on March 18, 2004
Comparisons with other writer's do not do justice to Mr. Saunders! His zany, laugh out loud, heart rending tales, are simply in a class of their own! And his stream of conscious narrations are about perfect! Take the bike riding boy in one tale. This youngster daydreams in a sci-fi world wishing for weird things to happen to his neighbors. How many other boys, and girls, have done the same, but who else can write about it like Mr. Saunders! Or the narrator of "The Falls", obsessed with his grown up neighbors, and wondering how to greet his odd "friend". Then Mr. Saunders reverses course, and into the mind of the frustrated artist antagonist, all the while sending a sly warning about two girls boating towrds the falls! There's the daydreaming barber with no toes, who lives with his mother, wondering about making the first move towards a beautiful, but awkwardly overbuilt, fellow student at a course for driver's caught speeding, not to mention the all too real instructor. Who would not want to be a student in this unique author's creative writing class?! The title tale also has its strange moments, as does the entire collection of a real original in contemporary writing!!
on February 5, 2003
The first story in this book, the title story, grabbed me immediately. I laughed aloud, delighted at the inventiveness of Saunders' depiction of the corporate culture, as seen through the eyes of a poor working stiff in the pre-historic-land exhibit of a theme park. And really, be it a cubicle or a cave, corporate jargon or grunts and gestures, the author reinforces a universal truth: we are a flawed species, and when pressed, we default to some very strange, very typical behavior. His characters are both bizarre and entirely recognizable: so many hapless, imperfect souls stuck in an even more imperfect world, trying to find happiness in spite of themselves--even, in one case, in spite of being dead. As Pogo was known to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Saunders' sense of humor elevates our mundane dance with discontent to a charming, hilarious, sad, familiar but refreshing jig.
Author: Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam
(Ballantine Books, 2001)
on September 26, 2002
I can imagine that some wouldn't like the fiction of George Saunders. It's bizarre at times in its pulling situations from left field and making them central to the world of its characters. It's even more bizarre, though, in its ability to invest these scenarios with legitimate feeling. For me, that's what makes Saunders' "Pastoralia" such an interesting, hilarious, and--at times--even heart-warming read: the mixture of the almost inhumanly bizarre on the one hand, and the totally human sentiment on the other.
The stories are constructed so that the reader spends the first couple of pages trying to squint at the new world we've been thrown into. There are things that look familiar--self-help mantras, frustration, common corporate names--but what on earth is with the roast goat? The pilot-themed male strippers? The barber's fantasies of love-making in a hacienda? Slowly, as we work at it, it all comes into focus, and then it's even funnier. Saunders times this increased clarity (this readerly struggle for clarity) so that it generates an increasing identification with the emotional situation of the protagonists, who are frustrated, limited by their own decisions and by the obligations imposed on them by their loved ones, and doing their best to cope in a civil and civilized way.
Saunders is merciless in his parodic cultural contacts: corporate culture, self-help culture, the overly-picky standards of the American male, Jerry Springer culture, the self-consciousness and self-doubt of aging academics, all of them get lampooned to no end. The collection is well-constructed, though, as most of the pessimism is weighted toward the beginning. What comes through in the end, then, in the later stories in the collection, is the rare and satisfying moment at which we rise above the ridiculous, at which our humanity trumps our absurdity. The final story is the best example of this; lost in reveries and longing for a chance at real heroism, a strolling academic is presented with a real, in-process life-or-death situation on the banks of a river. He can run away, or he can help. The fate of our worth--of the worth of humanity in general--rests in his hands, and he just might do us proud.
"Pastoralia" tells both sides of the story. As a collection, though, it builds nicely towards its defining moment. Saunders leaves us perched there, painfully aware of our failures but with the highest of hopes for what we might still do. It's a quick read, and a great collection of stories, and I highly recommend it.
on July 28, 2002
The stories in "Pastoralia" center on eccentricly flawed characters teetering on the brink of making a decision. Much of Saunders' writing consists of the internal monologues of its protagonists. Their humanity, both weaknesses and strengths of character, is directly revealed as they struggle to determine their course of action. Some of the decisions they must contend with are ones that many in society make unconsciously or with very little honest reflection. Should I date this woman whose head is out of all proportion to the rest of her body? Should I rat out my attitudinally challenged co-worker who I have worked beside for years? Should I kick my sister out of the house?
Saunders delivers the goods in a self-effacing and homely manner. His prose is not flowery and often exposes the ugly motives behind actions that may seem noble from the vantage point of a dispassioned observer. He builds the tension through the thoughts of the characters, and his pacing is more concerned with the flowering of fleeting thoughts rather than the juggernaut of actions and events. If you have an affinity for the underdog, a passion for the barely observed, and a patience for moral ambiguity- you just may enjoy this book. I did.
on February 26, 2002
I strongly recommend George Saunders's fiction to anyone that enjoys cynicism dished up with a dollop of hope. The six stories contained in this book are for those who like their stories dark and comical. Here you will find folks living in a theme-park cave for money, a dead aunt returning from the grave to get what she feels she deserved in life, hyper-critical barbers, and hateful children.
