Thoughts on George Saunders’ new short story “Love Letter,” a thought experiment in dystopian ethics

George Saunders has a new short story called “Love Letter” in this week’s New Yorker. The story takes the form of a letter composed on “February 22, 202_” by an unnamed grandfather (“GPa”) to his grandson Robbie. After a salutation, the letter begins:

Got your e-mail, kid. Sorry for handwriting in reply. Not sure e-mailing is the best move, considering the topic, but, of course (you being nearly six foot now, your mother says?), that’s up to you, dear, although, you know: strange times.

The rest of the letter, mostly through hints and intimations, gives us a sketch of those “strange times”: namely, a future of our now in which Trump, after having won a second election, is succeeded by “the son” in a “total sham election.” These “strange times” are saturated in paranoia and marked by arrests for dissension, as well as the detainment of persons for reasons not always clearly stated.

Indeed, Robbie’s email to his grandfather was in request of help for his friend “J.,” who has been detained. The following paragraph shows Saunders’ method and gives an adequate overview of the story’s tone:

Where is J. now? Do you know? State facility or fed? That may matter. I expect “they” (loyalists) would (with the power of the courts now behind them) say that although J. is a citizen, she forfeited certain rights and privileges by declining to offer the requested info on G. & M. You may recall R. & K., friends of ours, who gave you, for your fifth (sixth?) birthday, that bronze Lincoln bank? They are loyalists, still in touch, and that is the sort of logic they follow. A guy over in Bremerton befriended a guy at the gym and they would go on runs together and so forth, and the first guy, after declining to comment on what he knew of his friend’s voting past, suddenly found he could no longer register his work vehicle (he was a florist, so this proved problematic). R. & K.’s take on this: a person is “no patriot” if he refuses to answer a “simple question” from his “own homeland government.”

There’s a lot here: the codified language (“‘they,'” “loyalists,” “certain rights and privileges,” “‘no patriot,'” etc.), the use of anonymizing initials in lieu of names, and plenty of imagistic details to flesh out the epistle (“Love Letter” is full of little details like “that bronze Lincoln bank,” a bid toward realism I suspect).

The grandfather’s use of initials is, of course, to help protect them if the letter were to fall into the hands of any “loyalists” who might cause further problems for J. and the other persons mentioned. He also insists that Robbie destroy the letter after reading it. (I find it interesting and somewhat inexplicable that he names Robbie.)

As I noted above, the impetus for the grandfather’s reply is his grandson’s request for help for J. “Love Letter” reads like a thought experiment in dystopian ethics, with the central questions of What to do? and How to do it? reverberating throughout. Through the accretion of details, the reader comes to realize that the grandfather was likely born sometime during the 1950s, is comfortably middle class, subscribes to left-leaning politics, and likely lives in California. We also come to find out that during the period when the “loyalists” ascended—our near now—the grandfather, preoccupied with his own life (work, hobbies, his “dental issues”), did next-to-nothing to protect democracy:

Seen in retrospect, yes: I have regrets. There was a certain critical period. I see that now.

He protests to his grandson that he tried things like calling and writing his senator, and donated money to “certain people running for office,” but these actions weren’t actiony enough. He also shares this bit of protest:

I beg you not to underestimate the power/danger of this moment. Perhaps I haven’t told you this yet: in the early days, I wrote two letters to the editor of the local rag, one overwrought, the other comic. Neither had any effect. Those who agreed with me agreed with me; those who did not remained unpersuaded.

In a typically-postmodern move, Saunders’ hero is a writer (of letters).

In some ways, it’s hard for me not to read too much into the details of the “two letters to…the local rag, one overwrought, the other comic.” Saunders’ last story for The New Yorker (“the local rag”?) was “Elliott Spencer,” a stylistically-bold tale about poor people who are reprogrammed and then deployed as paid political protesters. (Saunders admitted that the story was in part inspired by two men he saw arguing at a Trump rally in Phoenix.)

The year before that, The New Yorker published “Little St. Don.”

I thought “Little St. Don” was terrible.

In my evaluation of that story, I wrote,

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckster’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

I was taken then by the grandfather’s admission that his “comic” letter to “the local rag” had no effect: “Those who agreed with me agreed with me; those who did not remained unpersuaded.”

A moment later in “Love Letter” strikes me as another correction to the glib posturing of “Little St. Don”:

Every night, as we sat across from each other, doing those puzzles, from the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adult or adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives.

It’s that “wry, satirical smugness” that stuck out to me, a smugness that’s part and parcel of the sense that “some adult or adults would arrive…to set things right.” Saunders is not only describing an attitude shared by millions of Americans, but also describing the implicit tone of his story “Little St. Don.”

