A man holding up a newspaper walks bang into a lamppost. The philosopher Henri Bergson thought this was funny. We laugh because the poor man — who now has a bump on his noggin — acted mechanically, as if his human pliability had given way to robotic movements. Likewise, Bergson thought, characters in literature who absentmindedly act upon fixed ideas, whether dreamily ensconced in antiquated legends of knight-errantry or maniacally plotting a path to future power, instead of adapting to the present reality in front of them can evoke similar reactions of satirical amusement. Perhaps an even giddier degree of humor can arise, though, when we’re confronted by situations that make us realize the encrusted automatism of our own deepest levels of thinking.
Few contemporary novelists can elicit this response as well as George Saunders, who can explode the zeitgeist more reliably than one can explode a Hot Pocket by following the microwave instructions on its box. The author of several well-received short-story collections, including Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a novella, and a best-selling children’s book, Saunders teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University. Last year he won both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius Grant.
Saunders read to a nearly packed audience in Hollis Auditorium as part of the new Writers at Cornell reading series lthe evening of March 8. Introduced by Professor J. Robert Lennon as a writer who can simultaneously terrify us and make us laugh, Saunders did not disappoint with his story “Commcomm” from his most recent collection, In Persuasion Nation. Quite the performer, Saunders frequently interrupted his nasal, deadpan delivery by throwing voices during passages of dialogue, by turns mimicking such characters as a kvetchedy, geriatric mother whose fears of death could be touched-off by a shattered Prego jar and a middle-managerial/evangelical good-goody who pushes paperwork as well as his religious beliefs with equally annoying zeal.
“Commcomm” sympathetically depicts a PR man at a soon-to-be closed Air Force base who finds himself complicit in a scheme to rebury corpses discovered on the grounds of what will be the new “Dirksen Center for Terror.” The protagonist figures he can relocate a few long-dead bodies to new dirt (which, after all, is mostly decomposed bodies anyway) so that he can relocate himself to a better job with Homeland Security. In his moment of moral indecision, the character’s well-meaning self-deception is exhibited through a hilarious interior monologue: “I think of Tape Four, Living the Now. What is the Now Situation? How can I pull the pearl from the burning oyster? How can the ‘drowning boy’ be saved? I do an Actual Harm Analysis.” This scenario is typical of Saunders’s ability to portray the bizarre doublethink that pervades our military-industrial mindsets, the catch-22’s of being so caught-up in cognitive therapy routines and self-help tapes that our first impulse is to second guess. Saunders’s stories often push the illogic of advertising and bureaucracy to their dizzying outer-limits with plots that spiral into madcap reductio ad absurdums of the way-we-live-now. They’re chockablock with zingers such as “Blockbuster had a new program of identifying all videos as either Artsy or Regular.”
For all the punchdrunk political critique they pack, however, Saunders’s stories sometimes shade precariously close to partaking in the glib, self-congratulatory style of the cognoscenti they often seek to skewer, much in the same way that The Onion and The Daily Show have become institutionalized as benign cultural icons, blurring the line between parody and self-parody. Saunders’s prose has a relentlessly pointblank, information-processing minimalism that neither relaxes into longer sentence constructions nor lingers for lyrical exposition. At its best, his fiction foxtrots in the footsteps of Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme, mingling dark surrealism with the humorous light touch of comic books. Even at its not-so-greatest, his stories still manage to do a funky two-step with the kind of goofball literary gimmicks characteristic of the McSweeney’s crowd; though, I should add, reading McSweeney’s tends to be a lot like eating McWeenies: they’re fun to gobble up, hard to put down, but ultimately leave one unsatisfied and full of empty calories.
In his Q & A afterwards, Saunders appeared as witty responding to audience members as he does on the page. When asked about his writing process, he unpretentiously remarked, “If I have any thematics, it gets so stupid.” He also commented that the best advice he’s ever had about how to write was to create a story in which “one sentence makes you want to read the next sentence.” While this may be adequate advice for the beginning writer, great fiction floats in the tension between the reader wanting to accelerate ahead so that the words seem to dissolve and wanting to re-read the sentence that was just read, getting lost by luxuriating in the language itself — either way, just make sure you don’t run into any lampposts.