George Saunders’s writing is funny, wry, and entrancing. A single story or essay of his can be about any number of bizarre, surreal subjects–waiters at a strip club, Civil War actors at a failing amusement park, ghosts, animals, capitalism, consumerism, depression. It might seem like a laundry list of the hyperactive creative infused with some kind of late-stage-capitalist karmic zing, but it’s also unusually touching and well-crafted. The factor of ridiculousness collapses into emotional traction that is impossible to ignore.
Saunders, who spent his youth on the South Side of Chicago (though he is originally from Texas, and now lives in upstate New York), returned to the Midwest for two days of events at the University of Chicago. On Tuesday, May 20th, he conducted a small workshop with students and then did a reading of two short stories. On Wednesday, in a panel discussion, Saunders answered questions and revealed some of the foundations for his work. The poster of him provided by the University’s Creative Writing department seemed to be drawn straight from mid-nineties clip art: Saunders poses, hands in his back pockets, smiling like a man from an infomercial. Saunders came to professional literary writing fairly late, after getting his B.S. in geophysical engineering and working at various technical-oriented jobs for the first part of his career. He described what happened when he finally decided that he wanted to write seriously. Working as a technical writer at an engineering firm, he began switching between his fiction and his work. To hide the pleasure and excitement he got from writing fiction, he quickly slumped down whenever anyone walked by his desk, pretending to be as unhappy with the daily grind as everyone else.
One of the stories he read on Tuesday is entitled “Nostalgia” and opens with the lines, “The other day I was watching TV and it occurred to me that I’ve become a prude. The show in question was innocuous enough, nothing shocking–just an episode of ‘Hottie Leaders,’ featuring computer simulations of what various female world leaders would look like naked and in the throes of orgasm.” This is the kind of thing Saunders ponders over–not impossible, simply improbable. While hilarious, it is not so far off from what we have today as to be unfamiliar. Saunders’ narrators often speak in first person, and their somewhat pitiful renditions of personal and social woes are striking and, it turns out, sincere, especially when Saunders reads them himself.
The second story, “CommComm,” is about an Air Force employee who is responsible for turning tragic events into digestible news–“we kill beavers to save beavers.” He lives with the ghosts of his murdered parents, and some combination of guilt, horror, and longing keeps him in town. The story, which in less capable hands would be ridiculous and uncontrolled, is moving and careful, especially when the narrator’s voice is also the author’s. Saunders explained his inspiration for the story as a contract received by one of the companies he worked for, to evaluate the structure and threat at closing military bases. While the story itself is almost magical and a little absurd, it is the grounding in realistic detail that makes Saunders worthy of all the praise he’s received.
As this year’s Kestnbaum Family Writer-in-Residence, Saunders followed in the illustrious footsteps of past writers-in-residence Lydia Davis, Zadie Smith, and Art Spiegelman. All are somewhat similar to Saunders in their honest and gripping portrayal of modern life–both critical and beautiful, a little depressing, but honestly hopeful.