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-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.

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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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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

At some point, almost every character in David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a story. The book teems with storytellers and their stories, overflows with compact bildungsromans, wistful jeremiads, high adventures drawn in miniature, comic escapades, bizarre folk tales, and romantic myths, all pressed into the service of the book’s larger narrative, the story of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutchman in Shogunate era Japan. In 1799, the relative starting point for this massive novel, Japan limited economic trade with Europeans to the Dutch East India Company, who, with a few rare exceptions, were not permitted to touch Japanese soil. Instead, the Dutch were confined to the man-made isle of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. With its rich cultural mishmash, claustrophobic isolation, and strange hybrid nature, Dejima makes a fascinating platform for Mitchell’s tale.

Most reviews of Mitchell’s new book have squared it against his earlier novels, particularly his experimental opus Cloud Atlas (The Guardian‘s review even begins by asking “Does it matter what books a novelist has written before? Should readers need to know an author’s preceding works fully to grasp the new one?”). The reason for this is plain. By and large, Thousand Autumns is a conventional historical novel, a straightforward linear narrative that combines a forbidden love triangle story with elements of high adventure. There are good guys and bad guys, Enlightened thinkers and scheming crooks, warriors and spies, and even an evil monk who may or may not have supernatural powers. Thousand Autumns (like its main setting Dejima) is richly detailed but hermetically sealed; what leaks from that seal are its myriad stories, its capacity for storytelling. This effusion of stories also marks the novel, I believe, as something more than the conventional historical novel it is purported to be. Even more interesting though is the space the novel is occupying in a current literary debate–is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a postmodern novel or not? The rest of my review will discuss this issue, along with James Wood’s review at The New Yorker and Dave Eggers’s review at The New York Times. The simple answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether the book is postmodern or something else–it’s a very good book, I enjoyed it very much, and you probably will too. I encourage you to read Wood’s precis, which I’ve excised here, and then pick up the book. Anyone else interested in the foolish minutiae of what may or may not make a book postmodern or post-postmodern or something else may wish to continue (or not).

Here’s James Wood, using Mitchell’s oeuvre to dither over the fact that “The serious literary novel is at an interesting moment of transition” —

If postmodernism came after modernism, what comes after postmodernism? For that is where we are. “Post-postmodernism” tends toward an infinite stutter. “After postmodernism” suggests a severance that has not occurred. We might settle for “late postmodernism,” a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering—not unhappily—between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism, the mass audience and the élitist critic. Thus David Mitchell can follow a “postmodern” novel with a “traditional” comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel. It is hard to know whether this statelessness is difficult freedom or easy imprisonment, but the more ambitious contemporary fiction will often blend a bewildering variety of elements and historical techniques [. . .]

Dave Eggers, however, feels no need to look for machinations beyond straightforward storytelling. He claims that Thousand Autumns retains the

[. . .] narrative tendencies [of Mitchell’s earlier works] while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale — all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it’s not.”

There’s a certain reticence in Eggers’s review to situate Thousand Autumns against anything but itself, including even the rest of Mitchell’s works. In contrast, Wood spends the first half of his review positioning Mitchell’s postmodernism, throughout both his novels (against each other), and as the oeuvre of one author (against other authors). For Wood, Thousand Autumns, because of “its self-enclosed quality [. . .] represents an assertion of pure fictionality.” He continues, arguing that “although the book contains no literary games, it is itself a kind of long game.” Wood would like to see in Thousand Autumns‘s discrete self-containedness a kind of literary gesture, perhaps a sort of conventional historical novel (in scare quotes) that is so conventional as to efface all signs of self-awareness (and thus erase the scare quotes around the gesture). At the same time, Wood recognizes the power of storytelling in the book, asserting that this feature is what makes it a “representative late-postmodern document.” Wood continues:

In place of the grave silence that was the great theme of early postmodernism (or late modernism, if you prefer), language announcing a postwar exhaustion, its own impossibility, as in the work of Beckett or Blanchot, there is a confident profusion of narratives, an often comic abundance of story-making. Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.

These last sentiments are where I strongly disagree with Wood (as perhaps my lede attests)–the greatest strength of Mitchell’s work here is the fabulous fortune of its abundant storytelling. Far from being a metaphysical deficiency, the characters in Thousand Autumns, major and minor, repeatedly transcend their social, spiritual, economic, psychological, and physical confinement via storytelling. Again and again language breaks characters away from their isolation or imprisonment, gives them access to adventure and romance–to spirit. Ultimately, Wood condemns the book for this “metaphysical deficiency,” arguing that “the reader wants a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure that is absent, and that has ceded all the ground to pure storytelling.” (In Wood’s critical body, it is always “the reader,” never “this reader”). I think that the pleasure and power of pure storytelling is its own end, and perhaps it is this recognition that leads Eggers to pronounce of the book simply that “Postmodern it’s not.” And while this declaration is ultimately a more reader-friendly take on Thousand Autumns, it’s also clear to see how the experimental nature of Mitchell’s previous work calls for Wood’s need to place the novel, to situate it against a developing canon (even if Wood chooses ultimately to deny its status).

Wood is perhaps right in his assertion that the term “post-postmodernism” leads to an “infinite stutter.” Still, post-postmodernism ultimately seems more fitting to describe Thousand Autumns than Wood’s “late postmodernism.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet cunningly sets the spiky traps of language and then gracefully leaps over them. Like David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann–two writers who I believe mark the beginnings of post-postmodernism–Mitchell wants to transcend postmodernism’s ironic vision, and storytelling–giving his characters voices–is a means to this end. Perhaps it is Mitchell’s earnestness in conveying the power of storytelling leads Wood to conclude Thousand Autumns “a kind of fantasy [. . .] Or, rather, it is a brilliant fairy tale; and even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales.” If, finally, Thousand Autumns is not a late postmodernist historical fiction but indeed a fairy tale, then it’s worth noting that it’s a particularly enjoyable and nourishing one. Highly recommended.