Thursday, 11 December 2014

Fast prose, prompt delivery

Full title: Tenth of December
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 288 pages, paperback
Publisher: Random House (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

As usual, George Saunders' talent for writing rapid, concise, essentialised prose doesn't take long to shine bright. Sentences run like this:
"I flew down the hill, pushed Ma inside, sat her on the stairs, grabbed Harris by the shirt, put my foot behind him, dropped him to the floor. Then held a match to the carpet on the stairs and, once it started burning, raised a finger, like, Quiet, through me runs the power of recent dark experience." (“Home”)
A lot is happening in this one swipe, let's admit it. To cut to the chase, the chief technique here is the list: narrative bits get strung together in the fashion of bullet points. But there is also this unique ability of Saunders' to work out his sentences so as to communicate maximum of information by minimum of means. He drops adjectives (99% of the possible ones, I would guess – a true Hemingwayan that he is), avoids exaggerations, and bets everything on montage. Montage, of course, wins. Every time.
Saunders is also very good at capturing the false quips of Americana – that spirit, that mixture of heroism and dull indifference, of exaltation mixed implacably with ignorance. Take for example the dialogue (or should we call it trialogue, judging from the number of characters involved in this discussion?) in the same story, “Home,” about the American foreign wars: a casual conversation that raises one the essential questions of military bravery: Whose heroism? Or even more brutally: Who cares about it?
“I've been away a long time,” I said.
“Welcome back,” the first kid said.
“Where were you?” the second one said.
“At the war?” I said, in the most insulting voice I could muster.
“Maybe you've heard of it?”
“I have,” the first one said respectfully.
“Thank you for your service.”
“Which one?” the second one said.
“Aren't there two?”
“Didn't they just call one off?” the first one said.
“My cousin’s there,” the second said.
“At one of them. At least I think he is. I know he was supposed to go. We were never that close."
“Anyway, thanks,” the first one said, and put out his hand, and I shook it.
“I wasn't for it,” the second one said.
“But I know it wasn't your deal.” “Well,” I said.
“It kind of was.”
“You weren’t for it or aren’t for it?” the first said to the second.
“Both,” the second one said.
“Although is it still going?”
“Which one?” the first one said.
“Is the one you were at still going?” the second one asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Better or worse, do you think?” the first one said. “Like, in your view, are we winning? Oh, what am I doing? I don’t actually care, that’s what’s so funny about it!”
Saunders being Saunders, there's no shortage of characterisation in the volume. As per usual script, everything consists of brevity and efficiency. Characters are nothing if they don't behave as if some cataclysm was threatening the world and they had this single shot at telling everyone, with breathless haste, the story of their lives. As per the same script, there are often two or more characters in the same tableau, every one of them having their entire life summed up in a phrase or even (true narrative valor!) crammed into a word.
"I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him."
Not to understand from this that characters are built hastily, though. Not at all. In fact, many of them are capable of incredible complexities, as is the case, for instance, with the young characters in the opening story, “Victory Lap,” who reach maturity in the most tragic of ways: after killing and narrowly escaping rape, respectively.
Saunders' big advantage is that he knows the environments of his character very, very well. He uses this talent to build environments, so that the people he describes make sense because of the places they inhabit, whether these are a testing lab in a futuristic correction facility, the backyard of a house owned by a pair of obsessive-compulsive parents, a suburban setting where high social-capital needs fly dangerously low, etc. No matter what environment he chooses, Saunders shines in the art of describing the most trivial of details in terms that could be likened to field notes: scribbling down aspects of the quotidian and making it the play field of his characters. Then, based on these series of crude observations, truths come to the surface like water squirted out of a wet towel when you squeeze it like you mean it.

Source: Wicked Web
As already said in the beginning, from an ideological perspective, Saunders is very much invested in a critique of the American Illusion. He operates in an area for which there seems to be little precedent, and which I would call Institutional Realism. There is almost always an institution behind the scene of his short stories (if not a corporation, then the Army; if not the Army, then School). Following a trend he established as early as his first collection, back in 1996, Saunders takes a swipe at hierarchies, policies, corporate slavery, corporate bullying, high and/or middle-class consumerist tantrums, and things of similar import. Pharmaceutical companies are treated in the same ways as small family businesses. Never mind the differences in scale. What matters is the critique. What bothers is the logic of gain. What hurts is the cheap narcissism of the upstart. What's pitiful is the wasting of so many destinies. The list comprises the usual tropes of critical action. So Saunders is, after all, a proud member of the American satirists' elite of the Philip Roth kind, somewhere in the same boat with Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, Ben Marcus, and a host of others – writers who can't help it when it comes to taking the piss, but at the same time take a deep breath to sigh with disappointment.