Both “Elliott Spencer,” with its rhetorical innovations, and “Love Letter” serve as noticeable improvements on “Little St. Don” (if not correctives). “Love Letter” also feels like something new from Saunders—the dystopia is more subdued, less zany. Scarier. And as I write this, I realize it’s because the dystopia “Love Letter” evokes seems far too close to our own reality.

I claimed in my essay on “Little St. Don” that the story’s biggest failure was that

Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

“Love Letter,” as the name clearly states, radiates with love—confused love, troubled love, love that wavers in concrete action but never in its abstracted purity. We feel both the grandfather’s love for his grandson as well as Saunders’ love for his reader. We also feel a deep, melancholy love for democracy, or at least the postwar democracy of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Saunders’ narrator is never critical of that twentieth-century democracy, let alone the predatory capitalism it eventually engendered. This is, after all, a letter to a grandson, not a polemic. Saunders, as he often does in so many of his stories, collapses the absurdity of the contemporary world into the personal problems of some hapless patriarch or other. The narrator’s compassion and love come through in “Love Letter,” but so does the narrator’s radical ambivalence to real action.

It might be possible to read the story as a critique of the narrator’s inaction, but any such reading would have to ultimately dismiss the sympathy and love with which Saunders’ crafts this grandfather. In short, it’s difficult to read “Love Letter” as a satire, the genre with which Saunders has been most closely identified.  Instead, “Love Letter” reads like a thought experiment with no real conclusion, no solid answer. Or, rather, the solution is there in the title: love. But is that enough?

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on George Saunders’ new short story “Love Letter,” a thought experiment in dystopian ethics”

  1. No, not enough. Saunders kind of lost me with his avuncular-baby-boomer-elder-statesman of edgyish-yet-publishable-in-The-New-Yorker-lit thing. The weakness of the story is the weakness of the political POV from which it emanates. So in that sense maybe a highly realistic portrayal. I read it as “I’m lame, but comfortable in my lameness, and I don’t like to think of you uncomfortable, so take it from me, avuncular etc., and choose comfort.” Either that or that typical almost-passive-agressive-white-buddhist-baby-boomer-in-academia’s “it is what it is so why attach to anything strong-feelling-ed about it?” We’re just supposed to marvel at the un-ness of it, I guess, like, wow, he can really hang in there with the no answer, the no conclusion; how awake he is! Blargh. Sorry, cranky as eff right now, love your blog, it is helping me escape the current moment….

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    1. I think your assessment is probably right. I tried to avoid reading/critiquing the narrator as Saunders himself (generally a bad critical technique), but I suspect that the narrator’s views are Saunders’ views. I hate to damn a story for what it *doesn’t* do, but the narrator is so uncritical of the end of the twentieth century—there’s no admission that his generation was complicit in dismantling the public commons, stripping every postwar social program for parts, a process that engendered the rise of scammers, grifters, and conmen to the political leadership of this country. Hope you’re doing okay!

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      1. Hey, thanks for reply–I left thinking, man, was I too harsh? And yeah, reading narr and Saunders is not good, I agree, but as yr comment states, a lot of blind eye in that POV, narrative or possibly-also-authorial. Less cranky today after quarantining myself from the news lol; ordered Concrete Island from local bookstore based on your comments, hope you and yours are well and thanks again for your work.

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  2. This story is not pleasant to read – but it certainly gets to the heart of the matter of ‘our now.’ It brought to mind Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. In this story the grandfather has a lot to lose. He wants to keep it all safe. What he’s giving up (democracy) is fairly intangible compared to, say, his bank account. His relationship with his grandson is – how close? They email, the grandson has castigated him. Is the grandson a remote, beautiful idea the grandfather holds as maybe a personification of hope? is his offering of future financial help – if needed – something he will follow through with? He certainly won’t offer that help to J. And people forget their promises. The grandfather lives in fear and he’s advising his grandson to be afraid too. This is a tough story to read.

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  3. I agree that this one’s a dud, Michele, but I don’t think Saunders is a lazy old eminence now. Lincoln in the Bardo is anything but complacent, takes lots of risks, and even if it’s a bit uneven, it took a lot of chutzpah to go at it the way he did. I’m willing to write this recent New Yorker piece off too, but Saunders is a pretty indelible voice in the contemporary fiction landscape. Yeah, his imitators have mucked it up a bit and his sycophants have made him less than likable (the overpraised “nice guy”, I can see where you’re coming from a bit) but he’s still an instantiator of a genre. He’s also still challenging himself and not resting on his laurels.

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  4. I had to read this twice, and then listen as George Saunders read his own work. Each time I read or listened, the intent of Saunders work sank in a little more deeply. Powerful story to me. Amazing use of fiction as my writing is non-fiction. Deeply disturbing as is the point. Elizabeth

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