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.
I guess that background sort of explains your unique use of language. Your syntax and voice have reminded me of Jeff Foxworthy’s Blue Collar TV, with a dose of Samuel Beckett. Are they influences?
Beckett for sure. When Pastoralia came out, there was a lot of talk about white trash, and I got on the bandwagon, but it’s not that. The neighborhood where I grew up was a weird mix. There was an accountant, my dad was an executive at a coal company, and there was a guy who was a cement contractor. If I wanted to say, “I think you’re a really nice guy and I really enjoyed spending time with you,” I’d say, “Hey, motherfucker!” It was all this mock stuff. You can mess with diction so much that it conveys emotion.
Do you think there are other challenges particular to your writing?
There’s a sales aspect, especially in the stories that are hard to swallow. If I really want you to believe that your banana is going to start talking [points to banana in interviewer’s hand], I can’t just say, “Once there was a talking banana . . .” Because you’re like, “Huh?” Somehow, in the prose density, you have to sell it.
Your recent writings have a political edge. In a Slate piece titled “Exit Strategy,” the narrator announces: “Therefore, trust us, people of Iraq, have faith, we assure you: As long as you continue trying to kill us, we will never abandon you.”
The political stuff is hard for me to figure out, because I don’t think fiction should be political. The materials you’re using do not support that weight. Like, if I decide all red-haired people are evil, I can’t say, “I believe in X, I’m going to write a story to prove it,” because you’ll know I’ve made it up. “Sean O’Brien killed 15 people with his red hair flaming.” You go, “Okay, well, that doesn’t mean anything.” “The hippopotamus had an orgasm.” It has no meaning! It’s what you do with the riff that makes it. The stories are about some deeper thing. You just make them out of whatever is ready at hand. [Ivan] Turgenev would use the Russian woods to make deeper stories. Jhumpa Lahiri makes them out of the Indian immigrant experience. I know a lot of pop-culture stuff.
A couple of your new stories bring a deep sadness to pop culture and advertising.
That’s true, and a beautiful way to say it. When I was younger, I thought pop culture was stupid but had nothing to do with me. It’s just this crap that drops in our lives that all of us smart people don’t bother with. But, to be honest, my relationship with it is much more complicated. It’s just droning all the time. You can’t get away. And your thought stream is influenced by that whether you like it or not. There’s no way something could take so much of our attention and not affect the interior life. In Persuasion Nation is not so much about advertising but being inside something you can’t discern. Like a fish in water.
Are you a fan of pop culture or opposed to it?
I’m not against it at all. Me and my wife are Buddhists, and one of the things they teach is that it’s only your limited point of view that makes things holy or unholy. For me, pop culture is both a holy and unholy manifestation of Americanism. I love it. Walking around Times Square is a rush. It’s beautiful. And commercials are gorgeous, so I don’t really have anything against them, though in the final analysis I tend to veer a little bit suspicious. Maybe I’m a really judgmental person trying hard not to be.
Do you feel a stigma about being the funny writer or pop-culture guy?
I just want to make sure I don’t do it self-reflexively to avoid something else. Maybe this is my midlife crisis. I’m trying to figure out if there are positive aspects of life that my odd, dwarf talent is not letting me get to. You know, my thing is to not become a satirical observer, because then, the next time you write, you’re like, “Okay, what can I satirically observe?”
So you’re not sure what you’re working on next?
I think a story will tell you what it needs if you reside with it. Einstein says something about “No worthy problem can ever be solved on the original plane of its conception.”
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Einstein said that?
Yeah. We were talking. [Laughs.]
IN PERSUASION NATION | By GEORGE SAUNDERS | Riverhead Books | 240 pages | $24 hardcover
George Saunders reads at Skylight Books on May 11 at 7:30 p.m. McSweeney’s has just republished his children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, while Riverhead has published his new collection of short stories, In Persuasion Nation.