For a time in the mid-1970s, it was widely acknowledged
that Richard Pryor was the funniest man in America. Who crowned him was
immaterial because it was indisputably true. Five minutes of his stand-up
was proof. With Pastoralia,his second collection of stories, George
Saunders stakes his claim to the literary equivalent of Pryors old
As in his excellent first collection, CivilWarLand in
Bad Decline,Saunderss stories are populated and often narrated
by sad sacks caught between the odd and false worlds of their workplaces
and their real and horrendous family circumstances. Theyre failing
in both worlds yet doing their best to get ahead, all the while under
attack by their own anxieties.
The title story opens with typical Saunders diction, an
obsessive repetition reminiscent of Gordon Lishs early novels Peru
and Dear Mr. Capote:
I have to admit Im not feeling my best. Not that
Im doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about.
Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something
to complain about. No. Because Im Thinking Positive/Saying Positive.
Im sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke their
heads in. Although its been thirteen days since anyone poked in
their head and Janets speaking English to me more and more, which
is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.
The narrator turns out to be a caveman, or a man portraying
a caveman in an exhibit at a theme park, removed from the world at large.
At home, reachable only by fax, his wife is tending his son, rapidly succumbing
to an unknown disease. His cavemate is an older woman whose son is an
Inadvertent Substance Misuser. The rules of the park are strict and changeable,
and the narrator does his best to satisfy managements kooky demands.
His cavemate doesnt, and her job is at the mercy of their Client
Vignette Evaluations and his own Daily Partner Performance Evaluation
Form (which he also faxes in from his Separate Area). Our narrator tries
to be nice. He hangs onto his conventional thinking, his hope and his
willingness to please, in the middle of an untenable situation.
A guy from management explains things to our narrator:
We all live in a beautiful world, full of beautiful challenges
and flowers and birds and super people, but also a few regrettable bad
apples, such as that questionable Janet. Do I hate her? Do I want her
to be killed? Gosh no, I think shes super, I want her to be praised
while getting a hot oil massage, she has some very nice traits. But
guess what, Im not paying her to have nice traits, Im paying
her to do consistently good work. Is she? Doing consistently good work?
She is not. And here you are, saddled with a subpar colleague. Poor
you. Shes stopping your rise and growth. People are talking about
you in our lounge. Look, I know you feel Janets not so great.
Shes a lump to you. I see it in your eye. And that must chafe.
Because you are good. Very good. One of our best. And shes bad,
very bad, one of our worst, sometimes I could just slap her for what
shes doing to you.
All our narrator gets in is "Shes a friend"
before the manager is off on another wild harangue.
Here, and throughout his writing, Saunders enjoys juxtaposing
the euphemisms of corporate speak ("Start generating frank and nonbiased
assessments of this subpar colleague," the guy urges) with the candidness
of colloquial speech (our narrators cavemate says, "Dont
be a dick for once."). Likewise, management sends a fax telling their
employees to stop calling the Disposal Debit the Shit Fee.
On top of this unveiling of language, Saunders will jam
high and low idioms together within speeches for maximum contrast, fashioning
a new tongue from old clichés and more recently coined buzzwords.
The cavemates son reasons:
Oh God, the group would love this. Youre telling
a very troubled inadvertent substance misuser to go live with his terminally
ill grandmother? You have any idea how stressful that would be for me?
Id be inadvertently misusing again in a heartbeat.
Things inevitably proceed from bad to worse, and despite
the desperate circumstances of his characters--because of those circumstances,
in fact--the stories grow funnier and funnier. Its a pathetic, almost
gallows humor he uses, delivered (for his major characters part)
absolutely deadpan. Theyre too worried about the consequences of
their imminent failures to find anything funny, and as their embarrassment
and anxiety rise, the reader comes across passages discussing, very seriously,
utterly ludicrous subjects:
I heard you very clearly, says the dad. You said Jesus
Christ. You said Jesus Christ because of what I said about the goo-goo
in my sons nosehole. Well, first of all, Im sorry if you
find a little boys nosehole goo-goo sickening, its perfectly
normal, if you had a kid of your own youd know that, and second
of all, since when do cavepeople speak English and know who Jesus Christ
is? Didnt the cavepeople predate Christ, if Im not mistaken?
