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Pastoralia Paperback – June 1, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 125 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books (June 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573228729
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573228725
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (125 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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