George Saunders is predominantly known for his short stories. And make no mistake, he is the master. But he is also exceptional at shorter non-fiction stuff, and his collection The Braindead Megaphone is a shining example. For me, this is because the qualities that make him a good fiction writer carry over into his nonfiction. Because, for me, all good writing is about the human perspective, and the ability to see and convey perceptions in a unique but still relatable way. Saunders is one of those talented writers who could make any topic fascinating.
I already talked about his concerns for the state of modern television/news media.
In most of his pieces, he is on assignment, for GQ or some other magazine. For several years, I have had a budding curiosity about Dubai. In his piece “The New Mecca,” he has piqued that interest, while also making me laugh, and yet still also scaring the crap out of me. As any follower of Saunders can tell you, fear and humor are frequent if strange bedfellows.
My favorite piece of the whole collection was “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra.” In the piece, Saunders describes what a naive reader he was when he was young (a realization I could definitely relate to). He describes a phase in his literary development where he thought challenging writing (as in, writing that was difficult to understand) was the best writing, because it’s difficulty somehow made it seem more valuable or his ability to process it made him a bona fide intellectual. And he goes on to describe what a revelation it was, during this period, to read Vonnegut, and realize that good literature could be both readable and enjoyable. I think most serious readers go through some version of this at some point.
His “Nostalgia” piece on the hyper-sexualization of television/media is the funniest thing I have read in a long time.
His line in “The Perfect Gerbil” referencing a poem about two amorous canines (which quote I heard him cite verbatim at a recent reading/book signing) is the most memorable advice on writing I can recall encountering.
If you’ll permit me, and I know this is dull, and quite probably also copyright infringement, but I was probably most moved by two paragraphs in the second-to-last entry in the collection, entitled “Buddha Boy,” which read as follows:
You know that feeling at the end of the day when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?
I feel like that now: tired of the Me I’ve always been, tired of making the same mistakes, repetitively stumbling after the same small ego strokes, being caught in the same loops of anxiety and defensiveness. At the end of my life, I know I won’t be wishing I’d held more back, been less effusive, more often stood on ceremony, forgiven less, spent more days oblivious to the secret wishes and fears of the people around me. So what is stopping me from stepping outside my habitual crap?
My mind, my limited mind.
George Saunders, “Buddha Boy,” The Braindead Megaphone, pp. 242-43 (emphasis added).
A-freaking-men, you know what I’m sayin’?
Love Saunders! Because he is exceptional, but also clearly a normal, breathing, down-to-earth, thinking, feeling dude.