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January 31st, 2009 / 8:02 pm
Author Spotlight

George Saunders and his enormous, throbbing heart: a homily

Is George Saunders the most radical fiction writer writing in the mainstream today? Or to put it a possibly better way, is Saunders the most mainstream of today’s radical fiction writers? I don’t mean “radical” in terms of style or form–though Saunders has certainly done his share of innovating–but I invoke the term rather in its classic political connotation. I’ve read most of Saunders’s books, and worked with him when I edited Come Back, Donald Barthelme, but something clicked for me yesterday when I read “Al Roosten,” his new story in the current issue of The New Yorker,  and after the jump I’m going to talk about it for about 3000 words, and at some point there will be some spoilers, and it’s not really a “spoiler alert” kind of story, but anyway maybe you want to read the story before you read this.

Beneath–or if you prefer, beyond, or better still, simply “alongside, thoroughly integrated with”–the  “wacky” premises and screwy funhouse-mirror-held-up-to-the-world comedy, there is something else happening in Saunders’s work. It struck me first when reading the following description of the main character’s sister and home life in “Al Roosten:”

You saw her frustration at being the only divorced woman in her extremely strict church, her embarrassment at having had to move in with her brother, her worry that, if he lost the shop (as it now appeared almost certain he would), she’d have to quit school and get a third job. Last night, he’d found her at the kitchen table after her shift at Costco, fast asleep across her community-college nursing text. A nurse at forty-five. That was a laugh. He found that laughable. Although he didn’t find it laughable. He found it admirable.

The passage is so fluid, and so well-integrated into a larger (and just as fluid) joke-laced interior monologue, it’s almost hard to see these words for what they are: an unflinching, concise look into a life of quiet despair lived out under relentless pressure exerted by large heartless forces of culture and economy. Note the short shrift given to health care work; note the big-box store name-drop; note the strictness of the supposedly solace-and-inspiration-providing church.

Considering that the quoted passage appears immediately after a meditation on whether the sister is homely or merely “handsome” and is almost immediately followed by the words “mansion shmansion,” it seems to me nothing short of miraculous that it succeeds– and more to the point, that he bothered to include it in the story at all. I think if you look, you’ll see this sort of compassion all throughout Saunders’ work. I remember reading “Sea Oak” in Pastoralia and feeling just totally gut-wrenched by what those people were suffering through. Ditto the title story of Civilwarland in Bad Decline.

I think it’s pretty well-established at this point–and if it isn’t, let this be the moment when it is–that Saunders’s work is devoted in large part to a critique of corporate crony capitalism, and our own frequent willingness to conspire with the forces of rapaciousness, accepting the worst from our leaders as well as ourselves. It is far too easy to write this off as “mere” satire (who says satire is “mere” anyway?) but if we take his critiques (1) at face value, and (2) completely seriously, one is simply forced to ask: Well, George, what’s the alternative?

Reading “Al Roosten,” I began to wonder whether the answer to the question of “what’s the alternative?”–or some gesture toward an answer–isn’t already contained within his work itself.

Basically, “Al Roosten” is about a small man living a small life, itself held together mostly with spit and glue. It isn’t a work of strict “social realism,” but it takes place in a world whose social-cultural-political structure is one we all recognize: not as a caricature of our world, but as the very thing itself. Apropos Saunders, I’m frequently given to think of something Elizabeth Bishop wrote about Flannery O’Connor:  “Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to a flourishing ‘Church of God’ (both white and black congregation), where every Wednesday night Sister Mary and her husband ‘spoke in tongues.’ After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Connor ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.”

Alternate History Dinosaurs-in-the-Civil War Theme Park, Virginia.

Alternate History Theme Park in Virginia, at which it is posited that dinosaurs played a role in the Civil War.

Like O’Connor, Saunders’s work seems to be informed by his spirituality, though his Buddhism does not seem to ever itself become the topic of his work, as her Christianity frequently did, and neither does Saunders match her severity (well, who could?). I don’t want to theologico-psychologize Saunders too much, because I don’t really know what his beliefs are (or much about his belief system, even assuming it is the one I think it is) but I do want to point out that compassion is one of the primary Buddhist values. Speaking more generally–and in strictly worldly terms–it is also  perhaps the most powerful and pure ethical position a person can take. It is furthermore one of the most difficult states to achieve, to say nothing of sustaining it, because it requires a double understanding of your own position relative to another person’s, and hers/his relative to yours–the comprehension of a relationship, in other ways, as seen not from within but from without–AND for this understanding not to be polluted by an excess of pity, for yourself or the other, because pity all too often is just contempt playing dress-up.

