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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A Review of David Markson’s The Last Novel (Composed Mostly in Citations from Said Novel)

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Unsure of how to “review” David Marson’s last novel The Last Novel, I here provide a series of citations from said novel with my own brief comments. The citations are organized not by theme or idea, but rather simply by the order in which they appear in the book, from first to last. My intention is to provide a clear picture of Markson’s method with some brief commentary on his themes.

By way of recommendation: The Last Novel engrossed and obsessed me, commanding most of my attention for four days, during which time I read it twice and then picked at again and again, as one might return to the generous leftovers of a Thanksgiving meal.

I hope I have not strained the limits of copyright law with my citations of Markson’s citations. To wit, from the colophon:

Copyright © 2007 by David Markson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Markson, David.

The last novel / David Markson.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-1-59376-143-1

ISBN-10: 1-59376-143-0

1. Novelists—Fiction. 2. Fiction—Authorship—Fiction.

3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

Is The Last Novel fiction? Does this question matter? “Fiction–Authorship–Fiction” — this seems like a fair descriptor.

Our author, by way of summary, announces his themes, his name, and his prophetic conclusion:

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write.

And now his method, followed by two examples of said method:

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel.

Said Ivy Compton-Burnett.

I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.

Said Joyce.

And a comment on that method, and Novelist’s textual place in it:

A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.

And thus in which Novelist will say more about himself only when he finds no way to evade doing so, but rarely otherwise.

On the first theme announced, “Old”:

Rereading a Raymond Chandler novel in which Philip Marlowe stops in for a ten-cent cup of coffee.

Old enough to remember when the coffee would have cost half that.

A citation that seems to hold all the themes, but especially “Sick” and “Broke”—-and then a Renard citation that fits Markson (or “Novelist,” if you prefer) into a grand tradition of starving artists:

The bleak image Novelist is granted of himself as he asks a question of a local pharmacist — and becomes aware of the woman contemplating the conspicuously threadbare and even ragged ends of his coat sleeves.

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.

Said Jules Renard.

On aging:

Moments in which Novelist does something like leaving his desk to retrieve a book from across the room — and finding himself staring vacantly into the refrigerator.

Or tossing his keys into a drawer — without having opened the drawer

Markson instructs us how to read his work, and at the same time makes a grand grab at glory; he then moves to reflect on death, and perhaps a fear of going unread, before pointing out the sublime powers of art :

Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

Wondering why one is surprised to realize that Thoreau was dead at forty-five.

A lament of Schopenhauer’s:

Over how frequently the mere purchase of a book is mistaken for the appropriation of its contents.

Two pages of The Mill on the Floss are enough to start me crying.

Said Proust.

The intersection of commerce and art and madness (or, really, I just like this citation):

Because bookshops are among the very few places where one can spend time without spending any money, George Orwell noted, any number of practically certifiable lunatics are guaranteed to be regularly found in most of them.

My least favorite reading experience of all time is Clarissa:

The endless commentary, and analysis, and even retelling, in Clarissa. Anyone reading it just for the story would hang himself, Johnson said.

A good definition, but also a sideways description of entering The Last Novel:

Thinking with someone else’s brain.

Schopenhauer called reading.

Markson is fond of the dependent clause as a stand-alone thought. He often lets the reader complete the sentence, or, as below, responds perhaps obliquely with another citation—his synthesis is subtle but always in play:

Reviewers who have accused Novelist of inventing some of his anecdotes and/or quotations — without the elemental responsibility to do the checking that would verify every one of them.

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.

Said John Osborne.

The Last Novel is in part a work of canon-formation, one that situates Markson’s place in arts and letters; it is often angry or bitter, as he tries to situate being “Alone” and “Broke” into a historical tradition of suffering writers:

Another of Novelist’s economic-status epiphanies:

Walking four or five blocks out of his way, and back, to save little more than nickels on some common household item.

While needing to stop to rest at least two or three times en route.

Writers are the beggars of Western society.

Said Octavio Paz.

There is no way of being a creative writer in America without being a loser.

Said Nelson Algren.

Markson repeatedly reveals his anxiety of influence: Where and how will he be remembered when he dies?:

Old enough to have started coming upon likenesses on postage stamps of other writers he had known personally or had at least met in passing.

Occasionally in The Last Novel, because he doesn’t always attribute his citations, it’s unclear to me if a string of sentences are original to Markson or not. Markson describes his method again:

A seminonfictional semifiction.

And with its interspersed unattributed quotations at roughest count adding up to a hundred or more.

A note on book theft, germane to (the original mission of) this website:

Please return this book. I find that though many of my friends are poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers.

Read Walter Scott’s bookplate.

A dependent clause:

Reviewers who protest that Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over.

Again, the intersection of economics, art, and how we honor and remember genius (with the implicit underlying anxiety over Markson’s own fate):

Before the Euro, the portrait of Yeats on Ireland’s twenty-pound note.

America’s Whitman twenty-dollar bill, when?

The Melville ten?

I think the Melville ten is a grand idea. I’d put Hawthorne on the twenty and Emerson on the penny.

On death-dialing:

A quirky new impulse of Novelist’s, at news of several recent deaths — Dialing the deceased, in the likelihood that no one would have yet disconnected their answering machines — and contemplating their voices one eerie final time.

The voice of an agitated colleague? Friend? Student? Is the quote a composite of complaints? Is it verbatim?:

Listen, I bought your latest book. But I quit after about six pages. That’s all there is, those little things?

Many of us have wondered:

Why did Harper Lee never write another novel?

It is possible she never wrote that first one.

Again, money and writers:

America’s Emily Dickinson dime?

We could put Thoreau on the nickel and Poe on the fifty.

Conclusions as a kind of interception; the author offstage, off scene, ob skena — obscene:

Novelist’s personal genre. In which part of the experiment is to continue keeping him offstage to the greatest extent possible — while compelling the attentive reader to perhaps catch his breath when things achieve an ending nonetheless.

Conclusions are the weak point of most authors.

George Eliot said.

If you know what you’re doing, you don’t get intercepted.

Said Johnny Unitas.

I feel like I’ve skated over the book, failed to plumb it at all: But I also protest that the book is a work of autocriticism, a work that decenters its themes, bats them around, analyzes them, tosses them back to the reader, sometimes bitter, sometimes melancholy, always erudite and engaging.

I cite from the end now. Can the end be spoiled? Markson tells us this is his last, that he will die (“Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.”). He dies a few years after the publication of The Last Novel. (He dies on the day my son is born, or, rather, his body is found on the day my son is born. He is very much alone. The New York Times publishes his obituary on my birthday). The novel ends with a series of citations that mull on death:

Dispraised, infirm, unfriended age.

Sophocles calls it.

Unregarded age in corners thrown.

Shakespeare echoes.

And what it means to be an artist, a writer, a critic, to write in and on and through others’ books:

The worn copy of Donne’s verses, inked throughout with notes in Coleridge’s handwriting. And at the rear:

I shall die soon, my dear Charles Lamb, and then you will not be sorry that I bescribbled your book.

Life as pain, death as transcendence:

Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty,Youth’s a stuff will not endure. Be patient now, my soul, thou hast endured worse than this.

Odysseus once says.

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? Is it true then, what they say — that we become stars in the sky when we die?

Asks someone in Aristophanes.

Banal signage or access to ascension?:

Access to Roof for Emergency Only.

Alarm Will Sound if Door Opened.

To reiterate and move on:

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

The old man who will not laugh is a fool.

Als ick kan.