Barbie Doll Under Glass
Author George Saunders wrestles with realism and absurdity.
By Jim Hanas
MAY 22, 2000: George Saunders tries to write like Ernest Hemingway. Somehow, however, things never work out.
"The dog that is my particular little pathetic talent is by my side and I say, 'Fetch, boy.' At the beginning of a story I have all these Hemingway-esque dreams and the dog goes off with great certainty and then it comes back with great certainty, but instead of a pheasant it's got like the lower half of a Barbie doll or something."
Hunting for pheasant but coming up Barbie doll is not an uncommon experience among contemporary writers. As actual beating hearts become difficult to discern beneath the hyper-mediated carapace of life in 21C CyberAmerica, youngish authors from David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) to Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) have turned hackers, restlessly wiring and rewiring the motherboard of self-consciousness in desperate attempts to find a way to turn pink plastic back into flesh or to invent a narrative virus that means it when it says ILOVEYOU.
Saunders, a 41-year-old Chicago-reared Texas native who trained as an actual engineer at the Colorado School of Mines and now teaches at Syracuse University, is a sometime member of this design team, albeit one who does not specialize in prefaces, caveats, or footnotes. His miniature dramas cast in synthetic settings -- e.g., theme parks and motivational seminars -- are much closer to the wobbly irrealism of Don DeLillo or the fanciful vignettes of Donald Barthelme than to the pyrotechnic extravaganzas of Wallace or Eggers, even as Saunders displays a knack for absurdity shared by all of the above.
The title story of his last short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, featured a failing theme-park inhabited by ghosts. And the title story of his new collection, Pastoralia, features a failing theme-park inhabited by cavemen impersonators faced with corporate down-sizing. At one level, the stories collected here are funny, in a breezy, almost chatty way. Saunders writes in an easy vernacular of internal memos appearing where the daily goat ration is supposed to be, of relatives coming back from the dead and slowly decomposing, and of self-help gurus encouraging neophytes to not let people "crap in their oatmeal."
"Your style has as much to do with what you're crummy at as with what you're good at," he says, explaining that what he isn't good at is realism, despite his admiration for Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. Instead, his affection for the Russians shows through only in his stylistic similarity to Nikolai Gogol, a writer whose surreal tales of men meeting their own noses in the street -- penned over a century ago -- might make even Thomas Pynchon blush.
"I'm not that interested in the way things are in real time, day to day, because we all sort of know that," Saunders says. "But I'm very interested in the internal skeleton, the sort of spiritual truth below the truth. Exaggeration helps me find that."
What Saunders is good at is being riotously funny while still managing to uncover the aforementioned "truth below the truth" in the lives of unglamorous outsiders, in characters who, he says, are overwhelmed with a feeling of "being on the other side of the door."
"When I read them out loud, I realize that the humor is sort of the dominate thing," he says. "But when I'm writing them, that sort of gets taken for granted and it's more the moral things that I find myself thinking about."
Peer evaluation reports at an amusement park set cavemen-for-hire against one another in a parable of capitalist exploitation. A doughy adolescent hatches a plan to show up the smug family next door and receives absolution. A barber with no toes overcomes his daydreams to court a woman he meets at driving school.
Saunders' facile riffs open on bigger questions and distant horizons as his characters imagine imminent yet impossible greatness, painfully realize that they have been promised much more than they will ever receive, yet still find their way to accepting their fate. As the author says, these stories seek "to figure out a way that the spiritual would not be full of shit."
In "The Falls," the final story in Pastoralia, a nebbishy protagonist is confronted with the prospect of rescuing two young girls about to be engulfed by a river. He is sure he will fail, just as he has failed again and again. Finally, he realizes that the situation is utterly hopeless.
The story concludes:
"They were dead. They were frantic, calling out to him, but they were dead, as dead as the ancient dead, and he was alive, he was needed at home, it was a no-brainer, no one could possibly blame him for this one, and making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water."
In that parting shot, Saunders attains the greatest heights of absurdity.
He snares a pheasant with a Barbie doll.
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