When CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was published, Thomas Pynchon wrote that its young author, George Saunders, was telling “just the kind of stories we need to get us through these times.” By “these times,” he meant the mid-1990s. The book, Saunders’s first short story collection, announced the arrival of a brilliant new American satirist.
Since then, Saunders, whose bracingly dark vision of America is buoyed by linguistic playfulness and wicked humor, has kept writing the stories we need to get us through these times. He’s penned cult favorites and bestsellers. There have been four more story collections, with one, Tenth of December, winning both Folio and Story prizes; a novel that won the 2017 Man Booker Prize (Lincoln in the Bardo); essays; children’s books; TV pilots; and a nonfiction book about teaching Russian short fiction at Syracuse University (A Swim in a Pond in the Rain).
“I go into Chekhov all the time pretty sure of who I am and come out not at all sure—and better for it,” Saunders says. “The writer and the reader each has an experience of having their certainty destabilized a little bit, which I think is really high moral work.”
It’s late June of pandemic year three, and Saunders is speaking on the phone from his home in Corralitos, Calif. He’s standing outside the Tuff Shed on his property where he does most of his writing.
Saunders is on the line to discuss his latest collection, Liberation Day (Random House, Oct.), which is inventive, unsettling, and amusing, its nine stories wildly varied in length and style, from wacky to poignant. The two shortest stories are the most grounded in a recognizable contemporary or near-future America: in one, a grandfather advises his grandson during an especially dark political time; in the other, a deal to buy a house falls apart over a quibble. Above every story hangs a question of free will.
In stories with characters lucky enough to have free will, imaginations run wild, creating ridiculous fantasy versions of reality, and elaborate comeuppance scenarios for relatively minor sleights. Four stories feature women struggling (and usually failing) to be good. In “A Thing at Work” (set, like many of Saunders’s stories, in an office), cubicle jockeys given the chance to turn the other cheek seek retribution instead, and the consequences compound like credit card debt.
When her son is pushed by a vagrant, the mom in “The Mom of Bold Action” channels her anger into an essay. “This was the real shit,” she thinks. “Wow. She knew just what to say.” But when her writing inspires her husband to act, the situation rapidly destabilizes, and an innocent man is hobbled. The mom imagines an “apology beam” of light shooting from her forehead to his. But when the man asks her in turn to forgive the guy who actually pushed her kid, she thinks, “In a pig’s ass.”
Editing the book, Saunders saw the same idea charging every story: “We have these selves that we’re born with and that we love and enjoy,” he says. “But our attachment to this very temporary thing is what makes all the difficulties in the world. And you can’t just will yourself to not have a self. That would be weird.”
But the people in the longest and most dystopian stories—“Liberation Day,” “Elliott Spencer,” “Ghoul”—have been stripped of selfhood. They are radically unlucky in the free will department. Each one, whose memory of the before times has been scraped, is prisoner, performer, or pawn. Like “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” from Tenth of December, the title story is another vision of the American dream grotesquely perverted.
In the title story, the Untermeyers find entertainment not from Netflix or Pornhub but from human “speakers” fixed in position, or “pinioned,” to a large “speaking wall” wearing “Fahey Cups” on their heads, through which they’re fed the eloquence and detail needed to hold guests spellbound with spoken-word performances. (The cups have receptors that connect to ports in the base of the skull through which “pulses” are sent from a “knowledge mod.”) The Untermeyers’ already destabilized world is further knocked off axis when an immersive telling of Custer’s last stand is disrupted by armed protestors. The protestors say the “monstrous excess” must end, accusing Mrs. Untermeyer of sexually abusing Speaker Jeremy by flooding him with “Eloquence” and “high Specificity” so that his descriptions are titillating enough for her to “self-pleasure.” A complicating factor: Jeremy finds pride and purpose in Speaking. And he’s gaga for Mrs. U.
Though “Ghoul” unfolds ostensibly in a theme park, a setting familiar to Saunders fans, attendance is down since the good old days of CivilWarLand and Pastoralia. Way down. Brian is a “Squatting Ghoul” at the Maws of Hell workhouse in a sprawling subterranean complex of themed workhouses such as Wild Day Out West and Fifties Sock Hop. When not on the job, workers may “chill out” or “mate” with workers from other workhouses (or go bowling, if that’s more their speed). Like his coworkers, Brian wonders where the “Visitors” are, but knows better than to complain, as negative nellies are kicked to death by their ever-watchful coworkers. One day Brian’s only friend pulls back the curtain on their disturbing reality, and Brian thinks, “Sometimes in life the foundation upon which one stands will give a tilt, and everything one has previously believed and held dear will begin sliding about, and suddenly all things will seem strange and new.”
Asked about the evolution of the theme parks of his mind, Saunders says he started “Ghoul” while reading CivilWarLand for the audiobook edition about four years ago. “It reminded me of how much fun it was to write,” he says. “The voice was just there. It had cobwebs, but I still got excited by the craziness.”
The darkly humorous “Ghoul” reeks of anxiety, the fount of which Saunders couldn’t initially place. Then he saw that the story was about “the moment when your constructed version of things falls apart.” Though a certain someone occupied the Oval Office at the time, Saunders prefers to take the long view. “Things falling apart, systems being subverted, egomaniacs running rampant—that’s in the Romans, that’s in the Greeks,” he says. “I try to leave all that out of the writing room. I’m making up a little world, I’m doing something deeper now, and whatever I’m feeling or learning or worried about, it’s gonna get into the story. I don’t have to put it there; it’ll get there in a more interesting way.”
Saunders agrees that these new stories are dark but suggests they are perhaps “more authentically dark” than his previous work. “Like, the darkness in them is coming more out of experience than it used to. You get to a certain age and you’re like, my youthful idea that all problems are going to be solved in my generation was wrong. How do I feel about that? Sometimes I feel pretty horrible about it. And sometimes I feel kind of ecstatic and released by that. There will never be a generation that solves this world’s problems, because then it wouldn’t be this world anymore.”
Near the end of our call, Saunders, beneath redwoods that will outlive us all, shifts from destabilizing to balancing. “It’s always easy for me to find the darkness in life, and in stories,” he says. Then he draws out and emphasizes a big long “buuuuut” and adds, “I also recognize that that’s perceptual. If you’re only focused on ‘all is dark,’ you’re restricting yourself as an artist. I’m trying to balance my own natural artistic attraction to things dark and doomed with a countervailing sense that that isn’t always the case, because it isn’t always the case. Early on, I could always make darkness live on the page; it’s funnier. The trick for me over these many years has been to try to make lightness live on the page—and not just fake it, but make genuine honorable intention in execution show up in the stories. Because it seems to me that that’s what life is. Is life light or dark? Yeah, it is.”
Mike Harvkey is the author of In the Course of Human Events and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book All-American Murder.