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on February 5, 2003
The first story in this book, the title story, grabbed me immediately. I laughed aloud, delighted at the inventiveness of Saunders' depiction of the corporate culture, as seen through the eyes of a poor working stiff in the pre-historic-land exhibit of a theme park. And really, be it a cubicle or a cave, corporate jargon or grunts and gestures, the author reinforces a universal truth: we are a flawed species, and when pressed, we default to some very strange, very typical behavior. His characters are both bizarre and entirely recognizable: so many hapless, imperfect souls stuck in an even more imperfect world, trying to find happiness in spite of themselves--even, in one case, in spite of being dead. As Pogo was known to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Saunders' sense of humor elevates our mundane dance with discontent to a charming, hilarious, sad, familiar but refreshing jig.
Susan O'Neill
Author: Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam
(Ballantine Books, 2001)
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on May 19, 2000
George Saunders is weird and then some. The America in his short stories is light years away from the picture postcard vision of sun-drenched cornfields swaying in the wind.
In the short story that gives the book its title, Pastoralia is the sort of theme park that would give Disney executives a heart attack. Visitors see people as they lived in past epochs, such as the couple who play Neanderthal cave dwellers, daubing prehistoric paintings on walls, making unintelligible grunting noises and roasting goats. But, there are few visitors to the park and the "cavewoman" Janet is cracking up under the pressure of mounting debts and a drug-addicted son.
She downs a bottle of Jack Daniels bourbon and starts using the sort of expletives no Neanderthal man would know.
In the best and funniest story, Sea Oak, a down-at-heel, bickering family tries to make ends meet in a housing estate that gives new meaning to the term concrete jungle. They spend most of their time mindlessly watching television. The stations have run out of Worst Accidents or When Animals Attack videos and have to resort to The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never happened but theoretically could. A child hit by a train is catapulted into a zoo, where he's eaten by wolves. A man cuts off his hand chopping wood and while staggering screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.
Sea Oak is a modern parable. The family's dead granny comes back from the grave to tell them to get their act together but, unlike the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, she just won't go away, but sits putrefying in her favourite armchair.
"In the morning she's still there, shaking and swearing.
" 'Take the blanket off!' she screams. 'It's time to get this show on the road.'
"I take the blanket off. The smell is not good. One ear is now in her lap. She keeps absentmindedly sticking it back on her head."
Sea Oak is like one long-running sick joke, where you know you shouldn't laugh, but can't help yourself.
Saunders sees humour in misfortune, loneliness and deformity, but it is a cruel humour laced with compassion and that makes his stories not just palatable, but at times moving and wickedly funny.
The misfits he describes are not outcasts to him. The sky may be a different colour on their planet, but the space they inhabit is as real to them as the lives so-called normal people lead.
Not all the stories are consistently good. I read The End of FIRPO In The World three times and still haven't the faintest idea what it's about. But at his best, the arrows that he fires at the alienating culture of urban America hit their mark.
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on May 19, 2000
I found this collection almost physically disabling it was so good. I finshed "Sea Oak" and walked around bumping into doorways and shaking my head and laughing and muttering out loud. I don't think stories get any better than "Sea Oak." That story will stand the test of time and should be anthologized widely, although it will take a brave editor to include it. Saunders insists on making his characters think and question. This collection is ruled, always, by a heartfelt cry for decency in a world that seems to have misplaced that trait somewhere. The stories shape themselves around decency. You finish them and you are a better person, and that is as good a definition of high art as any I know. Not only that, Saunders is the most original writer to come along since Cormac McCarthy; it's a voice that can be instantly marked and identified. These stories are filled with a horrific beauty.
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on July 28, 2002
The stories in "Pastoralia" center on eccentricly flawed characters teetering on the brink of making a decision. Much of Saunders' writing consists of the internal monologues of its protagonists. Their humanity, both weaknesses and strengths of character, is directly revealed as they struggle to determine their course of action. Some of the decisions they must contend with are ones that many in society make unconsciously or with very little honest reflection. Should I date this woman whose head is out of all proportion to the rest of her body? Should I rat out my attitudinally challenged co-worker who I have worked beside for years? Should I kick my sister out of the house?
Saunders delivers the goods in a self-effacing and homely manner. His prose is not flowery and often exposes the ugly motives behind actions that may seem noble from the vantage point of a dispassioned observer. He builds the tension through the thoughts of the characters, and his pacing is more concerned with the flowering of fleeting thoughts rather than the juggernaut of actions and events. If you have an affinity for the underdog, a passion for the barely observed, and a patience for moral ambiguity- you just may enjoy this book. I did.
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on August 26, 2015
Saunders delves deftly and without compromise into the human mind. Though his characters are extreme, they smack of familiarity to those who admit to the pits of self-doubt and angst Saunders can conjure. But the stories in this particular collection come to inevitable conclusions that seem more obligatory than discovered, the exception being "Sea Oak," a quite magnificent story that extends like the best Saunders stories do, taking you to surprising depths and ending somewhere so profoundly emotional you'll have no idea you've been caring the hell out of these characters all along. While the title story is well imagined, it comes in at a far second for its exploration of work politics, but something he captured to greater extent in "The 400-Pound CEO."

