:: Article

The Observer Effect

By Pascal Porcheron.

George Saunders, Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013

George Saunders’ peerless collection of delicate modern tales is set in an instantly recognizable America—one of former mining towns and pick-up trucks, burger chains and credit-card debt. Old houses are ‘re-purposed’ as 7-11s, or else undergo foreclosure. Saunders’ characters talk lovingly of ‘ma’ and ‘pa’. This is a world of words made simple by corporate promises and trademarked slogans, in which feelings may be glossed over with pills and casual oblique phrases: ‘I guess’.

At least, it ‘kinda’ is. The other side of this America is strange; a fairy-tale place reminiscent of a middle-European middle ages, in which the socio-economic gains of modernity (or rather the gains of post-war solidarity) are fast slipping away. This is a source of Saunders’ satire, in that he presents a thoroughly believable, ‘modern’ America through the eyes of its vassals: an America with Amex and peasants, theme parks and gentle-folk who live in modern ‘castles’. (At one point a boy plays at ‘leavening loaves’ on his Gameboy—itself an odd anachronism—protecting said loaves from assorted characters including ‘fey Robin’ and ‘Hungry Denizens’). It is also an America that, refreshingly, is riven by class.

Reading through this collection, Disney repeatedly springs to mind—for instance, in the teen princess who imagines herself entering down the steps of a marble staircase, courted by princes in her suburban home, and who then dreams of a baby doe whose mother has been slain by a rustic hunter. Or, more subtly, in the boy who goes on a quest to save an old man in a patch of quasi-urban wilderness, and ends up himself being saved. A chubby loner, a bit of a scout, he forms an unlikely friendship with a gruff old man; a friendship that gives them both something to live for. These stories are modern fairy tales, or rather they are stories in which dark emotions and social complexities are masked with a beguiling clarity of colour and line.

At the level of language, Saunders takes his satire a step further—presenting pastoral and romantic-epic, early modern registers laced with an angry irony in a corporatized or otherwise mundane setting.  In Escape from Spiderhead, the convict protagonist is forced to undergo damaging neuro-chemical trials in a ‘pan-optical’ prison-lab. Fed a juice called Verbaluce™, he proceeds to ‘up his register’, dreaming out loud of the picaresque; of ‘a series of sequential reveries’. In My Chivalric Fiasco, set in a medieval theme park, another drug (KnightLyfe™) spurs a man to speak out against his rapist boss: ‘I would be SILENT no MORE, for was a Man withal, if nothing ELSE, and would serve Righteousness, Regarding NOT the Cost.’ These parodies might appear camp, were they not inflected with class and presented in such an aesthetically pleasing way. Saunders’ turn of phrase, no matter the register, is simply beautiful:

Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}?  Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package? Oops. Had he said small package?

Saunders’ register-shifts are delivered with the comfortable grace of a jazz musician. Consider ‘{special one}’; the sharp intake of breath that the punctuation requires, and the delicate suggestion of apprehension. At the same time it is a phrase held in reserve, bracketed as in an equation—a hypothetical ‘special one’. Consider how much this short sentence tells us about its subject, a girl entering puberty. Saunders’ sentences resemble patterns of thought. They have their own punctuation, and they shift tone and bearing in the lifting of an eyebrow. The intellectual qualities we appreciate in silence are more than matched by the aural pleasure derived from Saunders’ perfect grasp of the natural cadences of speech. He even swears beautifully, as in ‘fist-fuck the pale vestige with proddering dick-knee’.

Saunders’ The Semplica-Girl Diaries is a brilliant parody with a sense of modern injustice at its core. The new-medieval aspect to this story takes the form of a fad amongst the wealthy for hanging beautiful young girls in bright white smocks from cords, in a sort of floral display. It is the latest ‘thing’, and the poor, well-meaning diarist is ashamed of not being able to afford Semplica Girls of his own. As he strolls through an affluent neighbourhood he passes fifteen girls swaying gently in the wind, as flute music drifts through the air, reminding him ‘of ancient times and affluent men of those times building great gardens…bounty of earth being lassoed for their pleasure etc., etc.’ This is what now constitutes, as a policeman remarks, ‘the American dream’.

In The Semplica-Girl Diaries, the narrator makes good on his conscience by repeating to the ‘future reader’ that he only wishes to make his daughters happy. The story’s humour and shock derive from the mundane setting; into this recognizably dull world of lower-middle class striving Saunders inserts a bizarre and casual barbarity. But the device of the ‘SG’ girls is woven so tightly into the fabric of the world he has constructed that we wonder, at the end of the story, why nobody has thought of committing such a practice in reality. But if Saunders introduces the bizarre into the mundane, as critique, he equally makes the mundane seem quite bizarre. In this way he both estranges us from what we think we know and familiarises us with what we think is strange. Such a technique provides the reader with space for reflection. The sophistications of modern finance, for example, are treated with the blunt irony the times require:

Note to future generations: In our time, are such things as credit cards. Company loans money, you pay back at high interest rate. Is nice for when you do not actually have money to do thing you want to do.

The act of missing out indicative pronouns has never been so funny, or been used to make a sharper point about the precarity of our current means of living.

