Saturday, February 28, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: Saunders and Ghosts

Find a comfortable chair and get ready for Saturday Story Hour.

It is entirely possible that Fosco's favorite contemporary writer of short fiction is George Saunders. He has published three absolutely stellar collections and any story of his is a must-read for me. He is effortlessly funny, as well as acutely critical of our cultural preoccupations.

Most of his stories take place in worlds that are slightly-exaggerated versions of our own consumerist, entertainment-obsessed civilization. The effect is strange and familiar at the same time. It's not exactly realism--but some sort of hyper-realism or concentrated realism.

He has an affection for losers, for underdogs, and for those people who cannot quite fit into the New World Order. He's also fond of ghosts (and once, zombies)--those revenants who haunt our lives, but who aren't supposed to exist. As you might expect, the emotional territory of his stories is typically melancholic, nostalgiac, full of resignation. But he's still hilariously funny.

Today's story is one that makes Fosco cry every time he reads it (and yes, he cried re-reading it for this post). It's called "Commcomm" and it was originally published in 2005 in The New Yorker. The protagonist is a public relations hack at a soon-to-be-decommissioned military base. The plot depends on his willingness to perform an illegal action to get a better job.

But there's much more to the story than that. It's an extended meditation on "bad luck" and the miseries of living. It's about the excesses of religious fundamentalism. It's a parody of self-help. It's about guilt and memory and family. Oh, and did I mention that the narrator's parents are ghosts who must obsessively act out their violent deaths in his house every day? If it sounds crazy, it is. If it sounds bad, it isn't--it's sad, funny, and finally redemptive. Like I said, I cry when I read this story--but it's not because it's sad; rather, it's because it is ultimately so comforting and hopeful, in its eccentric way.

Despite the sadness and the hope, you should relish the black humor, though. Here is a bravura passage:

A week after his layoff, Grandpa died. Day of the wake, Dad got laid off too. Month later, we found out Jean was sick. Jean was my sister, who died at eight. Her last wish was Disneyland. But money was tight. Toward the end, Dad borrowed money from Leo, the brother he hated. But Jean was too sick to travel. So Dad had an Army friend from Barstow film all of Disney on a Super-8. The guy walked the whole place. Jean watched it and watched it. Dad was one of these auto-optimists. To hear him tell it, we’d won an incredible last-minute victory. Hadn’t we? Wasn’t it something, that we could give Jeanie such a wonderful opportunity?

But Jean had been distilled down to like pure honesty.

“I do wish I could have gone, though,” she said.

“Well, we practically did,” Dad said, looking panicked.

“No, but I wish we really did,” she said.
Dark, yes; but also funny.

I admire almost every sentence he writes. His ideas are so perfectly... odd. How can you not appreciate this passage?:
They’re standing at the kitchen window, looking out at the old ballbearing plant. All my childhood, discarded imperfect ball bearings rolled down the hill into our yard. When the plant closed, a lathe came sliding down, like a foot a day, until it hit an oak.
Or this description of a self-help cassette series:
I think of Tape 4, “Living the Now.” What is the Now Situation? How can I pull the pearl from the burning oyster? How can the “drowning boy” be saved?
Or this perfect throwaway line:
Blockbuster has a new program of identifying all videos as either Artsy or Regular.
Or, finally, this heartbreaking revelation about the metaphysics of ghostly parents:
When they stand in direct heat, it doesn’t make them warmer, just makes them vividly remember their childhoods.
This universe is not quite like ours and yet, it's exactly like ours.

If you read this story and fall in love with George Saunders, I would recommend reading one of his slightly more upbeat stories: "My Flamboyant Grandson"--an equally beautiful, but more heart-warming story (in its way).

Comments after reading either/both are welcome.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for that...I've started looking forward to you Saturday Stories.

FOSCO said...

I'm so glad! You're like my ideal reader or something... :)