George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

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George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“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-huckter’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.

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There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — 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.

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Earth Day 2008: “Going Green” and the Rhetoric of Mainstream Environmentalism

Today is the thirty-eighth Earth Day and, at least from my perspective, it remains unclear what positive impact, if any, this “celebration” has had on long-term ecological/agricultural sustainability. In fact, I am going to argue that Earth Day and other instantiations of mainstream environmentalism serve to obfuscate the very problems that they intend to address. People buy into (both figuratively and literally) the rhetoric of mainstream environmentalism as a defense mechanism. The seduction of the phrase “going green” proposes a fashionable, celebrity-endorsed lifestyle that enables a person to resist, deny, or otherwise marginalize the fact that their continued existence on the planet costs–that they will always exist at the cost of something or someone else.

Before I continue my argument, let me make a couple of things clear. First, the only difference between my mindset and the mindset that I am critiquing here is that I am keenly aware of the cost of my existence. That is to say, I am in no way an ideologue, “environmentalist,” anti-capitalist, or whatever, but I also would never presume to deny that every part of my daily existence involves a Darwinian deflection of costs onto someone or something else. The gas I use in my car is gas that someone else can’t use. The bird I ate for dinner last night must die so that I can eat. The energy that runs my computer to write this post, that keeps this blog existent in cyberland is energy that cannot be reallocated to another purpose. I want to make clear then that I’m advocating nothing here except a resistance to illusion, a resistance to rhetoric that resists the reality of these costs. I’m not indicting people for jumping on the idea of “going green,”nor am I suggesting that their intentions and actions are ignoble or ignorant. I’m simply arguing that the rhetoric of mainstream environmentalism that the boomers and post-boomers are now recapitulating and buying into is part of a corporate shell game that masks the systemic problems of industrialized agribusiness and deflects responsibility away from those corporations and onto individuals.

Let’s now consider the current signal phrase of this mindset: “going green.” I don’t know where this came from, but it’s genius. Americans have been in love with the “gerund + noun” combination for years now (consider: Finding Nemo, Finding Forrester, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Chasing Amy, Breaking Bad, etc.), and what’s catchier than the optimism of a verb like “go”? It radiates simple but strong action, movement, and also implies a teleological end, a positive destination–here, the mindset/pseudophilosophy “green.” And it’s alliterative to boot. People love to say this phrase, and love to believe that when they buy certified organic foods or remember to bring their own bags to the grocery store or put gas in their Priuses (Prii?) that they’ve somehow done something intrinsically and in and of itself, good. The rhetoric abrogates their culpability in a systemic denaturalization of the human position in the world which they cannot control. The rhetoric buys the lie of control and choice, and resists the truth that to live in our modern world is to live at the cost of someone or something else.

The phrase “Save the Planet” is less insidious by sheer virtue of its exaggerated ludicrousness. As rhetoric, “Save the Planet” is the worst kind of anthropomorphic evil, the hyperbolic illusion of the human as ultimate hero. If one simply considers for a moment the scope of what the slogan commands, one can see the sheer folly of such a mindset. A more appropriate vision would be: “Save Local Food” or “Save Your Money: Do You Really Need That Thing?”

Mainstream, corporate environmentalism reflects the will to god-like mastery over nature in the illusion of stewardship and care over the planet

“Recycle, Reduce, Reuse,” however, is not a bad mantra really–when detached from the rampant materialism it seeks to cover up, that is. In fact, the tenets of recycling and reusing are ancient, simply because before consumer culture, there wasn’t really another option. People had to squeeze the last little bit of use out of anything and everything they consumed.

There is a salient irony then in the boomers buying into these phrases–and I target boomers here, although every generation after the boomers is just as culpable. The boomers, however, are really the first American generation to accelerate the post-WWII homogenization of consumer culture, with all its implications to agribusiness, rampant stripmalling, and the emergence of the “corporate citizen.” The boomers’ massive ideological failure in the 1960s leads directly to the selfish materialism of those “Me” decades, the 70s and 80s (think of the final scenes of Woodstock: the party’s over and the pastoral landscape is now littered with every sort of consumerist debris).

Post-apocalyptic landscape (after peace, love, and understanding)

We are now trying to clean all this up, and the boomers, whose cultural norms still dictate this country, are finally getting on board. But the irony is that environmentalism-as-ideology was never much of an issue before the boomers got a stranglehold on this country, simply because every generation up to and including WWII had to be de facto environmentalists. Consumer society simply didn’t exist. People ate local food, walked most places, built their own houses, etc. (make no mistake–I’m not romanticizing or idealizing this: life was tough). This isn’t to suggest at all that the prescient efforts of John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, etc. were not important or meaningful or even necessary during their context, because they were. At this point, however, we are all implicated in a global economy in which an inequitable distribution of the world’s resources, coupled with the rapid emerging industrialization of the world’s two largest nations, India and China, entails an imminent ecological disaster. And appreciating nature in our glorious National Park System is not going to fix that, at least not on its own.

I hate to pose problems without solutions, but my solutions are admittedly vague and general. I return first to my real issue here: rhetoric. Mainstream, corporate environmentalism encourages people to shop their way out of this problem (see: greenwashing). People get to buy into the continued illusion of a cost-free existence, or at least to believe that their actions as consumers neutralize these (ecological, environmental, human, animal) costs. The first step, then, is to recognize that the small individual actions that corporations so readily promote are not enough. What is needed is full-scale, infrastructural changes focusing on local production of foods and usable mass transit systems. I believe that such changes can be more easily accomplished than the (Big Oil sponsored) U.S. government would like the average citizen to believe; currently, however, there are simply too many getting rich off the last few drops of cheap oil to redirect their efforts to such a project. So they distract us with sloganeering and feel-good celebrations as they rob the earth. We can beat this though. Let’s lose the illusion.