By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Some artists need to invent a persona; others are formed (and informed) by interesting life experience. George Saunders, a onetime Ayn Rand–reading geophysicist, is today a pop culture–loving Buddhist and Syracuse University professor. In light of his background, it is not particularly surprising that his fiction portrays America’s empire-building and pop-culture obsessions as both comic and tragic. His new collection, In Persuasion Nation, reveals a country in which consumerism and pop culture have run amok. It features microwavable mac-’n’-cheese snacks that beat up grandmothers; ads beamed directly into people’s brains; and a latex mask that, when affixed to a baby’s face, simulates the power of speech. (It’s educational!) Saunders convinces us that this is only a hop, skip and Hummer ride away from reality, but his characters also dream about a different sort of culture:
What America is, to me, is a guy doesn’t want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let’s go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamorous reasonable voice.
The writing style is cerebral like Samuel Beckett, simple like Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.” He’s also fucking hilarious. Like if MTV and Borders organized a spring-break party for fans of literary fiction. Saunders met me early one morning at a midtown Manhattan hotel, while he was visiting New York with a group of his MFA students. In person, he was soft-spoken and unusually kind. The ad-blasted, overgrown phenomenon that is Times Square beckoned from only a few blocks away, and Saunders was looking forward to his encounter with the belly of the beast.
L.A. WEEKLY:Is it correct to say your background didn’t really support a writing career?
GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, the school I went to was the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. It’s still known as the world’s foremost college of mineral engineering. You went there to get in the oil business. I got a degree in geophysics, then went to Sumatra. It was really electric. There were transvestite clubs and lots of drugs and a generation of Americans — oil-field people, Oklahoma people — rich and out of their country for the first time, acting insane. I had in mind to write something, but didn’t have the right programming. I had no language to describe it. My reading was a bit off. My school had Thomas Wolfe and Thornton Wilder in the library. I only had Somerset Maugham in my head.
What were you doing over there?
It was oil exploration — cutting trails through virgin wilderness where human beings had never been before, leaving roadside ditches full of oil — that kind of thing. They were basically earth rapers, but I was one of them, so was privileged to see and hear a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise have seen or heard. If a writer showed up there, hoping to write about it, the operation would have cleaned itself up, behaved differently. As it was, I was one of them, so got to see it in its full glory.
How did you end up there?
As a 17-year-old on Chicago’s South Side, I really wasn’t being pushed to go to college except by two high school teachers. One was a geologist, and in the summers he would go on these field trips out West and everyone in charge was from the School of Mines. I was also reading Ayn Rand’s books and totally buying it. I voted for Reagan the first time because I thought he was the Objectivist candidate. I loved it. Such a clear-cut view of the world. It told you how to be powerful, which was to be technical.
How did you pull away?
I jumped ship gradually. [Rand’s] Atlas Shrugged is very close to neocon thinking, because it says: “You are special.” Why? “Because you know what’s up.” There’s no corollary. You don’t have to prove it, you just have to know it. There wasn’t any nuance. Anybody in that book who was evil was also weak. And they were completely evil. But when I went to Asia, there were lots of weak people. I remember walking past this horrible cruddy vacant lot in Singapore, past these 70- and 80-year-old ladies picking up scraps. Then you think, “God, they’re weak. They didn’t choose this.” Also, Ayn Rand writes bad prose, and, after a while, I weaned my way off.
But literally how did you make that final jump and return to America?
I went swimming in a river in Sumatra, and we were drunk and I was thinking, “This is so great, I’m in a river in Sumatra,” and I look up and there are 300 monkeys on this pipeline pooping into the water, and I’m like, “Oh heck, I am aware I am swimming in monkey shit.” The next day I got sick as a dog with some kind of viral infection. Finally I couldn’t take it, and I quit and did some Kerouac-lite bumming around.