The first George Saunders short story I ever read was “Victory Lap,” the first story in his recent collection Tenth of December. It’s a story about two teenagers who live across the street from one another, a boy and a girl. They are both home alone after school, and a criminal of some sort is in the early stages of breaking into the girl’s house to assault her in some way – rape, kidnapping, etc. The boy sees the criminal at work and understands what is going on, and he has a crush on the girl and longs to rescue her and win her love. However, the boy’s parents maintain a pathologically strict series of household rules, and each night they have sort of a confession ritual wherein the boy has to tell his parents about any choices he made during the day and explain every last minute detail of the reasoning behind his choices. One of the house rules is that the boy is not allowed to put himself in danger in any way. As he watches the criminal at work and thinks about the girl he loves (or “loves”) being harmed, his adrenaline is on red alert and he formulates one plan after another to rescue her, but he also keeps going back to his thoughts of how dull and dreary that night’s confession ritual will be and how much he dreads the lectures and assorted punishments he will receive for putting himself in danger (punishments which would involve the loss of various kinds of ‘points’; this family’s disciplinary system is as quotidian and bureaucratic as the DMV, which in its total absence of emotion feels almost worse than actual child abuse). Then, in a move that not too many writers would make (but which, of course, makes the story absolutely stunning), he takes the safe route, stays inside, and watches his beloved neighbor be kidnapped.
My first reaction was that this was one of the best short stories I had ever read. Saunders offers not a shred of backstory or authorial commentary: we are simply thrust into this real-but-skewed world and given the thoughts and experiences of all three characters (the girl, the boy, and the kidnapper), who don’t understand how off-kilter their world is. I was totally energized by the story and kicked myself for not reading George Saunders earlier. I totally understood what all the fuss was about.
Except for one thing – I read the rest of the book. The rest of the stories were equally weird, though not equally good, but when viewed in the aggregate they were alarming and overwhelming. George Saunders’ characters live lives circumscribed by bullshit. They are desperately afraid of their middle-management bosses. They are exploited by people who love them. They take fictional prescription medications with evocative made-up names. They live in the same horrible small towns that were the settings of their humiliating childhoods. They have jobs that require undignified uniforms. They misspell things. They have addictions and horrible grammar. They almost never pay the rent. Spending a few days in George Saunders’ world is like moving to a mountain town where the oxygen content of the air is less than one is used to. There’s a giddiness to it, an appreciation of beauty and subtlety – and every so often you feel the need to curl up and cry. And/or vomit.
George Saunders’ stories make me want my mommy.
All of this is a long way of saying that Pastoralia (published in 2000) affected me in the same way as Tenth of December. There is no doubt that this is a masterful collection of stories – but it should come with a warning label: DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE RUNNING LOW ON YOUR ANTIDEPRESSANTS. DO NOT READ IF ANYONE YOU LOVE IS UNEMPLOYED, MENTALLY UNSTABLE, OR IN A CUT-RATE NURSING HOME. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE LESS MONEY THAN YOU WISH YOU HAD. DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE MORTAL.
The first story in Pastoralia is more of a novella. Its protagonist and unnamed first-person narrator works at a museum of some sort called Pastoralia (hence the title), where his job is to portray an early human – a “cave man,” if you will. He and his partner, Janet, share a habitat that is supposed to simulate the places where early humans lived – there are trees, rocks, etc. When they are in this habitat, they are not allowed to speak English or use any modern objects that indicate that they are not in fact cave people. If people speak to them, they are supposed to pretend to be afraid and go cower behind a rock. Behind the habitat, each of them has a small private space, where they sleep and spend their break time (being a cave man at Pastoralia is a 24/7 lifestyle, apparently – in this sense it reminds me of my career in boarding schools, but let’s not explore THAT connection any further than we have to), and there is a slot into which the management deposits a freshly-slaughtered goat every day (except when the narrator and/or Janet are being punished and/or manipulated, in which case they get a handful of crackers); the narrator carries the dead goat out into the public “habitat,” where he butchers it for the enjoyment of the tourists and then passes it along to Janet to be cooked. Rigid gender roles are alive and well at Pastoralia.
The narrator communicates with his employers and with the outside world primarily by fax. Every day, each employee is expected to evaluate his/her partner and submit the evaluation form by fax. Janet is not a very good cave woman – she routinely speaks English in the habitat and brings modern items out of her private space – but the narrator always gives her a positive evaluation. We don’t entirely know why, as Janet and the narrator are not especially close, but the narrator is very timid and passive and refuses to report on Janet’s misdeeds. Periodically the narrator (whose IQ is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80) is called out of the habitat for meetings with his boss (whose IQ is somewhere in the neighborhood of 90) and given lectures like this one: “We live in a beautiful world, full of beautiful challenges and flowers and birds and super people, but also a few regrettable bad apples, such as that questionable Janet. Do I hate her? Do I want her killed? Gosh, no, I think she’s super, I want her to be praised while getting a hot oil massage, she has some very nice traits. But guess what, I’m not paying her to have nice traits, I’m paying her to do consistently good work. Is she? Doing consistently good work? She is not. And here are you, saddled with a subpar colleague. Poor you. She’s stopping your rise and growth. People are talking about you in our lounge. Look, I know you feel Janet’s not so great. She’s a lump to you. I see it in your eye. And that must chafe. Because you are good. Very good. One of our best. And she’s bad, very bad, one of our worst, sometimes I could just slap her for what she’s doing to you” (21).
This opening novella is a good read – its plot is repetitive by design, because the narrator’s life is repetitive and he doesn’t seem able to do anything to break this monotony, but the story is not boring. It’s funny at moments, but whenever I smiled I was aware that somewhere outside my door – probably not too terribly far away – one person in a paper hat is giving this same lecture to someone else in a paper hat, asking that person to report on a third individual who should be wearing a paper hat but isn’t, because she just used it to wipe her butt or roll a joint or commit some other act that violates the health code. And I am also aware that only a few accidents of circumstance separate me from these people in paper hats: the fact that my parents bought me books and read them to me, that they talked to me and answered my questions, pointed me in directions where I would see beauty and kindness and work that brings genuine rewards. Reading George Saunders’ stories makes me feel that this part of the world that I have always tried to occupy – the part where people have careers that make them happy, where no one gives the middle finger to old ladies driving slowly, where people sleep under down comforters and most of the time manage to tell the difference between Onion articles and real news – is the tiniest little sliver of what’s out there. Reading George Saunders makes me look at every homeless person I see and wonder if he was once a cave man at Pastoralia, whether he was fired for incorrectly butchering the goat or for accidentally speaking English in front of a crowd of tourists or failing to fax in his reports on time.
Remember what I said earlier in this review about warning labels? Makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
The other stories in this collection are also good, although none of them stayed in my memory as well as “Pastoralia,” just as none of the other stories in Tenth of December stayed with me as well as “Victory Lap” did. I think after a few stories a certain part of my brain shuts down; I just can’t process any more squalor and petty bullying and people deluded into thinking that the bullshit that surrounds them is worthy of their attention. Of course this novel is not intended to represent a cross-section of society. Of course it’s satire; of course it’s hyperbole. But when it’s ten o’clock and the house is silent and the heat is cranked up to nonagenarian levels and I’m propped up with pillows and reading in bed, my cat Cleo having paroxysms of happiness because as far as she is concerned the best thing that could ever happen is for me to read in bed so she can snuggle up to me, shoving her face into my armpit over and over again and then peeking out to make sure I’m still there, I fall for Saunders’ act. I find these stories absolutely terrifying.