Pastoralia — George Saunders

I read Pastoralia, George Saunders’s 2000 collection of stories very quickly, consuming one or two of the book’s six stories a night, usually wedged between other readings. There was a flavor of respite to these readings, a sense of ease or relaxation or—dare I say it—simple pleasure. Frankly, I’m suspicious of any book that I’m able to read very quickly; perhaps I’m prejudiced against any book that doesn’t pose (or impose) its own learning curve on the reader.

I’m perhaps off to a very bad start in this review, veering on the appearance of condescension (when, to be clear, I think that Pastoralia is sharp and wise and wicked and well-written and very, very funny)—but I feel like I have to get this out of the way up front: George Saunders’s prose, plots, and dialogue all reminded me very much of the prose, plots, and dialogue of David Foster Wallace.

A bit of objective data: DFW and Saunders are/were of a similar age (born in ’62 and ’58, respectively) and Infinite Jest and Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline were published the same year (’96). But, because of the simple mechanical truth that I read Wallace much, much earlier than Saunders, I find his influence unduly there. No doubt that when I detect Wallacian curves and contours and rhythms in Saunders—the coupling of officialese with imaginary slang, the depiction of a postmodern America which is slightly (but only slightly) not our own, the analyses of power and fear and duty—when I find these points of comparison, what I am really finding is the shared influences of Wallace and Saunders (no doubt postmodernists like Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, et al). In short, if I find a suspicious ease or comfort in Saunders, it’s because Wallace already taught me to read him. But like I said before, this is not a great start. I should just review the book.

Short review: the six tales in Pastoralia are hilarious, tender, and depressingly predictive of the decade that came after their composition (not to mention the strange dark horizon ahead of us). The long opener “Pastoralia” features a hapless man who works long hours apart from his wife and children in a failing history park. His job is to simulate a caveman, but his partner, an older woman with a troubled son, makes the job difficult to perform with any level of, uh, historical accuracy. When employees must be downsized, one of the managers tries to convince the narrator to rat out his partner’s shortcomings. “Pastoralia”  is a study in how corporate power uses dehumanizing tactics to exploit workers. The communications the narrator receives from a nebulous plurality of managers are both hilarious and horrific, each one a contortion of logic that serves to strip the rights (and self-worth) of the workers. The story, depressingly, is more relevant than ever. (Readers familiar with CivilWarLand in Bad Decline will recognize “Pastoralia” as a revision of sorts to that earlier collection’s title story).

The next tale, “Winky,” moves along the same lines, exploring the clash between the Darwinian drives of self-protection and self-satisfaction set against the needs of others. In this story, the protagonist attends a self-help seminar (the scene is something so contemporaneous with Wallace that I’s tempted to write “straight out of DFW”), where the psychobabble and rationalizing of the speaker persuades him to ditch his weird, needy sister. Like the complex and funny managerial rhetoric we find in “Pastoralia,” the motivational lingo lulls and persuades not just the protagonist, but also the reader, into the easy trap of contemporary consumerism that centers the self as the ultimate telos of existence.

“Sea Oak” is the possible high point in the collection. It depicts an ersatz family living in a housing project that at one point we might have described as “on the margins of America” — only in Saunder’s vision (a vision increasingly realized) such housing projects are the reality for the majority of Americans. The middle class is not the norm. The (male) narrator strips to help bring money into the crappy apartment he shares with his aunt and two cousins and their two kids. A sample—

Sea Oak’s not safe. There’s an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room and last week Min found some brass knuckles in the kiddie pool. If I had my way I’d move everybody up to Canada. It’s nice there. Very polite. We went for a weekend last fall and got a flat tire and these two farmers with bright red faces insisted on fixing it, then springing for dinner, then starting a college fund for the babies. They sent us stock certificates a week later, along with a photo of all of us eating cobbler at a diner.

The hyperbolic vision of a Canada that cares for all of its citizens stands in sharp relief to the predatory Darwinism of the Sea Oak projects. As the story unfolds, Saunders uses his characters to examine just what exactly economic struggle in American is for—what does the American Dream mean when subsistence living alone is so difficult?

“The End of FIRPO in the World” is perfection, a sad, funny, rambling stream of consciousness that plumbs the mind of an alienated boy who imagines his future glories and the revenge that he will have for all the slights done him. “FIRPO,” sitauted in the middle of collection, moves the book from the familial and corporate to the individual, as the last few tales (“The Barber’s Unhappiness” and “The Falls”) inhabit the strange sad consciousness of ordinary, awful people. These are beautiful portraits, ones that explore the gravity of failure and the small glowing sparks of redemption that might be available to us.

