It's funny how people can influence your lives, and how the influence spreads out like ripples in a pond and continues to affect you long after you barely think of that person. In college, I had one class with Dr. Janet Groth, Magazine Article Writing. I came to like and respect her a lot and got to know her a bit after college. But she influenced my intellectual life a great deal by requiring us all to get a semester-long subscription to The New Yorker. It's been over ten years since I took her class, and in that time, I've subscribed to it on and off, but mostly on. I look forward to its arrival every week, and I bet you can guess my favorite part! It's the short story.
That was where I first heard of George Saunders. He kind of rose from being an occasional fiction submitter to writing the "Shouts and Murmurs" more regularly. I thought that was too bad, because I don't really like "Shouts and Murmurs" much, but loved his short stories. I always read them.
Saunders is excellent in finding the absurd in modern life. Sometimes, like in his novella "Bounty," he stretches that talent into the near future. Increasingly and alarmingly, he doesn't have to. I think of him every time I drive on the 33, with its huge billboards reading "Get Joint Replacement Surgery" and "The Best Stroke Care Is At Mercy." That's right out of one of his stories.
His stuff has taken on a more political bent as of late, but my favorites are the ones with ordinary people struggling to find humanity in a corporatized, bland world. The one about the professional caveman re-enactor at a failing theme park whose job is threatened by the corporate drones because of his reluctance to violate his moral code by ratting out a co-worker ("Pastoralia"). The one about the teenaged couple with brain implants, raised by a corporation to be product testers, who risk their consciousness for a chance at independent life ("Jon"). Even the one about the grandfather who makes the decision to give in to corporate coersion to give his grandson a shot at freedom of expression ("My Flamboyant Grandson").
When corporate repression isn't the theme, societal repression often is. The characters in "Winky" and "Sea Oak" had the deck stacked against them from the beginning: raised in poverty, with no real models for any type of success, and are repeating the cycle as adults. But there's a hopefulness and humanity to all of his characters. Most of them are trapped by circumstance: the narrator of "Pastoralia" has a special-needs child, and we get the impression that his caveman job was the best one he could find to keep a roof over his family's head, even if he never gets to sleep under it himself. Neil, of "Winky," has his bizarre, born-again sister permanently ensconsed in his house. And the narrator of "Sea Oak" lives in the projects with his sister, his cousin, their babies and his great-aunt, and supports them all by working as a male stripper. But they don't give up. They fight back against a repressive social structure and a bland corporatized landscape the best way they know how: by being themselves, taking joy in the little things, and moving forward inch by inch.
I love George Saunders because he can be both optimistic and cynical enough for these strange times in which we live, and I believe that literary history will judge him as one of the major voices of this era.