“…we all know that one way to do a job poorly is to be negative about it. Say we need to clean a shelf. If we spend the hour before the shelf-cleaning talking down the process of cleaning the shelf, complaining about it, dreading it, investigating the moral niceties of cleaning the shelf, whatever, then what happens is, we make the process of cleaning the shelf more difficult than it really is. We all know very well that that “shelf” is going to be cleaned, given the current climate, either by you or the guy who replaces you and gets your paycheck….So the point of this memo is: Positive.” -“Exhortation” in Tenth of December, by George Saunders
The “shelf” that has to be cleaned is a euphemism for…what?
Saunders has been called the Kurt Vonnegut of our day. He says he’s been influenced by Monty Python. Many highly regarded writers (Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, among others) can’t say enough good things about Saunders, who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.
Before he became a highly praised short story writer, Saunders lived here in Rochester, where he was a contract worker for Kodak and a technical writer for a local consulting firm.
I was once a Kodak contract worker, too, and that’s partly why I’m so fascinated with Saunders. He writes about the workplace in a liberating, irreverent and hilarious way. In an interview, Saunders has said that he’s grateful for the corporate jobs he held early on that helped support his young family, but that working in a corporate culture long-term can be difficult if you have a creative calling.
You can listen to the full interview with Saunders at the link further down in this post. You’ll hear the writer interviewing Saunders tell how she started off in book publishing (as I did) and at times she considered stealing the toilet paper as a small revenge. Working for a prestigious publisher in a Manhattan skyscraper was glamorous but, on the other hand, her salary was tiny, and many employees were exploited.
Getting back to Saunders’ stories, they are darkly comic, subversive, strange, and compelling. They’ve been called “alarming” and “tender.” Some are dystopian. You’ll be disturbed, aroused and, perhaps, comforted by the fact that someone recognizes and so eloquently expresses the absurdities of how we live our lives and the dreadful possibilities for the future if certain trends continue.
This week Tenth of December was named one of the finalists for the National Book Award.
You can listen to Saunders read an excerpt from one of his older stories, “Sea Oak,” (from his collection, Pastoralia) on the National Book Award website, which features audio recordings of all the nominees. (Start listening at the 10-minute mark unless you want to hear the program host brag about how Brooklyn is now the literary capital of America.)
I’ll warn you in advance, though, that Saunders doesn’t read the ending of “Sea Oak.” He’d prefer that you buy the book, of course. In an interview after the reading, Saunders said it took him four years to come up with an ending to “Sea Oak” that he was satisfied with.
I, for one, can’t get out of my mind the two teenagers in the opening story, “Victory Lap,” in Tenth of December. Or the strange and horrifying lawn ornaments that are the ultimate status symbols in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Or the poor guy who’s in prison and becomes a guinea pig in a pharmaceutical experiment and must choose how it will end.
There’s really nothing like a George Saunders short story.
Great book club reading, too, guaranteed to spark excellent conversation.
“It’s time for you to pull yourselves up by the bootstraps like I done….Let me tell you something, something about this country. Anybody can do anything….It’s the frickin’ American way. You start out in a dangerous crap hole. And work hard. So you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous crap hole. And finally maybe you get a mansion.” – “Sea Oak,” by George Saunders
STELLAR SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Tenth of December, by George Saunders
Pastoralia, by George Saunders
Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Collected Works of Katherine Anne Porter
Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman
The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro (2013 Nobel Prize in Literature)