Tonight at Powell's, a reading from the great short story and essay writer George Saunders.
I wrote about his new book Tenth of December in this week's paper. In my review I tried to figure out why Saunders' work is so hard to read, even though his language is so bright and accessible and funny. And it's because Saunders writes about heartbreaking shit at a funny angle. He sneaks stories of heartbreaking disappointment and moral compromise and failed good intentions into these odd, satirical, sci-fi packages, like trying to slip your dog a pill by covering it in peanut butter. And he's so fucking good at it it—there are novels that don't feel as complete as some of these stories. A story about a woman going to buy her kids a puppy absolutely slayed me; I had to put the book down for a week. (It was originally published in the New Yorker—read it, you'll see what I mean.)
This excerpt from a 2007 interview with Maude Newton kinda sums up his whole deal.
Your essays have been compared with Twain’s. It’s true that you share with him a strong sense of the absurd, an intolerance toward stupidity and unfairness, and a concern with precision in language. But it seems to me that your satire is gentler — or, more accurately, far less wrathful. Do you think your relatively compassionate perspective is something that will endure if the world continues on its current course? Or do you feel yourself growing more crotchety?
Honest answer is that I feel like I’m kind of at a crossroads. I really have been shocked, as I get older, at how shoddy and mean the world is starting to look. Or parts of it. Our leaders, specifically. And our media. So that’s pretty crotchety. But the other fork in the crossroad (?) is that I also am starting to see the whole deal as a kind of wild display. There’s always been shoddiness and corruption and idiocy and cruelty and also there’s always been the respective opposites of all those things. It’s beautiful, really, like a wild animal. And our feeling that life has gone bad, or that life sucks, or that fate is against us — those feelings, when you break them down, amount to proof that the person feeling them has just fundamentally misunderstood the whole contract. The world has always been what it is. We enter it, and immediately (wrongly) surmise that it will stop being wild, or will politely form its wildness around us, preserving us upright and intact at its center. But if we weren’t so ego-centric, I suppose we could grasp our own temporariness right away — and what could disappoint us then? So I’m trying to tip my mind toward the latter view. I don’t really want to be funny and bitter. I’d rather be funny and hopeful, with a touch of bitter, as required.
I'm really looking forward to tonight's reading. I think a lot of people are—it's gonna be a busy one!
Saunders is reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, 7:30 pm