In both his acclaimed debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
, and his second collection, Pastoralia
, George Saunders imagines a near future where capitalism has run amok. Consumption and the service economy rule the earth. The Haves are grotesque beings, mutilated by their crass desires and impossible wealth. The Have Nots are no less crippled, both emotionally and physically, by their inferior status. It's a kind of Westworld
scenario, but instead of robots, the serving wenches, bellboys, and extras are real people, all of them mercilessly indentured by the free market.
Sounds like bleak stuff, doesn't it? Yet Saunders handles his characters with grace and humor. In the title story, for example, a couple occupies a squalid corner of a human zoo, where they act out a parody of caveman times, communicating in grunts and hand motions (speaking is instantly punishable by the Orwellian management) and conducting their lives during 15-minute smoke breaks. In "Winky," a born loser (really, all of Saunders's characters are born losers) visits a self-help seminar, where he's encouraged to rid himself of all those people who are "crapping in your oatmeal." Exhilarated at the prospect of dumping his simple, crazy-haired, religion-besotted sister, he returns home to the bleak discovery that he needs her as much as she needs him. The protagonist of "Sea Oak" works as a stripper in an aviation-themed restaurant and lives next to a crack house with his unemployed sisters, their babies, and a sweet old maid of an aunt. The aunt dies, and then returns from the grave--not so sweet, now, and still decomposing--with strange powers and a sobering message:
You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are going to have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me!
The characters and situations in the rest of Pastoralia
are equally wretched. But Saunders rescues them from utter despair with a loving belief in the triumph of the human spirit: yes, things can always get worse, but worse is better than the cold dirt of the grave. And in the small space between wretchedness and death there is plenty of room for laughter, and even love. --Tod Nelson
From Publishers Weekly
Saunders's extraordinary talent is in top form in his second collection (after CivilWarLand in Bad Decline), in which his vision of a hellishly (and hopefully) exaggerated dystopia of late capitalist America is warmed and impassioned by his regular, irregular and flat-out wacky characters. Merging the spirit of James Thurber with the world of the Simpsons, Saunders's five stories and title novella feature protagonists who are losers yet also innocent dreamers: in "Winky," a single guy lives with his sister but hopes to improve his life with his new self-help cult's mantra, "Now is the time for me to win!" The tales pit bleak existences with details so contemporary they're futuristic, as in "Pastoralia," where the narrator is a "re-enactor" who lives in a cave as part of an exhibit in the Pastoralia theme park. Authenticity demands that he speak no English, pretend to draw pictographs on the wall and eat goat. His cave partner, Janet, is driving him crazy, because she uses English, smokes and hates goat; meanwhile, the clumsy, bullying management leans on the narrator to testify against her. In "Sea Oak," the narrator is a beleaguered male stripper who lives with his Aunt Bernie and two other relatives, both clueless, young single mothers whose dialogue consists of trashy talk-show vernacular. They eke out their lives in foggy complacency until the pathetically passive Bernie dies and comes back to life to boss around the household: "I never got nothing! My life was shit! I was never even up in a freaking plane." These characters may not have much, but they do possess the author's compassion, and so are enigmas of decency enshrouded in dark, TV-hobbled dumbness. Saunders, with a voice unlike any other writer's, makes these losers funny, plausible and absolutely winning. (May)
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