The system may be wicked, but individuals try to do right despite it. Indeed, many of the stories in this collection hinge around the problem of the apparent simplicity of moral choices, and the complexity of human feelings surrounding them. The narrator makes many bad decisions that he justifies, self-consciously, through pleas to social mobility, or through his love of his daughters and his moral duty to make them, above everyone else, happy. Choices are sometimes presented in bleaker terms. In the panopticon of Spiderhead, Jeff’s only means of doing good is abnegation—as, floating through the air, mingling with the elements, he reflects that ‘I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would’. As with every story in the collection, this ending is perfectly crafted; a smooth, edgeless circle connecting Jeff’s first act (murder) with its final reconciliation (suicide). In the euphoria of death (or in his choice to die) Jeff approaches a holistic vision of the world and its beauty (‘Birds were… manifesting as the earth’s bright-coloured nerve-endings’) against which Saunders contrasts the artificial beauty of the Renaissance garden, envisioned when fed a chemical equivalent. Here, dully, Jeff must paraphrase: ‘I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.’

Perhaps it is Saunders’ interest in moral choice that gives his plots their radiant simplicity, around which he drapes words that are bitter, fast, laconic and gentle, and narratives that switch focus and register without warning. Humane to the core, the majority of these stories turn on a moment of crisis of conscience: a child is drowning in a lake; a man must choose between his mother and his sister; a boy between his parents’ rules and his moral duty. In most cases, Saunders’ characters really do wish to ‘serve righteousness’, and are willing to risk their lives and endanger their families to do so. It is not always so easy. In Victory Lap, Kyle Boot saves a girl from a brutal assault, by brutally assaulting the attacker, thus creating a (community) trauma of his own. He intervenes less because of his sense of having a duty to protect the girl, and more because he wishes explicitly to disobey the protective, coddling voices of his parents, whose behavioural sanctions, expressed in terms of ‘scout points’ and treats for good behaviour,  he has internalised. After the fact, it is easy to reconstruct a plausible cause and its effect, but Saunders shows not only that this view is false, but that its instrumentalism is impoverishing. It is in favour of agency, and against an instrumental view of human behaviour, that the boy acts.

Escape from Spiderhead presents this modern fear of instrumentalism in a conventionally ‘sci-fi’ setting, and fits easily within the canon of such stories, from 1984 onwards. But the theme is no less felt in other stories, such as Home, whose PTSD-suffering veteran reflects constantly on the predictions he believes others are making about his character. How should a man react, the story asks, when he knows how people expect him to act? Saunders places his vet in a number of set-pieces, to test the hypothesis. Faced with the moral and financial degradation of his family, the narrator takes a match to the carpet of his mother’s foreclosed house: ‘[and] raised a finger, like, Quiet, through me runs the power of recent dark experience.’

Saunders turns his narrator’s plea for recognition—his acting mad to express how mad he feels—into an incantation, rising to a crescendo. He speaks in such doom-laden terms when truly he feels weakest. Later, faced once again with a sense of inescapable conflict, he imagines ‘the contours of the coming disaster expand[ing] to include all present’.

This view of human beings as fundamentally conflicted leads Saunders to be gentle to his characters, many of whom have not lived ‘good’ lives. He does this by presenting sensitive, ‘realist’ inner lives alongside his fantastical satire on social relations—and his characters’ part in this parade, as they try to comprehend the ways in which their desires and motivations intersect with a society, and a language, with which they all too frequently feel at odds. There is, in essence, a chasm between what Saunders’ characters wish they feel and what they recognise, at base, to be their true feelings. It is a space exploited by his play with elevated diction, in which he demonstrates, by artificially shifting register, that to express well is not to express more honestly.

The shortest of these stories, Sticks, serves as a summary of the collection’s aims and the author’s style. At a page in length, it is a remarkable achievement of compression. The eponymous objects are a metaphor for the suffering body, around which narratives are spun. The sticks are ‘a kind of crucifix’ the narrator’s father erects in the garden, and over which he drapes different costumes: Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July; a soldier on Veteran’s Day. The rude pole in the ground does not move or change, but it is the foundation for a hundred stories. In order to avoid the truth we equivocate, rationalise, justify, attempt to explain, lay down plausible conceits—but these are masks for feelings that remain universal and plain:

One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He… provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written on a frantic hand on index cards.

At the end of the story, when the owner of the sticks dies, they are thrown onto the garbage heap, no longer of any significance to anyone. Meaning ‘dies’ with the owner, and as such it would seem that the body and the signs that accrete around it are indivisible, and wholly singular.

Equally, it is an interest in the ‘bare bones’ of the story—in the hidden structure that underlies human motivations—that sustains the collection, worked through via the plot device of ‘crisis’. At times it seems that ‘a person’, as Don Eber remarks in the final story, ‘is just some meat on a frame’.  This is far from an impoverishing view of ‘being’; rather, Saunders comes down on the side of humanism. To say that the bases for human behaviour are simple is not the same as to say that the behaviour itself can be predicted, because we are social animals who must negotiate the outcomes of our actions within the constellation of actions (and their interpretations) which occur around us.

And nor is ‘plain’ the same as ‘base’. An instrumental view of human behaviour does not work, not least because the subjects of these tests react violently to the assumption of a lack of agency. In other words: under observation our behaviour changes. This is all to say that Saunders places plot and characterisation in a ‘feedback loop’, the former suggesting a clarity that the latter complicates, providing ‘letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding’—characters whose complicated inner lives cannot be explained by the sequence of events in which they take part. Saunders’ skill is to show, by turning up strange truths from plausible grounds, that phenomena change under observation.

Pascal Porcheron lives and works in Cambridge, UK.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 10th, 2013.