Wednesday, February 9, 2011

George Saunders

I half-expected George Saunders to look like a sunken-faced crystal-meth addict. I mean, what kinds of person dreams up stories like these? Even as a crazed teenager, high in high school in the Haight-Ashbury, my hallucinations weren't nearly as vivid and outrageous as Saunders' stories.

But Saunders showed no hint of being a strung-out, crazy person. He was an affable, congenial man with an open heart, who gladly answered questions about his work and shared his thoughts on writing.

Not only did I have the privilege of joining Saunders and a group of other writers for dinner before his reading, but I also got to introduce him at his reading. For a writing geek like me it doesn't get much better than that.

I want to fill you in on everything I learned from Saunders, but it's late and I've got to turn in. When I'm rested and fresh I'll dish more, but for now I'll leave you with my introduction speech, which just hints at the genius of George Saunders.

My first taste of George Saunders' writing was in “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,” his children's book. Here, parasites take the center stage. They come in the shape of bright, orange balls known as Gappers, that crawl from the shore and attach themselves to the village's goats, rendering the goats incapable of producing milk. One day the Gappers begin to attach to the goats of one girl, Capable, while leaving the neighbors' goats alone. Now Capable can't manage by herself. She asks for help. Unfortunately, her neighbors hadn't yet heard the phrase 'it takes a village.” Not only do they refuse to help Capable, but they take their new Gapper-less status as a sign they are better than Capable. Here's a quote from the book:"Not that we're saying we're better than you, necessarily, it's just that, since gappers are bad, and since you and you alone now have them, it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us." “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip” is a fable that's entertaining, thought-provoking, and lesson-teaching. It opens a window for readers of all ages to look at the issues of justice, class, and dignity.

My next Saunders pick was “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a collection of short stories and a novella in which many of the same themes thread. Sad-sack characters struggle to find safety and happiness in the alternate versions of a dystopic America. Saunders puts his characters in outrageous setups that force them to commit savage and heroic acts just to survive. Saunders characters are so compellingly flawed, so tender, and so human that I was riveted. One character, for instance, is a 400-pound man who becomes the head honcho at Humane Raccoon Alternatives – a business that purports to rid its clients of pesky racoons without inflicting suffering or bloodshed on the animals. In fact, no surprise here, we're in a Saunders' book, their methods involve nothing but suffering and bloodshed. Another character, this time from Saunders' novella, Bounty, has been branded a Flawed, and that's flawed with a capital F. He's a sympathetic, loving brother who tries to reunite with his sister. He fights the shame he feels as a result of his deformity, hideously clawed feet. How could anyone not fall in love with characters like these? Just as in real life, Saunder's characters straddle the fence – they have facets that are both beautiful and revolting. They always have an altruistic side, but sometimes, when they're pushed over the edge, they just might murder their bosses. Their struggle is the human struggle – that of believing they are valuable despite the outside messages that tell them otherwise. Saunders' stories take place in alternate realities that serve to highlight the absurdities of the world we live in today. But no matter where he sets his stories, Saunders' exuberant, wacky voice comes through loud and clear. Saunders' most recent offering is a departure from the rest – a collection of essays that still manages to capture the clear-thinking, bullshit-exposing voice of whimsy and vitality that gives his fiction its bite.

Hasta Manana,


No comments:

Post a Comment