George Saunders, Tenth of December


by Justin E. H. Smith

I’ve carried around with me for the past few years this idea that George Saunders discovered a new method for exploring the human soul at hitherto unimagined depths, that he was the culmination of what Nietzsche had in mind when he called Stendhal ‘a great psychologist’, etc. This is in part why I put up so much resistance when, reading Tenth of December last night, I felt a certain familiar feeling, and sensed that this feeling was not the one I had when I last read Saunders, and judged that he was plumbing the depths of the human soul, etc., but rather the one that I have had, on occasion, when, passing through one of those American cities where they still have local newspapers with ‘funny pages’, my eyes land upon that day’s installment of Dilbert. Office memos from small-minded middle managers, meaningless tech speak, and the grinding debasement of wage labor: ha ha.

But still, Saunders has discovered something new, and while this something is not a new method for excavating the human soul, quite, it is enough to merit quick praise from Thomas Pynchon, and long-winded, dorky praise from Dave Eggers. Saunders has discovered namely a system of punctuation that reproduces contemporary American diction and cadences with astounding accuracy. And this diction and these cadences are precisely the manner of speaking of people, contemporary Americans, who can barely speak: Saunders’s most stunning literary achievement is to reproduce inarticulacy with unprecedented verisimilitude.

This is why the stories involving pharmaceutically induced eloquence are so funny: they put into such sharp relief what his characters cannot do, and would like to do with the strength of their feelings alone. Strikingly, those with medically enhanced speech are still not terribly eloquent: he tells us that the temporary lovers under the influence of Verbaluce have become veritable poets, but we do not see much poetry; and the amusement-park employee under the influence of KnightLyfe starts speaking in a courtly and medieval style, but still does not know that ‘didst’ cannot be used as the third-person past indicative of ‘do’. Saunders himself is more like the characters who are not under the influence of Verbaluce, and his principle purpose is to convey their inner lives, lives of mostly prelinguistic feeling that, when forced into written words –since, after all, Saunders has chosen to convey their inner lives by writing stories– can only give rise to a new system of punctuation, custom-made for a fragmentary syntax. The characters can barely make sense of their own feelings in utterances, yet Saunders is able to make them make sense in writing. That’s something.

A few years ago, when I was floored by Saunders, and thought he had found new methods for probing the depths of the soul, etc., I think I was in fact just floored by his punctuational innovations, as these, when applied to questions of life and fate, seem to cast life and fate in a new and strange light. I recall in particular a story he published in the New Yorker, which involved, among other things, a man who was really not all that bad, but was going through a difficult time because he had a mortally ill wife at home under his loving care. He was explaining to another man what mattered to him, and evoked his care for his wife, saying:

That, to me? Is real. 

When I read this, it seemed to say something about reality itself. When by contrast I read, in “Puppy,” the line,

So what she’d love for tonight? Was getting the pup sold…

it didn’t seem to reveal anything about love or desire or even puppies, but only something about a handy convention Saunders mastered some years ago and knows how to recycle for good effect.

Saunders is an American writer in the same way that Chingiz Aitmatov is a Kyrgyz writer or Robert Service is a Yukon poet. He speaks for the place. He especially speaks for the lower-class white part of the place. And if, like me, that is a part of America you know well, but from which you have become estranged in later life, then it can be particularly gratifying to see Saunders describing it with such great power of observation. The encounters in “Puppy” and in “Home”, between the benighted, marginalized lower classes, on the one hand, and the equally benighted, but vastly more self-satisfied, so-called ‘middle class’ on the other, seem to tell the whole story of America, and a good part of my own life history in America. When the middle-class mom goes to pick up the puppy from the white-trash family, and sees “the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it,” I swear I have known both sides of this encounter with equal intimacy, and love, and desire to get away.

Certain other respects in which his stories are All-American, as one of his characters might say, interest me less. I don’t know about Dilbert’s America, and so satire of it falls as flat with me as earnest commitment to it. If we try to isolate particular complaints in Saunders’s social critique, the two that come through most clearly have to do with the negligence of war veterans, and the cynical profit motive that lies behind the hypermedicalization of our emotional lives. I find the latter more compelling as an issue, and I think “Escape from Spiderhead” is a wonderful near-future-dystopian satire of the sort of society big pharma seems intent on bringing about (with the collusion of the profit-driven prison industry).

The dénouement of “Escape” looks a great deal like the story from the New Yorker that impressed me so much years ago, featuring a freshly dead man floating up toward the sky. Again, when I read that story I thought I was learning something new about death; this time, the effect is considerably reduced. I’m not sure what has changed in me, but I think at least part of the problem is that something has not changed in Saunders. He’s found his formula and stuck with it. It’s pretty good. But anyhow now that I’ve spent my $31.95 CAD and got my fix, I intend to return to my usual rule of not reading anything written after 1923, and sticking with the sort of authors who use ‘didst’ correctly because, when they’re using it? They’re using it for real.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website