In a recent conversation, in response to my statement that “there is something really great about sarcasm. For me, there is no such thing as ‘too sarcastic’ writing,” I was asked “Have you read any George Saunders?” And the funny thing is, that I had (though I did not then know it) (because, you see, though I never forget a face, as I may have mentioned here previously, I rarely remember a name; that’s just the way my mind works; or rather, doesn’t) (more on that in a little bit).
So, I got my hands on the first Saunders I could find, which ended up being The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, followed in short succession by Pastoralia. I read Phil first, and this is what I thought.
It was…okay. Different. Saunders is, I think maybe, one of those “acquired taste” authors. Phil is sort of futuristic/sci-fi. I never could really tell what was going on. Some of the characters appeared to be human. Most robots. Some trees, or perhaps shrubs. Great disparities in size. You’d probably have to just read it to know what I am talking about.
But it was sarcastic, as evidenced by a scene with sarcastic talking cows’ heads growing directly from the lush and verdant soil (I told you it was weird). Highlights consisted mainly of the dialogue, as exemplified by this little number from the book’s namesake:
“Are we not us?” bellowed Phil. “Are they not them? Us being us, do we not, being fully good, have the right to end what, totally bad, threatens us, even in the slightest? Would it not be negligent to do otherwise?”
That may not do much for you, out of context. But it was funny at the time.
It was sort of a political satire. It was sort of funny. Maybe I am just sick of that subject matter for right now. And I’ve never much cared for robots.
I started on Pastoralia next, which is actually a collection of short stories, the first one (universally, I understand, recognized to be the best) having that same name, to wit, “Pastoralia.” It was good. But it also reminded me of something I had read recently. So I did some research. Which led me to some Saunders reviews.
Those who like him describe him has “witty and dark.” I can see that. A particularly colorful review described him as a sort of “David Foster Wallace-lite” (which would be a good thing, I suppose, if you didn’t like your DFW just exactly the way he is (I am currently reading both The Pale King and Infinite Jest simultaneously; I am loving them both, the first one so much I can hardly stand it!)).
Those that don’t like him (Saunders) quite as much criticize his writing as “different from other stuff, but all the same as itself.” In other words, all his stories are, according to these critics, the same. Which is when the proverbial light bulb went off. Because “Pastoralia” did remind me of something else I had read recently, especially when also compared to Phil and looking for universal similarities.
It only took me a second to realize that it was “Jon,” one of the short stories from an anthology of “love” stories I had read recently (My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, compiled by Jeffrey Eugenides). I guess Saunders writes for The New Yorker sometimes, and this one appeared there (at the “Jon” link above in its entirety, at least it did for me). That one I loved, and I couldn’t really tell why. Check it out, though. I enjoyed it much more than Phil or Pastoralia.
I will leave it to you to decide whether they are “all the same.” They are similar in theme or setting, I suppose, in that they seem to deal with these altered, futuristic, dystopian worlds, and through that, make a sort of jabbing commentary on society and societal structure, commercialism, humanity and its flaws.
But I don’t think a familiar tone in a writer is a bad thing. Many of my favorite writers, you could give me a paragraph or less of something they had written, completely out of context, and I could probably tell it was them in short order. Most writers, it seems, have a distinctive cadence and style. Word choice. I don’t mind; I kind of like it, if it does sometimes make me jealous.
Some say sarcasm is the poorest form of communication. But I have always personally suspected that those people just aren’t any good at it. Or have no sense of humor. Or both.
[Sorry about the crunched format; I am reposting some of these from salvaged email feeds and it’s coming out in crappy, crunched format. Hope the content is still enjoyable/decipherable]