But there is never any doubt how well Saunders can string a sentence together. This is from "The Barber's Unhappiness":

At home old-lady cars were in the driveway and old-lady coats were piled on the couch and the house smelled like old lady and the members of the Altar and Rosary Society were gathered around the dining room table looking frail.

That's a magnificent set of words! Just wished I'd been more taken by surprise by where these stories went.
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on June 22, 2000
I finished this book last night and have to say this is one the best books I've read this year. The stories are all about lower-middle-class people with real problems, so real in fact that much of the book is very, very sad, but also very beautiful. Because ultimately what the author is trying to say about these people and these situations is Hey, wake up, look around you, see what's happening, and realize that the world around us has to change. The stories are funny, and true, and many of them are not only excellent stories beautifully written, but are obviously metaphorical and applicable to our real lives, no matter how absurd they may seem on the surface.
I would highly recommend this book. If it gives you any indication, Saunders is on equal footing with other current gifted writers such as David Foster Wallace, Thom Jones, and T.C. Boyle.
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on September 26, 2001
This man is genuinely funny and breaks your heart at the same time. Impeccably crafted prose. Puts all the MFA my-childhood-was-unhappy-and-now-my-thesis-advisor-doesn't-understand-me whiners to shame. Buy, read, laugh, enjoy.
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VINE VOICEon January 29, 2014
In a recent video at, George Saunders describes how he often begins his stories by writing jokes about his characters. Then, in the process of revising, he tries to add depth to his characters so that they ultimately achieve an internal consistency and a fictional credibility. Well, here I take over and say that Saunders, after revising his stories, does endow his characters--losers with lousy jobs, money woes, and problematic relationships--with a jokey colloquial pathos. As his Wikipedia entry observes, there's definitely a tragicomic element in his writing.

PASTORALIA, which published in 2000, is the second collection of Saunders's stories that I've read. And it does share several characteristic narrative devices with Tenth of December: Stories, which Saunders published in 2013 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. One of these is a comical and overbearing voice, which takes a surreal form in the story "Sea Oak" and a weaseling corporate form "Pastoralia". Meanwhile, a second device Saunders uses adeptly in both collections is the dithering, delusive, and demotic internal monologue. In "The Barber's Unhappiness", this monologue is imaginatively hilarious but sometimes darkly concise. But in "The Falls", the monologue edges toward stream of consciousness.

The stories "The End of FIRPO in the World" and "Winky" were just okay, IMHO. Regardless, this is a worthwhile collection with the novella "Pastoralia" a must read for anyone who worries about his/her career path or job security. What's the future, after all, if you're a Neanderthal imitator in a downsizing theme park?

Rounded up and recommended.
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on May 9, 2000
Every so often I read a book that shakes me to the bottom of whatever's in me. This is such a book. The title story still has me quaking; I saw the human race in every sentence and had to laugh and mourn. Sea Oak has lines that are howlers, but it's also terrible and touching. Here is a voice as original and truthful as Flannery O' Connor and Franz Kafka. George Saunders portrays our disgrace with great compassion and comic sensibility. This is enlightened writing. Thank you, Mr Saunders.
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on June 29, 2014
Now this book is wacky.
This was a book club pick and I'm glad for the uniqueness of my book club.

These short stories were downright off-the-wall, but interesting in their own way. For me, they were saved by the fact of being short stories-- so if I found one excruciating, it was over quickly.

The motivational speaker with the analogy of people in your life who are "crapping in your oatmeal" {story: Winky} saved this book, because I thought it was hilarious. Truly laugh out loud funny.

That being said, it was a tough read at times (for me), again because I love a like-able character and a redemptive storyline. These were often short stories about people caught in surreal yet crushing lives, with not a lot of like-ability to go around.
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