I feel like the primary conception of Saunders is as a practitioner of the “lovable schmuck gets into a scrape” school of fiction, and certainly Al Roosten is a schmuck in a scrape–but there’s a missed emphasis on that first word: lovable. Saunders’s schmucks are not easy people to love, and they tend to be surrounded by people who seem like they’d have  a hard time loving anyone, much less somebody who doesn’t make it easy. And yet, the world which Saunders  depicts is not one where compassion and love are impossible, or forgotten about, or even necessarily failed forever–however often they are failed in the instance. Rather, love and compassion are central, and importantly, they tend to be depicted each as a figuration of the other. (Consider that in the King James Bible in 1 Corinthians 13:13, the three great virtues are identified as faith, hope and charity; later versions replace “charity” with “love,” but all editions of the passage end with a clause explaining that of the three, the greatest one is the last one.)

Let’s take a look at “Al Roosten.” At the story’s beginning, he is nervously awaiting his turn on the catwalk, because he has volunteered to be auctioned off as a “local celebrity” to help raise money for an anti-drug charity called LaffKidsOffCrack. The whole scene is incredibly low-rent: Roosten, owner of a failing local business, knows that he barely qualifies as a celebrity, even by community standards; he’s worried he looks like a goober up there (he does); the anti-drug people are exactly the kind of hopelessly lame Just Say No zombies that no kid ever has taken seriously for even a heartbeat. But here’s the thing–none of this knowledge has kept him from being there. The charity is really raising the money–i.e. doing their hopeless best–and Roosten is right there with them giving his.

Roosten, standing on the stage with the other auctioned-off “celebrities,” lets his mind wander. He thinks about his sister, and her kids, and his own loneliness, and a whole bunch of other things. Roosten is a signature Saunders schmuck, riddled with self-doubt and plagued by a host of worries great and small, his inner babbling kept just this side of hysterical by moments where the clarity of either real humor or real animus breaks through all the noise. In this story, most of the animus is directed at a man named Larry Donfrey, a wealthy businessman with a nice house and a seemingly perfect family, who is in the charity auction too. Even though they’ve met before, Donfrey gets Al Roosten’s name wrong. He calls him Ed.

Backstage, afer the auction, Roosten spots Donfrey’s keys and wallet on the floor and decides to kick them under some risers. It’s a rare moment of aggression, not just fantasized about but actually realized, albeit in secret since Roosten is a coward. Moments later Donfrey walks in, “talking loudly on his cell in a know-it-all voice.” But Roosten isn’t going to get to savor his triumph, because Donfrey isn’t making a big business deal or dinner reservations: he’s checking up on his daughter. She’s had a limp her whole life because of a foot problem, and for the first time there’s a chance to go get her fixed up, and today is the day of her appointment, but he didn’t want to break his commitment to the charity auction, and it ran long so now he’s running late to take her to the doctor. And now he can’t find the keys to his car or his wallet.

Roosten spends the rest of the story tormented by his action: its possible impact on the life of an innocent and crippled girl, his misjudgment of Donfrey, and various ways he could make things right–all of which he’s too scared to try. Roosten is a man whose life doesn’t allow him much courage, and he spent what little he had an on act of petty malice, leaving himself unable to do the equally little it would take to reverse his mistake. It’s not so much that he was wrong about Donfrey–who clearly is a pompous jerk, at least some of the time–as it is that the stakes were so low. Even if he had been giving Donfrey just desserts, the total effect of making Donfrey crawl around looking for his car keys would have been next to nothing. And of course that’s exactly why Roosten did it, because it seemed like an action without consequence. He was utterly unprepared for his action to mean something, because of how long it’s been since anything in his life has.

The rest of the story is given over to a few fantasies of Roosten’s: a few scenarios in which all is forgiven and he befriends the Donfrey family, and sees himself contentedly basking in their reflected light: introducing them to his make-do family of his sister and her three rambunctious sons. There are also several imagined conversations with his dead mother, which are hilarious and sort of heartbreaking, almost a story within the story, because even in his imagination his mother’s sage advice quickly descends into platitudes. “[t]here’s not a mean bone in your body,” she says to him. “You are Al Roosten. Don’t forget that. Sometimes you think something’s wrong with you, but every time, turns out, there isn’t.” It’s perfect mother-logic, and that’s exactly why it’s as comforting as it is useless. Yes, he IS Al Roosten, but that doesn’t exculpate him from what he did, or from the more general charges of being a highly imperfect human being, which of course is just to say: a human being, period.

Roosten, like many Saunders characters before him, and doubtless more to come, seems to understand–or else to learn–that  love born of compassion and/or compassion born of love–is certainly the greatest, and quite possibly the only, satisfaction to be had in a life largely governed by forces beyond your control, and which operate either without regard for or else in direct opposition to your needs and dignity. The problem is compounded because those same forces, in order to peddle their products, encourage a form of extraordinary solipsism that makes genuine human interaction–which is no mean feat to begin with–that much more difficult. What do you do when the one thing that can save you just seems to damn hard to try?

If Al Roosten learns anything, it’s the scope of his own failure: the way in which he let his worst self sneak up and make a mess of a day that started as a meager, but earnest, attempt to bring a little good into the world.

