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Posts Tagged ‘George Saunders’

On Monday I read a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine about Colum McCann. Joel Lovell, who also wrote a very enjoyable piece on George Saunders this year, talked to McCann about his new book and writing but also traveled with him to meet a group of kids at the Newtown, CT high school who read Let the Great World Spin after the shootings at Sandyhook Elementary. Their teacher, Lee Keylock, chose the book as a way to help himself, as well as his students, work through their grief and disbelief and invited McCann to come to the class.

The last three paragraphs of the article, which describe Lovell’s and McCann’s visit with Keylock’s students, are incredible journalism, which take you right into that school and those conversations, and remind you that human beings may have an outsized capacity to hurt each other, but we do a hell of a good job at helping each other as well. The piece reminded me of Rolf Dobelli’s contention that news is bad for us (which I wrote about here). It hit me that “bad” news lacks the humanity I felt leaping off the page in Lovell’s piece, connecting me to these people I’d never met.

McCann told the students a bit about a new nonprofit project he co-founded — Narrative4 — explaining, as Lovell writes, that it “brings together kids from different places — sometimes directly contentious places, sometimes just places with their own hardships — and how over a span of days the kids pair off, one from each place, and exchange the story that most defines who they are. At the end of their time together, they tell the stories to the larger group, taking on the persona of their partner — an exercise, McCann said, in “radical empathy.” The image of young people “taking on the persona of their partner,” inhabiting each other’s stories, really got to me. That could be life-changing, so also world-changing.

I went to Narrative4’s website and blog and learned that many authors I’ve written about and even a few I’ve met, like the wonderful Firoozeh Dumas, are a part of it. And that all of us can participate in the project’s radical empathy by donating a little bit (as little as $5) at the website to read over 100 stories by authors who wanted to help launch Narrative4. 

There is a connection between my visceral reaction to this project and what I’m reading. I just finished Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, which revisits the characters in Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The book is a heart-rending look at how our life stories stay in our hearts and minds and souls right into old age, and impact our relationships and our inner monologue to the end. Gardam doesn’t flinch away from despair, and her elderly characters aren’t just sweet old souls, they are whole people with a trail of hurts and misunderstandings in their wake. But they are also, like all of us, capable of what McCann described to the students: “optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’” I thoroughly enjoyed Last Friends.

Finally, a true story: yesterday I bought Stray Bullet, Gary Rivlin’s piece on Atavist (Gary is a terrific writer and is also married to my cousin). I downloaded it to my iPad but you can also read Atavist stories on your computer. Stray Bullet is about Tony Davis, a man serving life in prison for the murder of a teenager in 1990. Gary met him while writing his first book, Drive By, and the two became friends. I’ve only just started it but I’m hooked.

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I enjoyed George Saunders‘ book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone and his earlier story collection, In Persuasion Nation.  The New York Times Magazine has already anointed Tenth of December as the best book of the year. In the article making that bold proclamation, Saunders is also interviewed. It’s a very interesting read that gives you the sense of him as human being as well as insight into his writing process. He sounds like a humble and hardworking guy as well as a genius. Even daunted by a) feeling I can’t add much to what’s been said about Saunders or this book and b) being embarrassed to gush about a writer I admire so much, here goes.

The stories in this collection are mostly set in places that seem very much like ours except something is just different enough to give you a slightly off-balance feeling as you read, while you get your bearings in the strange land of Saunders’ imagination. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” poor immigrants come to America to be “SG’s” — they are strung by a microline through their heads and hang on racks as yard decorations. Other than that, the setting is completely familiar. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” young criminals are sent to a center for pharmceutical experiments in lieu of jail. The experiments test emotion-setting drugs that can temper the amount of love people feel.

In “Home,” which is mostly about a returned war veteran whose family is completely changed (mother has a live in boyfriend and is being evicted, sister married a jerk and has a baby, wife left him and remarried), there is one detail that makes us feel as strange as the veteran does: a store selling plastic tags reading “MiiVOXmax and MiiVOXmin.” Neither the reader nor the characters really learn what they’re for. In “Victory Lap” the boy whose parents are very controlling must place a geode in the yard before they come home. We never learn why.

The stories aren’t really about these weird details. “Victory Lap” is about calling upon your true nature in a crisis — even this boy, whose parents have molded his life so firmly, can find a reservoir of strength in an emergency even though it violates many of his parents’ rules. “Home” is about the futility of war, its impact on the ones who go, and the disjointedness that results when those at home are completely disconnected from their emotional wounds. “Escape from Spiderhead” is a commentary on the our culture’s dependence on and trust in pharmaceutical solutions. In the way other normal human emotions and variances in personality have been made into “conditions” to be treated, Saunders writes of love as a treatable disease.

Other stories are set in places not discernibly different than our own. These are just as moving, tragic even. “Puppy,” which juxtaposes two mothers each trying to do their best for their families, might be the most heartbreaking story I’ve ever read. “Sticks,” in just two pages, tells the story of a man desperate to tell his kids there’s more to him than the emotional absence he’s offered, as he decorates a pole in the yard, his “one concession to glee.” The narrator says, “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic.”

Both “Exhortation,” a story in a memo which captures the strange futility of a contemporary workplace filled with rules, rubrics, and benchmarks, and “My Chivalric Disaster,” about a man working at a medieval re-enactment whose dose of KnightLyfe (a drug that makes him speak in Renaissance style) causes him to act chivalrous to disastrous result, address the ways low skill, low pay work, when combined with unthinking or overbearing management, creates a system in which people live in either (or both) physical or psychological poverty, unable to express themselves and sapped of a sense of self.

The title story is beautiful, strange, and sad, a tribute to the imaginative powers of childhood and the redemptive resources of old age, to the pain of being rendered helpless by illness and infirmity and the reckless hope of youth that drives us to overcome helplessness, to believe in our own big hearts. I can’t imagine a story that better balances those experiences.

I love a book that makes me think and also entertains and Saunders’ writing consistently does that. The issues he ranges over are big and current — he is holding a mirror up to contemporary American culture. But he’s doing it in a fun house, showing us how silly we look with just a slight distortion of the smooth glass we normally gaze into. It’s not a hopeless book though, and there are glimpses of humor even in the most tragic stories. The questions Saunders raises would be fun to discuss in a book group.

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