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George Saunders: Literary Champion of the Little Man

Keoni Cabral

American fiction has a work problem. Blame it on an MFA system that shunts wannabe writers into the academy before they have time to scuff their sneakers in a break room or callous their hands on a broom handle. Blame it on an overwhelming literary consensus that there’s something sullying about implicating oneself in capitalism, even if it’s to document it. Or blame it on a conviction, among readers and writers alike, that the workaday world is plain old boring. Sure, you can name some terrific exceptions.1 But in much of modern American fiction, a job is merely a setting, handy for a narrative jolt (a promotion! a pink slip! an affair!) or a patina of verisimilitude.

The fact is, Americans live at work, often doing jobs that are tedious, demeaning, and pointless, not to mention dangerous and poorly paid. A third of Americans now say they are in the lower classes, and many are working at jobs in which their livelihoods are determined by bosses with their own bosses to please.2 They do it because they have a constellation of family members—and maybe a dog—who depend on them, or because they’re just trying to pay their own bills. Every day they make internal bargains that require them to trade away their autonomy and self-respect.

George Saunders is their champion. His working characters aren’t model citizens, by any means, but Saunders’s genius is that he’s able to depict the drama of seemingly banal lives spent under someone else’s thumb.3

Saunders’s perspective probably has something to do with the fact that though he attended a creative writing program, he didn’t take up an academic post or a writing fellowship afterward. Instead, he started a family and, to support them, spent the next decade as a technical writer for an environmental engineering firm. For many a writer, this drab office job would have been the death of a dream. For Saunders, it was the beginning of one. He wrote the stories in his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, at work, transmuting his experiences as a cog in the capitalist machine and a down-at-the-heels family man into satirical, acridly funny tales of American loserdom.4

In the 17 years since CivilWarLand appeared in 1996, Saunders has published steadily: two more short story collections; a political-parable novella; a book of piquant essays; and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a children’s fable that’s the kind of book you give your grownup friends who have a sense of humor. With the publication of his fourth story collection, Tenth of December, Saunders is poised, if there is any justice in this world (a proposition Saunders would be the first to question), to gain the wider audience he deserves.

In this collection, as in much of his other work, Saunders uses a cockeyed lens to get at the realities of a world in which it’s increasingly difficult to get ahead. He lets the euphemistic language of corporate memos and staff meetings leach into characters’ personal interactions. He grafts familiar moral quandaries into stories with science fiction or fantastical elements to underscore the absurdity of their having been posed in the first place. And he continues his obsession with theme parks, where he’s set several of his stories over the years, perhaps because these settings exaggerate the role-playing inherent in our day-to-day duties.

Saunders takes Herman Melville’s famous story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” told from the viewpoint of a boss with an intractable employee who will only repeat, “I would prefer not to,” and turns it inside out. Most of Saunders’s protagonists would prefer not to too, but they do anyway, at least for a while. The suspense largely revolves around whether they’ll balk, and when. Often Saunders will put his character in a situation where doing what seems like the right thing is, according to his boss, his co-workers, his neighbors, and even his family, the wrong thing. The protagonist of the title story in Pastoralia (2000), for instance, is a guy with a wife and sick kid at home who works in a theme park where he’s supposed to portray one-half of a caveman couple. The other half is a female coworker whose personal troubles keep intruding on their eat-bugs-and-don’t-speak-English shtick. The boss wants an excuse to fire her and keeps urging the guy to rat her out—or else.

This might seem like a fairly typical little-guy-versus-boss-man dynamic, but Saunders’s moral questions are anything but pat. Should a man report his boss if he walks in on him raping a coworker? Why, yes, of course. But what if that coworker is desperate to let the whole thing lie so she can keep her job, enjoy the “bonus” and the promotion their boss is buying her silence with, and preserve her marriage? And what if the would-be whistleblower’s principles will cost him the paycheck on which his parents and sister depend? These are the questions posed in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” included in Tenth of December. Saunders ups the ante—and the absurdity—by dropping the story into a medieval theme park. Under the influence of a drug that’s supposed to boost his knightliness, the anti-hero gradually slips into a heraldic register:

Anon I found Myself in proximity of the Wendy’s on Center Boulevard, by the closed-down Outback, coming down and coming down hard, aware that, soon, the effect of the Elixir having subsided, I would find myself standing before our iffy Television, struggling to explain, in my own lowly Language, that, tho’ Winter’s Snows would soon be upon us … no Appeal wouldst be Brook’d: I was Fired; Fired & sore Disgraced!