As Flannery O’Connor knew, one of the greatest positions for contemplating the sky is from flat on your back on the ground, especially if that ground is at the bottom of a ditch. Put another way: the sheer depth of his failure presents him with the novel sensation of intensity itself, and therefore allows for the possibility of an intense reversal–i.e. an intense success–which for the pre-lapsarian Roosten was wholly outside the realm of possibility.

We can be better than we are. We can avoid eating shit and making others eat shit. We can love each other and be loved. Does Al Roosten “learn” this? It’s hard to say. He seems to glimpse the possibility, but it’s not clear that he “gets the message” or “learns the lesson,” or, if he does, that the lesson “sticks.” It’s more like a state of understanding he passes through, possibly without even being aware at the time: a state of Grace, in other words, or what O’Connor described, in the preface to the 2nd edition of Wise Blood, as Hazel Motes’s inability to rid himself of “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” Motes eventually gets tired of running from the man, and so turns around to embrace him: a painful, crippling embrace which lasts forever, and which takes as much as it gives.

Saunders doesn’t push us quite so far, but as I said before, it’s hard to blame someone for failing the Flannery O’Connor Standards of Severity Test. Or else it’s possible that here we find the place where their philosophies take hard turns away from each other.

“Al Roosten” ends with the title character making a long, snide assessment of some homeless people who congregate by a viaduct near his store. For a guy in Roosten’s position (divorced; barely solvent; living with extended family) the homeless stand out not so much in contrast to his own position, but by virtue of the lack of contrast. It’s not their otherness that makes them vivid–and in their vividness, hateful to him–it’s their kinship. (A persistent, perhaps too-persistent critic might point his reader toward O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.”)

Weirdly, Roosten is most outraged by the misspellings on their signs, as if their apparent ignorance or disregard for the lanauge were directly related to their degraded circumstance.  It’s yet another iteration of the story’s thesis that a small thing echoes large.

The pen-ultimate image of the story is positively O’Connorific, with Roosten fantasizing violence against a man he’s all too aware of being one twist of the knife away from becoming: “[he] imagined himself leaping from the car, knocking the man to the ground, kicking him and kicking him, teaching him, in this way, a valuable lesson on how to behave.”

But the ultimate image pulls this possibility back, even before allowing its implications to be fully realized in Roosten’s thought, much less as a reality of any kind.  Extremity might make extreme success a viable possibility, but if it comes at the risk of more extreme failure, then perhaps this is not a path to be pursued after all.

“The man gave Roosten a weak smile, and Roosten gave the man a weak smile back.”

Weakness is the homeless man’s fundamental condition, and being confronted with it as it manifests–not in the abstract notion of “a homeless person” but in the actual and specific homeless person standing before him–re-kindles Roosten’s compassion. A Christian might call it his loving-kindness. A Buddhist might call it his Metta. Whatever it is, it rises up in him precisely because its display of weakness re-kindles Roosten’s sense of his own fundamental weakness. It’s a moment of recognition.

Here weakness functions differently than it did earlier in the story. Perhaps it has been transfigured by the events which have transpired–a lesson learned after all. Instead of serving as a barrier between people–encouraging suspicion and violence–it functions now as a common ground. In the space opened up by the mutual recognition of weakness, it is possible for the men to actually see each other, even if all they share is a glance. It is precisely because the constitutive element of their understanding is something so pitiful and broken that it has no choice left but to stand prostrate, defenseless, real.

I don’t read this as a vague call to “love,” but rather as a positive injunction toward engagement: mindful presence in the moments of one’s life, manifested as right action in the world. It’s a lot for a bumper sticker, maybe, and it purposefully suggests a path to walk down rather than any particular petition to sign, but I think it’s a message that’s been either ignored or actively suppressed over the last decade or so, and it thrills me to see it so forcefully articulated  in the pages of any major, mainstream magazine. That Saunders should choose for his mode not a polemic, but a story, makes it–for me, anyway–all the more powerful.

“Al Roosten” is in many ways a story about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and each other, and how poorly imagined those stories are, and how little it takes to expose their plot-holes. Our protagonists are unsympathetic, the motives we ascribe to our villains don’t make sense, and the author is a two-bit hack.

But Saunders isn’t trying to make you hate yourself, or feel worse than you already do. He’s just saying that things don’t have to be this way. We don’t have to settle for what we’re given, or sit still while things get worse. We have choices, even if they are proscribed by circumstance, and even in the best case are hard to make. But at the very, very, very least–we must always be vigilant that we don’t become collaborators in our debasement.

I’ve framed my discussion of this story in largely spiritual terms, and almost certainly not the terms that Saunders himself would have chosen. But be that as it may, I want to draw this to a close by revisiting my initial claim for Saunders as a politically radical writer. His positing of a world of such brutal humanity struggling to survive the brutality of dehumanization, and moreover a world where humanness itself is so brutally important–a thing to be protected fiercely, but also the force we must wield in order to do the protecting–is a radical and salient political statement, no less novel for the fact of our living in the post-electoral era of respectable audacity and the chicness of hope. Not to suggest that those things aren’t nice, too.

realism-of-distances

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