“I can’t think of an author more universally admired in this country than [George] Saunders,” writes a commenter under this most gently skeptical and eventually repentant piece at The Millions. It’s as if people are somehow wary of criticizing Saunders. Why? Is he the Commissar of Culture or something? Or is it more symbolic: that he’s inherited that DFW mantle of postmodernist formal inventiveness wed to neo-Victorian sentimental humanism? Thus, if we deride him, we deride our own better angels. We let the cynics and the nihilists win. He’s like a Democratic President! Well, let us please remember three things:
Opposition is true friendship.
Without contraries, there is no progression.
Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines.
I’ve read Tenth of December, my first acquaintance with Saunders. Some of it I read with genuine amusement—he can be very funny, especially as a parodist of the way we talk now, a mix of plausibly-deniable passive-aggressive businessese and knowingly sarcastic vernacular shorthand—and much of it with admiration for his skillful and effortless-seeming concision—he’s economical in an age of narrative bloat.
Some I read with impatience—”Escape from Spiderhead” is at once too long and too short, and the central idea of “My Chivalric Fiasco” is puerile. And some I read in a hot fury—for the title story, the last in the collection, is simply a sentimental farrago of cheap coincidences and emotional button-pushing all the more insulting for the few psychological insights it undeniably contains; a reprehensible polemic, hidden under gallons of schmaltz, against the suicide of the terminally ill; a brief, in essence, on behalf of the cruelest tendencies in both the medical apparatus and the Catholic Church, the former abusing materialist concepts and the latter abusing metaphysical concepts in their unkind insistence that we all stay plugged into the wall forever no matter how utterly, agonizingly vanished is any possibility for eudaemonia. The less said about that absurd story, the better.
What did Saunders learn in Catholic school? Apparently not what I found to be its most useful lesson, which is the humbling realization, as necessary for the non-believer as for the faithful, that humankind cannot be master of the universe or attain perfection on earth. Because the real trouble with this collection is announced after the final story, in the Acknowledgements, wherein Saunders writes this, apparently about his children:
…watching you all these years has taught me that goodness is not only possible, it is our natural state.
If he’d written this about an adult woman, or about, say, Native Americans—and such things have very often been said about women and Native Americans—we would recognize it as pernicious. We would say, and I see no reason not to say it when children are in question, that it is simply not ethical, is perhaps even dangerous, to put such an idealization in place of a person. The opposition, whether religious or secular, to this kind of idealism may actually be more merciful to actual human beings, however pessimistic it sounds, than this spurious exaltation of humanity’s natural goodness.
I am, perhaps unkindly (though this is a sermon in the doctrine of hatred), reminded of Melville’s Captain Delano:
Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated excitement, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.
This “undistrustful good nature” for which Saunders is celebrated and for which he publicly celebrates his children, mars stories throughout this collection just as Delano’s nature prevents him from recognizing the evils with which he is complicit and the violence done in resistance to them. There is almost always some swerve in each story away from the very worst—and the very worst must be confronted if you’re going to maintain that humanity is basically good.
Sometimes the evasion is at the level of plot: the first and last stories both arrange the “best” possible outcome for the characters, at least from the implicit moral vantage of the narrative. At other times, the stories escape difficulty by arresting genuine conflict. In “Escape from Spiderhead” the villain is allowed to be so unctuous, so bathetically malign, so unpersuasive, so villainous in his conversations with the hero, that the story merely flatters the reader’s own humanist prejudices by inviting us to cheer on the hero’s redemptive exertions against the big bad corporation and its reductive invocations of science. It would be utterly devastating to this story to compare it with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, given that novel’s far more chastened, thus actually more instructive, depiction of the individual’s dampened agency when faced with structural violence.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is on the other hand well done in its claustrophobically convincing portrayal of how good intentions led inexorably to evil outcomes. But even this story pulls up before it confronts the worst. For one thing, the titular conceit is too fancifully grotesque to allow its ideological justification, as voiced in the story, any real plausibility. For another, the motive of the narrator’s daughter in precipitating the narrative’s crisis is carefully kept free of any taint, any moral impurity–even though it seems to me that any normal child, however concerned he or she might be with justice, would almost certainly also act out of envy for the spoiled older sister. This manipulation of motive makes the story nearly resemble a comforting fable, however unhappy its implied conclusion may be–and that ending is, in any case, left to the reader’s imagination, where it might still turn out all right. No matter how bad things get, we know that someone, a child, is the bearer of our natural goodness, even if that goodness can’t yet find a home in our unnatural world. There is a killing lack of struggle and tension here, a very American sense of innocence, even in this ostensibly glum story. The ideals that inform it are defeated at the level of plot, but undamaged at the level of theme, because they are subjected only to contingency and never to substantial counter-argument, such as would be introduced by the daughter’s mixed rather than purely moral motivation for freeing the Semplica girls.
Saunders bars any possibility that a convincing critique of humanism, whether it comes from the left or the right, from reason or from religion, might enter most of his stories. He allows little chance for the reader to come away from this book with the “wrong idea,” as so many readers have come away with the wrong idea (i.e., the opposite of what the writer seems to intend) from Don Quixote or Paradise Lost or Wuthering Heights or The Brothers Karamazov or the stories of Flannery O’Connor.
That said, there are two stories here that I unreservedly admire: “Puppy” and “Home,” especially the latter. Each is brilliant at evoking the attenuated character of what remains of the U.S. middle classes, stretching, often enough in one family, from the degraded petty bourgeoisie, one step up from outright poverty, to the haughty upper bourgeoisie, with its property and its money and its status-signaling charity. In these stories, mostly free of the convoluted and facetious conceits of the others, Saunders seems to attain true negative capability. He is remorseless in his depiction of both the well-off characters and the poor ones, a truly fiery-hearted but cold-eyed observer of the imperialist self-righteousness of the New–Yorker-subscriber type as well as of their debt-ridden poor relations’ resentful squalor. Here is a genuine critique of humanism’s enabling condition of property and wealth, alongside a brave refusal to celebrate, in academic fashion, the lower class’s deprivation as “difference.” In these stories, all the more moving and hilarious for the author’s own restraint, Saunders seems to have forgotten to try to persuade us that humans are basically good, to persuade us of anything at all. And that is how good writing happens.