Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Surprise: an art, a technique

Full title: Pastoralia
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Attributes: 208 pages, paperback
Publisher: Riverhead Trade; reissue edition (2001)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)


There is a lot to be surprised by in George Saunders’ stories. To start with, his settings are always odd, albeit perfectly plausible. Saunders forces his texts to enter territories where narration appears to have no place: a theme park, a training session for drivers, the crowded meeting room in a Hyatt hotel, a banal apartment, a mock-wedding party, a trip home. But he manages to milk these settings of a lot of narrative juice. And that goes on to do some further surprising through refinement and minute attention to the most trivial of details.
To put it in different words, most of what George Saunders does rests on technique. As he often admitted, his stories are hard-worked, edited to the point of bleeding, reduced and condensed so as to attain the most instructive of coagulations. One can surely learn from him the art of writing and writing and writing. In Pastoralia, these aspects are happily married with the brevity of the dialogues and the professionally sculpted narrative bits, the slender construction of which offers delightful degustations of high-caloric narrative art. Chosen almost at random, a fragment from “Sea Oak”:
“When I get home the babies are asleep and Jade and Min are watching a phone-sex infomercial, three girls in leather jumpsuits eating bananas in slo-mo while across the screen runs a constant disclaimer: ‘Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones! Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones!”
Enough is said here to illustrate a social status, to point out a particular kind of cultural environment, and to draw humour from crude, unengaged observation.


Narrative diversions are one of Saunders’ favourite tools. With the ease permitted by the masterful handling of abundant streams of consciousness, he manages to inject humour into the stories by simply following the erratic trajectories of his characters’ thoughts.
Example. In “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” there are a lot of close-ups on the protagonist’s quirky mind-work. In one case, we find him in a room full of strangers. He describes them to us with an appetite of a third-person visitor but with the accuracy of a first-person participant. These people are lists of physical details, dished up in an orderly manner, one after another, as if by means of a conveyor belt. We see them from the outside, and we kind of understand the game. But then there’s a moment (like in almost every story in the book)… A moment when we find that hey, we’re not simply contemplating here; we’re also part of the process of discovery experienced by the very character whose thoughts we are following.
“Next to the white-haired woman was a pretty girl. A very pretty girl. Wow. One of the prettiest girls the barber has ever seen. Boy was she pretty.”
These exclamations are at the same time indications of the protagonist’s surprise, and an oblique intervention of the narrator/author, who insinuates himself in the story via such simple psychographies that add zing and give characters body.
Dynamic narration, erected on a foundation of springy dialogues and descriptions devoid of any emotional involvement, are also to be found in the title story. Here’s an example, one of many:
“Someone pokes their head in.
Young guy, kind of goofy-looking.
‘Bradley?’ Janet says. ‘Holy shit.’
‘Hey, nice greeting, Ma,’ the guy says, and walks in. He’s not supposed to walk in. No one’s supposed to walk in. I can’t remember a time when anyone has ever just walked in.
‘Fucking stinks in here,’ he says.”
And this is how a new character is introduced, without the slightest attempt at announcing his appearance or explaining why he was necessary at all. Unlike the previous example, here the reader finds no narratorial intervention whatsoever. No introduction, no character development, no physical description, no invasion of psychic spaces, no contenxtualisation. Everything we learn about this Bradley we learn through the dialogue into which he jumps from the very first moment. We get to know him as he hangs at the end of his own words.
Saunders is very fond of this narrative method, which gives excellent results by allowing the story to progress as if by itself, while at the same time forcing the reader to play an active role in the games of characterisation and story construction. It’s what holds the collection together – otherwise a series of narratives of unequal inclination, where the author doesn't rise to the surface as a unitary being but rather as a millipedic ego with his numerous feet in a lot of pots. Pots full of honey – it needs to be added: the honey of well-boiled surprise.