Saunders has always laced his tales with dark humor, but readers can still find them depressing to an off-putting degree. In a preface to a recent edition of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders himself described some of the book’s stories as “mean” and “nasty,” remarking, “Sometimes the author seems to be rooting for the cruel world to go ahead and kick his characters’ asses.” Tenth of December marks a departure from this mode. It’s what marketers call “accessible,” which is a lazy way of saying that, while the theme parks and futuristic settings remain, these stories will make you feel something deep and true that relates to life as you experience it. Together, the stories that compose Tenth of December convey the sense that the author has turned a philosophical corner.

Take “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a story in which the narrator records in choppy diary entries his ill-fated efforts to buy his children the lifestyle he hasn’t heretofore been able to afford.5 The story is about parental inadequacy, shaky social standing, fear of death, soulless office park jobs, immigrant-labor exploitation, and the way the buck gets passed when it’s time to pick up the dog poop in the yard. At one point, the father describes a night-time walk through a nearby wealthy neighborhood. It’s an outside-looking-in moment that’s reminiscent of the East Egg/West Egg longing in The Great Gatsby, transposed onto a Saundersian world where the social markers are big-box store purchases and garage-sale items:

All over up there, men my age reading in big chairs under orange affluent lights. Where is my big chair? Orange light? No big chair, no affluent lights, no book-lined room. Why is art on our walls so lame? We have only one of old-time cars got at Target and one of generic beach w/Ferris wheel, from garage sale. What are we doing wrong here? Where our expensive framed original art, signed by artist? (Note to self: Befriend young artist? Young artist comes to house, is so impressed with family, paints portrait of family gratis? Still, expensive to frame. Maybe artist so impressed with family, frames it himself, i.e., frame = part of gift?) In Woodcliffe, everything lavish. Beautiful flowerbeds, night-time smell of cedar mulch, speedboats on lawns in moonlight. … Stood awhile watching, thinking, praying: Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers. Help us not, that is, fall further behind peers. For kids’ sake. Do not want them scarred by how far behind we are.

But the story transcends the downbeat scenario Saunders creates. Ultimately, it’s about love, and a man’s dogged if misguided attempts to smooth the way for the people he cares about.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” may be the crown jewel of this collection, but each story is animated by such a comprehensive vision that even its most bizarre elements feel essential. “Escape from Spiderhead,” for example, presents one of Saunders’s utterly original dystopias, in which a prisoner has been sentenced to serve time in a facility where, in the name of scientific research, he and other convicts are pumped full of trademarked drugs that make them fall in love (ED289/290), speechify (Verbaluce), and sink into depression (Darkenfloxx). The pharmaceuticals and the setup are vintage Saunders; the ending is a freedom call to anyone who says that given their job/family/life situation, they don’t have a choice. Where some of his earlier stories have suggested that sometimes the deck is so stacked against you’re robbed of your humanity, “Escape from Spiderhead” holds out the idea that grace is always an option.

In other stories in this collection, darkness hovers, but it ultimately serves to emphasize the light. “Victory Lap,” the enthralling opening tale, describes a teenage girl’s attempted abduction, witnessed by the boy who lives next door under a set of repressive parental rules—a lot like a dictatorial company handbook—that discourage him from acting on what he sees. The story is flawlessly recounted from the viewpoint of two young characters whose innocence is kind of annoying, but also underscores their moral triumphs. And the final, title story, in which a young boy and a stranger with a fatal disease who’s bent on suicide find themselves in the same patch of woods trying to save each other, is threaded through with an awareness of imminent death, yet it’s a moving paean to life.

Saunders has garnered comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and even Mark Twain. These parallels don’t adequately convey what he’s done for the little man. It takes deep humility to write from the ground up as he does, a humility that’s reflected in his embrace of the short story form itself. Young writers are often warned that those brief masterpieces they’ve fretted over in MFA workshops are just business cards for the novel they better have in the hopper. Saunders has never written a one. He’s a brick layer at heart, building, one story at a time, a body of work every bit as monumental as the Great American Novel.

Sarah L. Courteau is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in The Oxford American, the Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. Follow @slcourteau

  1. Within the last few years, Ron Carlson built Five Skies around a bizarre construction project, Tom Rachman covered the newspaper biz in The Imperfectionists, and Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) and Ed Park (Personal Days) set their novels in offices and cubicles.

  2. According to a recent New York Times article, there is now scheduling software so efficient that it notes whether the lunch rush ends early enough that a manager can cut a worker’s normal shift by 15 minutes.

  3. The word “genius” gets thrown around a lot where Saunders is concerned, especially since he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2006.

  4. He now teaches in Syracuse University’s creative writing program, so he didn’t avoid the academic track forever.

  5. Saunders, a dedicated reviser, took more than a dozen years to finish “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” and it shows; it’s difficult to imagine anyone sitting down and writing a story as striated with meaning in an initial draft.