There may be no short story writer alive than George Saunders, and that’s no small praise; indeed, you could even argue that with his talent, he ranks among the great writers of the day, full stop. (How his talent will hold up in novel form, I look forward to discovering when his first novel is released next week.) Veering between social commentary and dark satire, between biting comedy and empathetic character studies, Saunders brings his bizarre, off-kilter worlds to life with his rich, fascinating prose and compelling dialogue. His second short story collection, Pastoralia, is no exception, making me laugh out loud frequently while never shirking from his craft.
As always, Saunders love of bizarre, excessive amusement/theme parks is evident, whether it’s the recreated Stone Age cave of the title story (where the actors are expected to stay in character even when no one else is around, and the corporate management communicates through bizarre, rambling memos) or the intricately structured strip club of “Sea Oak.” But he also loves his misfits, whether it’s the bullied young man of “The End of FIRPO in the World,” the harried title character in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” or the motivational speaker attendee of “Winky”, who just wants to work up the nerve to kick his sister out. Indeed, pretty much every character has their struggles, their neuroses, their fears, and all of them fear that life has passed them by – and in most cases, it has.
In lesser hands, that would depressing, bleak fare. But Saunders’ prose and observational style make his stories uproariously funny at times, as characters lose themselves in imagining how others will treat them, engage in long dialogues with themselves, or the situations just get increasingly bizarre. From actors playing cavemen trying to ignore faxes to ghosts that do little more than angrily yell at everyone, from unlikely heroes to fantasy lives that far surpass anything in waking lives, Saunders infuses all of it with a sense of wry wit, but also affection for his characters that keeps the stories from being bleak. Instead, they become universal, clinging to big feelings and emotions that we all have, satirizing human (and corporate) foibles beautifully, and just generally entertaining with their absurdity, heart, and soul.
In other words, it’s more typical greatness from Saunders, who seems incapable of doing anything less than creating rich worlds and complex characters, all without missing a beat with his offbeat prose and rich descriptions. And if you can’t empathize with his flawed, failing, but still human characters, then I can’t imagine that you’ve lived any kind of life at all, because these are universal tales. Off the wall, funny, and satirical, and yet universal in the best way.