In Bad Decline
George Saunders has a new book out today, which is a big deal. How big a deal? The man got a blurb from Thomas Pynchon.
I prepped for its release by finally reading his first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which is finally available on the Kindle. I commend it to you. (A great addition to this book is its afterword, in which Saunders charmingly describes how the work was written over seven years using moments stolen from his desk job at the sinister-sounding Radian corporation of Rodchester, NY)
It is difficult to explain what makes Saunders so wonderful.
The engine that drives his works is this contrast between a world gone really and truly to shit and his characters’ naive commitment to coping with it in the most naively positive way. It is sinister and hilarious and bizarrely heartening.
In a typical story, a vague cataclysm has swept away the social order. I mean, things have really gotten out of hand. We tend to find ourselves on the sketchy, perilous outskirts of whichever social establishment persists, plugging away at some kind of dubious concern: a decaying theme park, a raccoon removal company.
The main survival of the American way of life in Saunders stories is corporate bureaucracy Though the physical and moral infrastructure that sustains corporate management of human beings has been brought down in the most dramatic way possible, its suite of self-management procedures has lived on. In Saunders the artifacts of bureaucracy are usually flagged by using capitals: “It made me livid and twice that night I had to step in to a closet and perform my Hatred Abatement Breathing.” In this register Saunders has pioneered a new genre of literature: the Apocalypse Office Novel.
Much of the humor in Saunders grows from how language and attitudes geared towards managing the niggling personal conflicts of office life (“How do I tactfully explain to Jane how I dislike it when she eats Indian food at her desk?”) gets deployed onto a world inhabited by packs of roving cannibals. As his world’s workforce bends towards sex slavery and scrapping for their daily bread, there is something hilarious and oddly heartening about a protagonist who chooses to invest emotional capital in the completion of accurate yet merciful performance reviews of himself and colleagues.
Despite the absurdity of the environs, the emotional register of Sauders’ books is close to that of Hemingway. His protagonists tend to be human beings of unwavering loyalty and patient of immense suffering. They tend to be suckers. Good people, with a sound moral compass. And also titanic suckers. His characters undertake titanic self-sacrifice for those they love and are more or less constantly visited by betrayal. The narrators tend to be emotionally opaque, relaying their joys and pains to the reader in direct terms, and explain their moral principles in forthright language: “You kill a nice little kid via neglect,” a wave-pool operator laments, “and then enjoy having sex. If you can do it you’re demented. Simone’s an innocent victim. Sometimes I think I should give her space and let her explore various avenues so her personal development won’t get stymied. But I could never let her go. I’ve loved her too long.” Here we have it all: the lapidary depth of emotion, the corpratese (Personal Development) and the moral principles, all wrapped in one.
One noteworthy effect of his fiction is to hold up our own form of life at an intriguing angle. It’s a world that is much better organized than any in Saunders’ fiction, but cruel to many of its participants — the physical sufferers at the bottom and the bewildered folks at the top. Saunders doesn’t really have a lesson to impart about this world, aside from maybe pointing up the uselessness of jargon. And this: kindness gets you nowhere. But goddammit, what else is there?