the way, cured him of that accursed hard on for Papa). The sense of humor, for one. The clear-eyed look at capitalism and its perhaps-accidental cruelties. The deep sense of empathy, and of our basic goodness as human beings. Both writers have masterfully skewered the dumb optimism and thoughtless brutality of that conundrum known as the United States of America. Both have embodied its beauty.

As a hypersenstive adolescent, allergic to cruelty and injustice in all forms–be it the sweatshop labor behind that shirt from the Gap or the nationwide war on dandelions–I felt as if I could barely breathe the air of my native land. Vonnegut changed that for me. Vonnegut is a writer who has changed as many lives, I believe, as AA, for a variety of reasons, but mine was this: He gave me an America I could believe in.

But Vonnegut, even when I was young, was old. Real old. Also, dead. And America, like the world itself, has changed in nearly unimaginable ways since what now seem the near-halcyon (!) days of Clinton. Discovering George Saunders has been like discovering that America all over again.

Saunders sees our crappy theme-park kitsch, our motivational Happy Speak disguising deep dysfunction, our desperate desire to become rich, even as we dig ourselves deeper in debt. He sees the way the near-constant stream of advertising we’re subjected to on a daily basis to is slowly rotting our brains.

He sees how easily we find a way to blame others for their own misfortunes, and believe ourselves somehow more worthy, more loved by god, if we happen to have been born with–or raised in a way that served us up–a bigger piece of the pie. He sees the way we cling to jobs that deeply degrade us, out of a potent mixture of fear and love for our families.

He has seen the darkness that lives in the unspeakable corners our sweet, stupid hearts, and holy shit, he loves us. In a way, maybe, that allows those of us hoarse from calling bullshit on the bullshit that we essentially also are to love ourselves.

In this essay, Saunders also notes that Slaughterhouse Five was a revelation to him in that it was fantastic. Which is to say, it’s a novel about World War II, and war in general, that is also about some aliens from Trafalmadore. Saunders says he was uncomfortable with this at first. “Aliens were great; I loved aliens in movies, but I did not want them in my Literature.” [sic] But over the course of the book, he realized that “Your real story may have nothing to do with actual experience.”

All of which is well and good. But the aliens of Trafalmadore aside–and The Sirens of Titan too–there seems a deep vein of outrageous absurdity coupled with formal innovation in Saunders’s work that I have heretofore only encountered in the work of Richard Brautigan.

Like Vonnegut, Brautigan was an old guy I discovered young. I read The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966 as a teenager and thought it was a hoot. I read Trout Fishing in America stoned on that terrifically nasty dirtweed trucked up from Texas by our local migrant workers that my buddies and I smoked like cigarettes in high school and understood not a word of it, but was so fascinated I read it again and again.

But it wasn’t until I worked my way through the rest of Brautigan’s work after undergrad that I began to see how deeply, inscrutably weird it is. On the one hand, you have a novel like A Confederate General from Big Sur, that’s essentially a funny story about a down-and-out dude whose friend may or may not have had an ancestor who was a Confederate general. On the other, you have a book like In Watermelon Sugar.

In Watermelon Sugar is a novella, if you can call it that, set in a world where the sun shines a different color every day, everyone worships at a temple called iDEATH, the narrator’s former lover has taken up with a person named inBOIL, and pretty much most things are made of some form of watermelon sugar. As a work of art, it is so seriously far out that it’s hilarious to me to see what the hive mind at Wikipedia has to come up with to say about it in terms of content and plot.

In this way, it’s not unlike Saunders’s bizarro novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. In this tale, the residents of Inner and Outer Horner–the country of Horner is home to around six people–become involved in a border dispute. Outer Horner, having a larger population than Inner Horner, and substantially more space, under the influence of a petty tyrant who rises to power, named Phil, at first relegates the residents of Inner Horner to a kind of refugee camp, then requisitions their natural resources (some dirt, a stream, and a single apple tree), then finishes off with an attempt at genocide.

While it’s clear that this story has some real political parallels–to the point where you could easily call it a parable–it’s also about characters who, as Eric Weinberger at the New York Times puts it, “have three legs or arms…plus further unique mechanical parts and foliage, whether tails, antlers, an ‘octagonal shovel-like receptacle’ or, in the case of one boy, two brains, ‘one on the side of his neck and the other on his hip.'”

I’m struck by a number of similarities between the work of Saunders and Brautigan. First, by their foregrounding of aesthetics. Saunders stories are set famously in various kinds of theme parks and captive audience arenas (seminars, workplaces, driving school) that create their own weird worlds. Second, both fearlessly embrace the absurd. (In “Semplica Girls,” a story in Saunders’s new collection, The Tenth of December, poor women from Third World countries serve as lawn ornaments for wealthy families, hung from a line strung–painlessly!–through their brains.) And third, both writers exhibit a relentless focus on diction.

In The Hawkline Monster, for instance, Brautigan mashes up the tropes of the gothic novel and the Western; in Saunders’s “My Chivalric Fiasco” (also from The Tenth of December), the noble sentiments and Extreme Capitalization of Olde English get mashed up with modern workspeak (“killer work ethic”). Brautigan wrote what is ostensibly a detective novel (Dreaming of Babylonabout a gumshoe who maintains an alternate existence in a cheesy version of ancient Babylon. In a similar vein, Saunders has penned the caveman version of Office Space (“Pastoralia”). The list goes on.

All of which is to say, if you’ve ever had a thing for either Vonnegut or Brautigan, you need to read George Saunders.

And even if you haven’t, you should read George Saunders.

And if you’ve read some George Saunders, hey, maybe you should read some more George Saunders.

More George Saunders:

Interview, PBS: 

New York Times:

Gawker, to Saunders: Write a Goddamn Novel Already:

The Rumpus Book Club Discussion with Saunders:

The Powells interview:


4 thoughts on “George Saunders: My Strange Affliction

  1. Brilliant, Susan. Thanks for writing and sharing your insights. I’ve been meaning to crack into Saunders after reading interviews. Now i need to retead Brautigan, too! You describe so well what felt like the reason: Saunders’ honest but compassionate read on our culture and what we do to make it in such an often brutal world economy. Great.

  2. You have given me much to think about and pursue. I never cared for Brautigan or fell for Vonnegut and I will have to read Slaughterhouse Five (though, as a Black friend said to me decades ago, I am tired of reading novels in which I do not exist). I detested Hemingway on sight, but have learned to appreciate “Hills Like White Elephants” but I also learned to detest Fitzgerald by reading Zelda. Sometime greater familiarity breeds contempt. And since I have spent a good deal of time rubbing up against poverty in America, it took nothing to detest Ayn Rand through having a sense of common decency and compassion. All this to say that I am glad Saunders grew up. Now I suppose I will have to read him. sigh Thank you.

  3. I had a thirst for Brautigan in college (especially “In Watermelon Sugar”). I’m currently reading Vonnegut for the first time (which I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, as a fellow Hoosier and former English major). I’m reading (and blogging) my way through “Cat’s Cradle” as I take a literary trip back to 1963. I, too, greatly appreciate his incisive humor and distinctive voice.

    I will have to put Saunders on my reading list for when I finish my current project. Thanks for the recommendation.

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