It isn’t very often that a writer’s work is so striking that you can remember exactly where and when you were when you first read it. I was in a parked car in a hilly suburb of Cardiff last summer when I first became aware of George Saunders, from reading a speech he’d addressed to his American students printed in that day’s edition of the International Herald Tribune. Within the first two or three lines it was evident that this was someone quite out of the ordinary, someone of unusual intelligence, curiosity and compassion. This speech — an exhortation to be kind — is wonderful. And so are these short stories, which have lately won the first Folio prize.
That said, they will not be to all tastes. If Samuel Beckett had been a manicurist in a New Jersey nail bar, his plays might have come out sounding very like these stories. They make a great deal of play out of a flat, repetitive and idiomatic American speech, which can be as unpleasurable to read as it is to listen to. Concentration and patience are required, but the rewards are great. As with the voices in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, the babble of banality leads to glimpses of the tenderness, sorrow and beauty at the hidden heart of things.
And Saunders is also extremely funny. His humour comes in (at least) two forms: in marvellous one-liners, generally delivered when his characters are speaking, as they often do, at cross purposes; and in the absurdist situations in which these individuals find themselves. The settings are a Saunders trademark, and range from bizarre theme parks to medical experiment laboratories. It may be the future, or some current dystopia: it is not so very different from contemporary America, but it is a place of great hardship and difficulty. As in Beckett, the characters find themselves unable to escape these awful places. Their moments of hopeless resolve or ill-judged good cheer provide a very nervous kind of laughter.
The plight of the ordinary person, someone perhaps with a sick child or ailing parent, is a recurring theme. No one is educated. Making a decent living to support a family is the sum of these characters’ ambition, but it is seldom a dream possible for any of them to realise. The invariable thwarting of their hopes renders their ability to find moments of love all the more moving. In his native America, Saunders has been hailed for his ability to make the reader feel as if other books provoke only sterile thought or idle contemplation. I would counter that feeling is the parish of the short-story form, or certainly of the best short-story-writers — William Trevor, for example, and Alice Munro. But Saunders may be the only writer using surrealism to prod his readers’ hearts.
In one story a selfless virgin aunt returns to the flat where she has lately died a lonely and terrifying death and sits stubbornly in the corner, shrieking at her nephew and nieces. Typically of Saunders, the fact that she is decomposing is less horrible to them than that she now swears and talks about sex all the time. Also typical is that they meekly try to perform the outrageous tasks she sets for them.
Like a literary Milgram experiment, the plots of these tales rely upon obedience in the face of diagreeable command. Indeed, one story uses just such an experiment for its plot, when a lab worker is asked to administer a suicide-inducing drug to a co-worker. Another has a worker in a medieval theme-park injected with a drug which makes him speak and think in chivalric language, like someone out of the Morte d’Arthur.
If you have yet to discover the distinct and troubling world of this writer, you have something very exceptional to look forward to.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £8.54. Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10