Reading, around the same time, Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders, “Money” by Douglas Glover (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015), and “The Evil Gesture,” by Russell Working (Numéro Cinq, 2017), I have the sense that each of the stories could have been written by either of the other authors. What is it about these stories, characters, and prose styles that makes them appear to have come from the same hand?
I have to answer, verisimilitude—a word that appears in Saunders’ title story, when the guy playing caveman in the theme park gets a memo from his boss:
In terms of austerity, it says. No goat today. In terms of verisimilitude, mount this fake goat and tend as if real. Mount well above fire to avoid burning. In event of melting, squelch fire. In event of burning, leave area, burning plastic may release harmful fumes.
In terms of verisimilitude, indeed. Saunders in the earlier story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” features a narrator whose job (at another theme park) is “verisimilitude inspector.” Which I suppose is what I want to be in this essay.
While Saunders’ premise is typically absurdist—a middle-American couple has a precarious job at a theme park playing cave people, a kind of kitsch Flintstones—the lens of the characters is our given anchor in that sketchy reality, and so it comes across with a convincing punch.
In Glover’s “Money,” a miserable con-man named Drebel is painted faithfully, without fanfare, just as he is (“His favorite words were liquidate and fester”). Even as Drebel imagines himself (at the end) as “a demonic messenger, an immense black figure towering above a smoking, lifeless plain,” we have seen him from the inside out, knowing him, for all his self-serving crimes, as fellow human.
Russell Working’s protagonist, a boy named Jordan, invites us to inhabit his existence for a spell, fixated on his quest to go trick-or-treating, thwarted by the funeral of his uncle Aaron, beheaded in Afghanistan.
In each of these stories our immersion in the characters is so complete that we become them, and in that merger the larger themes of exploitation, evil and violence are absorbed in our experience: not so much cogitated but integrated.
Other masters of ironic realism come to mind. Thomas Mann launched a career with his unstinting recreation of bourgeois life in Buddenbrooks; wherein all the weaknesses and limitations of the society and its citizens are exposed to full view. Invited to see the unforgiving truth of our commonplace nature, we can smile with scorn, yet earn the gift of distance from such foibles. We emerge with a larger capacity to see the failings not only of others around us, but then also ourselves, because the muscle of discernment has been well toned.
In the case of Mann’s last work, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the verisimilitude of character works to earn the roguish con-man our sympathy because we have been so hospitably welcomed into his, yes, confidence. In this merger, again, comes sympathy, empathy, forgiveness of sins—because he and we are one.
The verisimilitude is achieved with a recreation of the culture, whether in the manner of Saunders’ (or Glover’s, or Working’s) fabrications of superficial Americanisms, or Mann’s faithful rendering of the furnishings and fixations of the German bourgeoisie. Along with the convincing setting, whether elaborate or sparse, the diction of the characters and narration is organically suited to convey the same conditions and values, exposed to the witnessing eye.
Realpolitik and the Moral Imperative
In his own essays and interviews, Saunders notes that an early influence was Isaac Babel, and he also cites Tolstoy, particularly Resurrection. Babel’s Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003) offers the war correspondent’s firsthand depiction of the Polish front under the assault of the murderous Cossacks—the leading wave of the Bolshevik Revolution trying to export itself by force upon its western neighbor. This unnecessary campaign, presented with complete reportorial objectivity, is at once horrifying and galvanizing. In response I feel with vicarious rage and repulsion the contrary of this bloody senseless human history—rather, the necessity to shout the moral imperative, to love one’s fellow human. But first we must taste the fresh blood of murder.
Between battles, Babel rides with the Cossack horsemen across fields of rye littered with corpses, sparkling in the sun. They find lodging in ruined villages, each with its churches desecrated, its women raped, its foodstocks looted, its prisoners shot point-blank or slashed with sabers, its livestock slaughtered summarily for the single pleasure remaining for the syphilitic soldiers: eating.
These men so degraded by war inveigh to their superiors about injustices concerning ownership of horses; they stumble in bloodsoaked rags, insisting on slogans of the people’s party; they sleep when they can on piles of louse-ridden hay; they gnaw at green meat, awaiting the next village to plunder. And they long, like Babel himself, for home and the peaceful life.
Babel’s war, like every war, is hell on earth. The enormity of its suffering stands in contrast to the comfort of our privileged existence, apart from such madness and strife, coercion and fear. Yet our private fate, in war and peace, is compromised just as it is in the collective evil of war. In Babel’s pithy phrase, “To save his own goods and chattels a man will gladly set fire to another man’s hide.” (Glover’s Drebel stands as exhibit A of this uncomfortable truth.) And regardless of one’s own circumstances and moral choices, the arrival of hell looms in the chaotic demise of one’s own body, subject to the nonpetitionable torture of decay, that universal finality of death.
Literary realism, to be complete, it seems, must, like Saunders in his latest work, the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, bravely make a centerpiece of death. The frequent theme and device of Saunders’ short stories, complete with likeable zombies and unfortunate Asian women strung on wires as lawn ornaments, is precisely that dark heart of reality, giving us the gut punch that will wake us past the corporate-speak and juvenile pablum that passes for speech in our day. Death is a wakeup call for all.
Luckily we get to try it out first, while we have the luxury of living, if we try on the world as it is according to Babel, or Tolstoy, or the characters of Saunders’ world. That world, so truly painted and finely drawn, in spare lines, yet in details and phrasing so breathing and alive, is none other than ours.
In the face of human depravity and suffering, if one fully identifies with its victims and perpetrators, one is moved to the moral imperative of human love, instead. Saunders quotes Tolstoy to that effect:
“If once we admit—be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case—that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds…. Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances.”
