|Illustration by Brian Stauffer|
George Saunders’ first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, took its title from a story set in a fantastical yet dilapidated theme park dealing with an infestation of ghosts. All of the stories in Pastoralia, his new collection, appeared first in The New Yorker, some in abbreviated versions, and there’s something to be said for reading them each in isolation. Encountering any single Saunders story, you might think this was the most bizarre and original story you’d ever read. But they’re all like that, freakish and lovely and set in alternate universes that frequently charge admission. Taken together, they look as if Saunders had forged a one-man genre; call it Theme Park Surrealism.
In the title story of Pastoralia, the characters are employees working as “cave people” in a living museum of natural history, dwelling ’round the clock in an artificial cave with an opening for visitors to “poke their head in.” The narrator is required to file a “Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form” on his co-worker, Janet. Janet is not a good employee. She speaks to him when she’s supposed to merely grunt and gesture, she smokes, she sasses the visitors, and she has personal problems with a sick mother and a drug-addicted son. The narrator’s dilemma is whether or not to rat her out in his daily report, complicated by the fact that the park is in the midst of a “downsizing,” and each of them is in danger of losing their job. It really comes down to a dilemma between his sense of humanity and corporate obedience, mixed with the temptation to save his own skin.
The park is an absurdist variant on corporate culture; the memos “faxed” to the cave by the management are hilarious run-on imitations of Dilbert-like jargon, like the one explaining the imminent “Staff Remixing” which reads, in part, “Although it is only honest to inform you that some who make the first pass may indeed be removed in the second, or maybe even a third, depending on how the Remixing goes, although if anyone is removed in both the first and second pass, that will be a redundant screw-up, please ignore. We will only remove each of you once. If that many times!” And on and on the memo goes along these lines, the implication being that those in control have no sense of control, no grip on reality. This corporation isn’t faceless: It’s a giant, grinning, power-drunk idiot-child. Scary — and funny.
Saunders proves his satirical skill when he takes on reality television — something so inherently absurd it is almost impossible to send up. In “Sea Oak,” two teenage single mothers sit in their apartment watching The Worst That Could Happen: “a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.”
What makes Saunders an important writer of our time is what he adds to Swift’s basic formula: Saunders has adapted the literary technology of satire to a higher purpose; in his looking glass, one does indeed see oneself, a glimpse of one’s own absurdity so carefully calibrated and so charmingly delivered that it is impossible not to accept.
“Sea Oak” is the funniest story, but its emotional force slips in the back door. Aunt Bernie, two teenage moms, and the young male narrator, who works in a surreal male strip joint, share a squalid apartment in a place called “Sea Oak” that isn’t anywhere near the ocean or the trees. Aunt Bernie is a mousy, elderly virgin who works at DrugTown. She’s a grim Pollyanna, who at one point reacts to the aftermath of a drive-by shooting by saying how much better a child’s toy looks after a bullet has gone through it: “I think that looks even more like a real duck now. Because sometimes their beaks are cracked?”
But when Aunt Bernie goes through some somewhat supernatural changes (it would be unfair to give them away), she is transformed into her own antithesis: a foul-mouthed pragmatist, insisting that the narrator show his cock at work so he can make better tips and go to law school, and that the girls do similarly sordid and rapacious things, such as flashing cleavage in order to get a job, so that they all can afford to climb out of the slum. But coming from Aunt Bernie, the former virgin-martyr, what should sound cynical shines as brave and stoic in this context, as she begins to save the family’s lives by the only means available. The story is a completely masterful working-out of the nature of poverty: the mire of it, the limited options available, and what that does to the human soul.
Another story, “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” unfolds in the recognizable world, but in its own way, it, too, takes place in an alternate universe, this one inside the barber’s head. Balding and “pear shaped,” the barber sits on the stoop in front of his shop watching an attractive woman walk by. In his head, he spins out an elaborate scenario that starts out as a sex fantasy involving the woman in a cowgirl outfit and some gauchos, then winds around to their marriage, only to end in his storming angrily into his shop as she nears because, in the fantasy, she wasn’t adequately respectful toward his 80-year-old mother (with whom he lives, of course). The rest of the story concerns a real-life relationship that miraculously develops for him but which he sabotages with layers of this same level of fantasy.