Discovering Greatness: Some Brief Thoughts on Reading George Saunders for the First Time
January 10 2017

In preview of George Saunders' upcoming OE Spotlight event on Saturday February 18, three West and Grand writers recollect their encounters with his work.  

 

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Mike Matesich

I opened the door to my studio apartment and found the story on the floor. It was winter and the xeroxed sheets were spotted and damp where some snow had fallen. The pages were crimped from being worked through the door and there was a note in green ink that said: READ THIS SHIT NOW. 

It was 2013 and I was still a writing student so the whole "xeroxed copy under the door” thing wasn’t all that strange. The note, however, and the green ink, given the circumstances, was. Elaina and I had ended things a week earlier and hadn’t spoken since. If you want to know how I’d been feeling about the break-up, just know I didn’t tear it up or feed it to the fireplace. No, what I did was I got down on the floor and READ THAT SHIT NOW. On my elbows and belly, just like that, I read my first George Saunders story. When I finished, I called Elaina and for the first time in a week, she picked up.

George Saunders is the most important short-story writer working right now for a lot of reasons, but he’s most heralded for his compassion and empathy. His characters are losers, grumps, rejects, and squares. But in every story, they’re treated like friends. Or more, like ourselves. These are good-hearted people, down on their luck, just trying their best in a world that, too often, doesn’t care. 

Saunders is an incredible writer because he’s an incredibly generous with his imagination, wit and perspective. In every story, you collect something you’ll want to keep near—right there in your back pocket, with the rest of the little lines, the ones that keep you hopeful about the world and yourself.

And all of that is true. But on my belly that afternoon, I didn’t learn a thing of it. I was just on the floor. I didn’t care about empathy or compassion or knowledge or entertainment. All I cared about was getting my girlfriend back.

She picked up the phone and said: So. Did you like it?

Fighting off tears, I just told her the truth. Lainey, I said, Yes. That's the best story ever.

 

Alejandro Font

George Saunders is hard to pinpoint. In the intro of the most recent edition of his collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Joshua Ferris calls Saunders something of a realist. His stories follow characters that are in no way special, live incredibly normal lives, and yet each story is imbued with something mythic and preternatural. I can still remember two stories from Tenth of December—"Escape from Spiderhead" and "The Semplica Girl Diaries". The stories begin generally enough, the two protagonists going about their lives, until we are made aware of incredibly disturbing truths. One being that the protagonist is essentially a lab rat in an experimental pharmaceutical prison—the other story containing girls from third-world countries that are used as human lawn ornaments. It’s haunting. It’s almost as if certain unregistered horrors that we glance over in the day to day are magnetized to such a degree we finally have to stop and stare. I’m not sure how to categorize the work of George Saunders; I’m not sure that’s even important. But what we find in his work, the moments of truth and hyperreality, is something so close to the lifeline of our culture and mind-frame, so close to its destitution, it's prophetic.  

 

Blake Jon Mycal Smith

George Saunders is an anomaly to me. He, on one hand, exhibits the kind of optimistic resilience one may expect from a man of God, an ethereal man-of-the-cloth type who can advise and guide those who yearn for the quiet wisdom he undoubtedly possesses. On the other, Saunders has his finger firmly placed on the matters of hypocrisy, emptiness, loss, and loneliness that pulse through the vein of America The Great. A power that would crumble any mortal man. I imagine the great mind of Nietzsche, left shattered after seeing a man beat a horse. Eventually, even the greats succumb. Yet, somehow, with this knowledge in mind, Saunders continues to smile, continues to assure each reader, through some magic or another, that we'll be alright.

Saunders is the kind of writer that other writers, lesser writers, sit around and talk about in matters concerning when they were first introduced to his genius. For myself, it was a  certain passage in a story of his, "Offloading of Mrs. Schwartz", a story tucked somewhere in the middle of his first collection. The story itself is arguably perfect in every way, and the passage almost ruined me. It's read on a note found by the narrator, a lonely man who grieves at the guilt he harbors concerning his late wife, a man who offloads every memory he ever had in order to provide care for an elderly woman who is also in grief. The narrator writes the note to himself, knowing he will possess no recollection. The note reads: 'You were alone in the world and did a kindness for someone in need. Good for you. Now post this module, and follow this map to the home of Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Care for her with some big money that will come in the mail. Find someone to love. Your heart has never been broken, You've never done anything unforgivable or hurt anyone beyond reparation. Everyone you've ever loved you've treated like gold.' 

Everyone you've ever loved you've treated like gold.

The possession of that kind of insight into the human condition is devastating. Yet, somehow, Saunders isn't the brooding writer. He isn't the hermit or curmudgeon living out the rest of his time in spite of himself, in isolation. He's the quick-witted, always poignant optimist. And God do we need him for it. 

 

 

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