Yet, Saunders qualifies the temptation to assign too much moral or thematic impulse to the creation of the story.
The assumption trickles down that artists have this viewpoint we want to ram down your throat.… I’m not really trying to say anything. Most people assume you have an intention and then you execute. There are some writers like that. But for me, I’m trying to not have an intention. I just have a little fragment and start working with it to see where it goes. When I’m done, sometimes I go, Wow, I said that? I didn’t know I thought that.
In the end, the purpose is more “literary” (Babel), objective in the sense of Buddhist “witnessing,” and “simple… almost invisible.”  The morality is not expressed but felt, in the successful literary rendering of reality, no matter how disturbing: “Love, at least in the fictional sense, is… clearer sight.”
Praxis and Witness
In Babel’s notes published with the Red Cavalry stories, I’m struck by certain phrases that seem like a manifesto for minimalist realism:
Simply a story… Very simple, a factual account, no superfluous descriptions.
No continuity… Pay no attention to continuity in the story.
Short chapters saturated with content.
[and from the concluding remarks by his daughter, Nathalie]: “Babel’s ultimate aim in the stories … was literary effect.”
What can we make of this confluence of realism and literary effect? If the aim is verisimilitude, then it seems almost as if writers achieving that aim would sound the same as each other: as indeed the school of Raymond Carver spawned a generation of barebones writing, lean of telling and laconic of both narrative and dialogue… or Hemingway before him, another primary influence Saunders cites in a New York Times Magazine interview.
Yet intrinsic to the “literary effect” of the realist is each writer’s given praxis. For Saunders, that means stylistic devices such as the use of extra question marks; jargon such as “due to,” “plus,” and “per”; speech authentically bastardized from media and corporate tropes; the use of capital letters for the iconic branding of everyday aspects of mundane American life. And there is that particularly American flavor to the thoughts, actions and speech of the characters. Parroting trends in the superficial culture, steeped in bureaucratese, fearful of stepping out of conditioned roles.
Compared to Babel’s graphic tapestry of setting, elemental in its rye fields full of corpses, its ruined churches and commandeered farmhouses, Saunders’ settings are stage sets for the play of the characters in dialogue or monologue; outlines constructed only for context, as the real world that is created resides in the characters themselves. The character is the world, and herein lies Saunders’ spiritual depth of compassion for any and all personalities enacting the divine and wacky human (or animal: dog, fox…) experiment.
In the absence of elaborate framing of setting, or any kind of authorial interpretation offered, there is allowed on the part of the reader a complete identification with the character/subjects. The monologues in the form of letters, reports, columns, or diaries all immerse the reader in the world of the character, richly rendered to allow us to experience fully the living of that life.
Saunders has said, in a recent CBC interview, that it is detail which, because it makes the character come alive, earns them sympathy from the reader. Thus Saunders distinguishes between realistic description, and “nondescript” writing.
In terms of irony, it is the humor which flavors the reader’s final evaluation, knowing that no malice is intended, but only truth—which is understood dispassionately, or compassionately, as we are invited with Saunders to simply witness all that is—in the Buddhist way that Saunders is known to subscribe to.
A key dimension of Saunders’ realism is the absurdism embedded within it: a natural discovery given the inherent absurdities of American culture (“America has always been nuts.”). And it is the absurdist dimension that gives free reign to the writer’s unique imagination, that sets him apart from contemporaries who might strive only for a more limited realistic approach.
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.… 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.
The absurdist imagination allows not only the distinctive style of the writer to emerge; it encourages us to question everything. In this more profound state of decoupling from a reality that is at once both transparent and weird, we are jarred from our own comfort zones of self-satisfaction and denial.
“If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it… then the possibility exists that you can convert it.” The truth will set us free: or at least, it gives us the possibility of freedom, if we so choose.
Does George Saunders translate this stance from its spiritual, aesthetic and moral grounding into any kind of real-world political action imperative? Or is it left for each of us to find our best way forward, better attuned to the lives of others?
The latter course is pointed to by
the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities.
Cited and Selected Works
Douglas Glover, “Money” (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015)
Russell Working, “The Evil Gesture” (Numéro Cinq, 2017)
Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003)
Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901); Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954)
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) (short stories and a novella)
Pastoralia (2000) (short stories and a novella)
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) (novella)
In Persuasion Nation (2006) (short stories)
The Braindead Megaphone (2007) (essays)
Tenth of December (2013) (short stories)
Fox 8 (2013) (novella)
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) (novel)
George Saunders Interviews
“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year”, Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.
2014 George Saunders interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.
“Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” George Saunders, NPR, January 6, 2013.
“George Saunders: On Story,” by Sarah Klein & Tom Mason, Redglass Pictures, The Atlantic, December 8, 2015.
CBC interview, Q, 13 April 2017.
Numéro Cinq production editor Nowick Gray is a writer and editor based in Victoria, BC. His writings span an eclectic range of themes, structures and styles in fiction and creative nonfiction. Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Victoria, Nowick taught in Inuit villages in Northern Quebec, and later carved out a homestead in the British Columbia mountains, before finding the “simple life” in writing, travel, and playing African drums. His mystery of the Arctic, Hunter’s Daughter, was published in 2015 by Five Rivers. Visit his website at nowickgray.com or Facebook page at http://facebook.com/nowickg
- Tolstoy quoted in Saunders, “Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” NPR, January 6, 2013.↵
- Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star, January 11, 2014.↵
- Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.↵
- CBC Radio, Q, 13 April 2017.↵
- “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.↵
- CBC Radio interview.↵
- CBC Radio interview.↵
- New York Times Magazine interview.↵
- New York Times Magazine interview.↵
- Joel Lovell, New York Times Magazine interview.↵