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11 January 2013

Pop culture Buddhist George Saunders on realism in fiction, working in America

Several years ago, I conducted a memorable interview with the writer George Saunders. My editors titled it “Mean Snacks and Monkey Shit,” which wasn’t a half-bad way to draw in eyes. Saunders continues to be one of my favorites. I think of him as an American Beckett. Or, as I said in the interview’s introduction “cerebral like Samuel Beckett, simple like Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts'” — and I think that nails it, or at least nails something otherwise difficult to articulate about his fiction (that it’s heady without ever falling into the alienating traps of abstraction), while not-quite connecting with some of the other amazing elements of his work & person, a kind of Buddhist approach to the manias of contemporary life that is only revealed when you find out that, well, yes, he’s a Buddhist who’s figured out a way to find peace with pop culture.

Anyway, I still like him — and so, apparently, does the New York Times, whose magazine printed one of those “anointing this year’s cultural meme” kind of profiles in last week’s edition, titled, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” (well, at least that’s what it was called on the web).

Premature prognostication?

Link bait for guilty upper middle-class intellectuals?

Better that he be recipient of such praise than a ?

All those things. Here were two excerpts from the interview parts that struck me. The moment he faced down the possibility of being cubicle worker bee for the rest of his life:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

And this one, about the pointlessness of realism:

The lesson he learned was the thing he sensed all those years ago in Sumatra, reading but not fully grasping Vonnegut. “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

I still suspect CivilWarLand in Bad Decline may be my favorite in his bibliography, in that way that first kisses leave the sweetest memories. But it’s all good.

Anyway, read the magazine piece, k.

Also, Saunders did an interview on Letterman once, like five years ago. He tells one story about sneaking into a Chicago Bears game, another about working on the line at a slaughter house. It’s not fantastic television, but his humanity is palpable.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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