Like Monty Python, Saunders will go for the highbrow or
lowbrow joke or anything in between, and can strike at any time. Hes
fast and furious, never simply whimsical or goofy, and he so successfully
delivers his pitiful characters that the reader feels at bottom some gravity
or emotional anchor, even when whats happening is loopy.
Because, on the whole, Saunderss heroes are average.
Theyre making the best of insane circumstances, much as we might
try to. They accept that the world may be crazy and that they have to
earn a living and put up with other peoples shit, and some of that
shit is exceedingly weird. The systems theyre trapped in run by
false or cracked logic--like the Tom Rodgers Seminar Neil Yaniky visits
in "Winky," hoping to find the assertiveness to finally kick
his nutty sister out of his house:
Now what about you folks? he said softly. Is now the time
for you to win? Are you ready to screen off your metaphorical oatmeal
and identify your own personal Gene? Who is it thats screwing
you up? Whos keeping you from getting what you want? Somebody
is! God doesnt make junk. If youre losing, somebodys
doing it to you.
Like managements rants in the title story, Tom Rodgerss
advice is self-serving and empty, an idealized fantasy when held up against
the sorrows and hard demands of real life. While it might sound good,
Neil cant live by the seminars advice.
"Sea Oak," maybe the best of the collection, follows
a narrator trying to support his extended family by dancing at a male
strip club called Joysticks. He worries that his Cute Rating may drop
from Knockout down through Honeypie and Adequate to Stinker. Sea Oak is
the subsidized apartment complex they live in, with a view of the back
of the FedEx. No ones happy there, and its his fault. The
narrators sister and cousin loll about the apartment all day with
their babies, watching shows like "How My Child Died Violently"
and "The Worst That Could Happen," which is:
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 hes 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.
Their ailing grandmother lives with them, and one day someone
breaks into the apartment and she dies of fright. At the funeral home,
after seeing brochures like "Why Does My Loved One Appear Somewhat
Larger?" the family, strapped for cash, ends up buying her a balsawood
It doesnt hold her. After our narrator gives in to
grief at work and is voted Stinker for the first time, the grandmother
returns from the grave, angry and full of advice. "Show your cock,"
she tells him, as a way of making enough money to escape Sea Oak for a
After we get the new place, thats the end of the
first part of Phase Two. Youll still show your cock, but only
three days a week. Because youll start community college. Pre-law.
Pre-law is best. Youll be a whiz. You aint dumb. And Jadell
work weekends to make up for the decrease in cock money. See? See how
But, like the great advice in the earlier stories, this
plan too proves useless. The grandmothers corpse falls apart, and
the sister and cousin refuse to work. Theyre stuck in Sea Oak, thats
their lot in life. In the end, the narrator is haunted by the heartfelt
question the undead grandmother asked him: Why do some people get everything
and I got nothing?
Why? Why did that happen?
Every time I say I dont know.
And I dont.
This serious and real question flows underneath all the
wackiness of Saunderss best stories. People may work at the Patty-Melt
Depot, but despite the goofy joke, their work is seen as a dead-end, their
finances and spiritual lives stagnant. Whether they retain hope or not
is uncertain, but his characters all continue to try, even when it means
submitting to idiotic rules or demeaning themselves. Paradoxically, the
bleakness of their struggle only makes things funnier.
Saunderss narrators, like the caveman in the collections
title story or the barber in "The Barbers Unhappiness,"
arent sure how the world works, making them prey to people and systems
whose logic seems more developed, no matter how insane and self-aggrandizing
it sounds. Their anxieties, while sometimes leading to paralysis, are
a sign, at least, of their humanity, and because the reader shares those
anxieties on some plain (family, love, sickness, death, money), the stories
are more than just bravura pieces. As in Denis Johnsons Jesus
Son,theres a damaged American heart at the center of Pastoralia,except
its the reader whos laughing so hard that it hurts.
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