If, as I remarked earlier, there’s a comfort in Saunders’s prose, it’s the strange uncomfortable comfort that there’s a perceptive and wise intelligence out there that can apprehend and satirize the sheer horrific injustice that pervades the modern condition. Pastoralia is great, and I picked up CivilWarLand in Bad Decline right after finishing it, so there’s an endorsement. Recommended.


7 thoughts on “Pastoralia — George Saunders”

  1. I’m a great big fan of Saunders. A few months ago, I loaned my little collection of his work to a friend, and I’m really Jonesing to have it back now, as I want to do a close reading one of these days. He’s a little one-note and almost compulsive in his treatment of the dystopian theme park (at least one appears in each collection), and I want to spend some time sussing out how his treatments differ over time.

    I can’t really pin down why I think this, but I always feel like there’s something a little simpler about Saunders’s work than about Wallace’s: He more often does straight satire rather than the dazzlingly complex infolding introspection that Wallace does, and sometimes I feel like he’s doing more in the way of pointing out problems than of actually almost physically grappling with them, as Wallace seemed to. There’s a kinship for sure, but I’m not well read enough to form an opinion about where the similarities began. That is, I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that Saunders is in any way derivative of Wallace. Saying, as you do, that Wallace may have sort of taught you how to read Saunders seems about right, though I wonder, if you’d gotten to Saunders first, if you’d have the inverse opinion.


  2. I agree with a lot of what Daryl has already said regarding Wallace and Saunders. And like Daryl, I feel like Saunders is the “easier” version of Wallace. He’s more approachable and it’s easier to suss out the deeper meaning of the story. But where I think that Saunders has an advantage over Wallace is in (for lack of a better term) world-building. For me, it’s immediately obvious when starting a Saunders story that this is happening in some kind of “unreality” and Saunders sets the rules of his world very quickly and almost transparently. For me, this always felt a little clunky with Wallace. Mostly, because I think he was reaching for absurdity (e.g. Great Ohio Desert). Then again, in both CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, I always felt like Saunders was winking at us… so who knows?

    Saunders recent fiction in the New Yorker has been amazing and really at a new level. I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.


  3. Agree with Dan mostly, but my understanding on both is that there is a slight albeit major subtle difference between the two. It feels to me that DFW takes a mostly real world situation and gives a dystopian/postmodern view on America, whereas Saunders starts from a dystopian scenario itself and builds on it. I may be totally wrong, but have been thinking on these two writers as I am reading Infinite Jest now (and read Saunders ‘In Persuasion Nation’ a month back), so have been harking back to their works.


  4. I read Saunders before I read Wallace; I recognize the similarities between the two; and perhaps because I’ve not read Wallace’s short stories, I don’t think the similarities go as far as others here do. Wallace’s prose in “Infinite Jest” felt — at least, to me — like an academic dissection of the type of language corporate America foists on consumerist America. Saunders’ stories feel like — at least, to me — a replication of that language for absurd effect. Wallace feels cold and distant to me (but like he’s trying — desperately — not to be) while Saunders feels like a friend warmly, albeit somewhat disturbingly, telling a cautionary tale, like Kurt Vonnegut (who was at least a bit of an influence on Saunders). But, it seems that if Wallace has taught some how to read Saunders, then Vonnegut taught others (myself, for one) how to read Saunders.


  5. I just read Saunders’ “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” (and am attempting to write a term paper on it) and its the only story of his that i’ve read, but it slowly (not immediately) dawned on me that Saunders seemed to be imitating (whether consciously, or not), DFW’s style and aims, and well, almost everything. I couldn’t agree more with this reviewers suspicions. I really like the Saunders story (which is why i’m writing a paper on it), but I just cant get it out of my head that he’s riding on some major coat tails here. Or that he’s a sorta Young Adult version of DFW. Seeing as they both published their first major works in 1996, I cant accuse him of anything. So it must be a case of very similar Post-Modern influences. I guess i don’t have much to add to what those above have said, other than to say I concur. Perhaps more than anything, this might show the profound subconscious influence of Wallace on anyone who has read his fiction. It casts its shadow over anything else we ever read. I remember upon finishing IJ, then Broom of the system, thinking “I don’t wanna read anyone else ever again!”


  6. […] Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia. […]


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