Friday, June 21, 2013
Pastoralia (George Saunders)
Read: 11 April to 12 April 2013
4.5 / 5 stars
Based on the opinions of people with excellent taste in books, I knew I was in for something good when I grabbed Pastoralia from the shelf the other day. I didn't know what to expect beyond that but it sure wasn't the sardonic giggles this collection gave me. Does everyone find their first foray into Saunders's mind this darkly endearing
There is something off about the worlds Saunders creates. Not off-the-charts unbelievably weird (yeah, he makes the reanimated, telekinetic and downright draconian corpse of a once-beloved aunt seem like a thing that could totally happen because he's that good and, as a character observed, maybe it does happen all the time but who would believe it so why bother with the crazy-talk and risk everyone thinking that you've finally gone 'round the bend?) but there's this vertiginous element to them that makes being jarred from such a mercilessly absorbing reading experience by, say, the unwelcome intrusion of your job (whyyyyyyy do you people keep assuming I'm here to proofread your ineptitude when I'm so clearly lost in something that is infinitely more rewarding than your refusals to grasp the nuances of proper comma usage and pica distances WHYYYY?) a little disorienting upon reentry. I encountered a thing that doesn't happen often enough while reading this short-story collection: I forgot I was reading because I was so engrossed in the tales Saunders was weaving. Picturing the story that was taking shape right in front of me was equal parts riveting and really quite disturbing. Kind of like the clown car on fire that you'll snap photos of as you pass the gruesome scene but fuck no you're not stopping to help because it's a car full of clowns and everyone knows that clowns are evil but then the sadness of the whole thing hits you when you post the picture (along with an appropriately glib comment) on Twitter later but you're still snickering about the image for days.
And then there is something distinctly, deliciously Vonnegut-flavored here, too, but Saunders even makes that all his own. While Vonnegut's humor seemed like that of a cranky but avuncular relative whose lessons seem harsh at the time but are driven by an overriding love and a desire to emphasize the necessity of self-improvement, who softens the blow of reality with a satirical wit, Saunders seems more interested in pointing out the flaws so they can be turned into a long-running joke that derives its comedy from the dichotomy between a thing's inherent potential for dark humor and the deadpan subtlety in observing it from such an angle. It's realizing the hopelessness of a situation and having a good laugh at its expense because, otherwise, the void wins and everything is rendered too meaningless to face just one more insignificant day.
Pastoralia, ultimately, is a collection of stories that proves if you're taking life too seriously, you're doing it all wrong. Tragedy is just comedy that tests your resolve to arrive at the punchline.