I’ve read several for George Saunders’ books by now. I started reading Saunders because he was touted by critics and book reviewers as being funny, absurdist and dark. He’s all those things. Certain themes come up over and over in his short stories. One is the themed microcosm. In “Civil War Land In Bad Decline,” which I’m reading now, there is a civil war theme park. The park is being vandalized by gangs. The solution is hiring an employee to be a sniper and shot the gang members. Another story is of a medieval village. In this story, some plague has hit the country and a section of the populace, flawed by one characteristic or another, becomes second class citizens. These flawed people make up the staff/actors in the village. They are relatively well off in the village, but live under the constant threat of being expelled and sent out into the “real world.” It’s not clear which is better. This brings up questions about euthanasia. Do you prefer to live a live of relative comfort, knowing it to be a mirage, or live a much more difficult one, a shabbier one, let’s say, but know that its “real”? This is the question the movie “The Matrix” explores.
In “In Persuasion Nation,” the first story is about a group of people who live in a controlled environment testing products for marketing. In each case, the protagonist is seeking a better life, often expecting that being out in the real world, however tough, has got to be better than where he or she is.
The characters in these stories have to be in character for their theme park or act as expected in their microcosm. The public who comes to see them are almost always portrayed as boorish or worse. Most of the characters co-workers are miserable people too, often mocking the protagonist.
In virtually every story that runs along these themed microcosm plots, the protagonist is concerned about the employee evaluation form. The protagonist, in each story, is just getting by, and afraid of losing his or her job. They often do, at the end, for better or worse. Every protagonist is down on their luck and over time, it makes for some pretty depressing reading. In most stories, the job and some part tragedy, such as losing a loved one, or having a love relationship go sour, seems to be what defines the character.
I sense that Saunders could be comic on other plains. I will continue to read his books; I still love the absurdism in his books, the way the bizarre microcosm seems to exist as part of the real world. I wish that he’d explore mining a new vein of plots though.