Despite all of the depressing characters that one visits while reading this book, the stories resonate because of their humanity and occasional acts of selflessness. Saunders's characters are at their best when they drop their egoism, realize their unhappiness, and address it via minute or drastic means. The gratifying part about all of this is that you become the character telling each of the stories - thinking their thoughts and seeing the world through their first-person narratives. This recurring theme gives the stories a voyeuristic quality that is highly engaging. Read this book in as few sittings as possible - you will not be sorry.
on June 21, 2001
The short story format has always been the poor cousin of the novel but Saunders makes a good case for the genre with this strong collection.
His dark take on life is a welcome one and Pastoralia contains some very good stories each of which come at you from slightly left of centre.
What he manages to do very well is to create a novel-sized reality within the shorter confines of the story. Characters are well developed with just enough background information or subtle fleshing out to leave you with the sense that they exist beyond the story itself. Eschewing a beginning/middle/end in the conventional sense Saunders presents the reader with a slice of life within which there lies the elements of a good yarn.
Having read all the above you may wonder why I have only given the book 3 stars. Well it is good - blackly humorous, inventive etc. - but it isn't great. It is a good read and one of the best story collections I have read in a while but it didn't quite have the spark to take it to the 'essential reading' level. It was good enough though to make me want to check out his earlier collection.
This is a writer with potential and one to follow.
If you have read and enjoyed this book then you would almost centainly like the two collections from Dan Rhodes - Anthropology and Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love. I prefer the former but the latter is perhaps closest in style and content to Pastoralia.
(By the way - the UK cover for this book is much better)
on June 15, 2001
George Saunders is changing the shape of contemporary literature as we speak. If you look at literary magazines and their submissions, you'd be surprised (or not) to find so many young writers imitating this man's voice. But none of them writes with a manic, but heartfelt panache of Saunders. In this collection of stories, Saunders shows his maturation from his debut collection, "CivilWarLand in a Bad Decline" He varies his voice better. Whereas "CivilWarLand" was primarily told through the first person-present narrative, you see Saunders experimenting with his narration in "Pastoralia". His prose is more labyrinthine and supple in "Pastoralia" as well, where "CivilWarLand" prose, although very fine, tended to be a bit too curt and laconic. And the subject matter, you'll be hard-pressed to find another American writer writing with more conviction and love about his characters than Saunders. In "Pastoralia" there are characters who come back from the dead to live the life they could not live, and everyday losers who come face to face with a moment of ultimate heroism. No one really wins, and no one attains happiness in his stories, but there's an incorrigible hope that all these characters live for and yearn, and it's this hope that Saunders treasures. By the end of reading this volume, so did I. A very impressive collection of stories. Can't wait for his long works.
on February 24, 2001
I was very close to giving this book only 2 stars because of the overall feeling I got, but actually I enjoyed "Winky" and "The Falls" a bit. The rest, however, lack something significant that Saunders *did* have is his last collection, "Civilwarland in Bad Decline".
In his last collection, the characters were pitiful, unlucky, or otherwise sad. Yet there was a sense, by the end of each story, that somehow that didn't matter, somehow there was something beautiful and redeeming to be found. "Winky" and "The Falls" continue this to a certain degree, but stories like "Pastoralia" do not. In fact, "Pastoralia" left me incredibly unsatisfied. It is a completely opposite idea from the stories in his last collection.
Many people seem to like "Sea Oak", especially the decomposing Aunt, but I fail to see why. To me, the returned Aunt is completely unconvincing as a character. It's as if Saunders wanted her completely selfish (wanting sex, her insistence that "I got nothing"), and yet also completely concerned for her family (wanting to save Troy). Instead of, say, making this a personal conflict within the Aunt, he tries to make the two feelings compatable. I don't buy it.
One last thing to note: the stories are very funny. Much more so than his last work. But, unfortunately, I don't think that makes up for the lack of beauty and goodness.
on August 14, 2000
Saunders's newest collection of short stories is far better than any new fiction I've read recently, including Thom Jones's latest collection.
His stories are full of irony and wit, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Saunders does not constantly undercut himself or avoid sentiment. He might best be labeled a satirist (for lack of a better category)-- a sort of Mark Twain for the 21st century. He lampoons theme parks, corporate doublespeak, humiliating jobs, reality television, and functional illiteracy with striking precision, and does so in an original way.
His stories are deeply touching at the same time, often evoking the 'quiet desperation' of a character in Joyce's Dubliners.
So why not five stars? Somehow, there seem to be a few bugs in Saunders's voice-- ones I'm sure will be worked out within a book or two. He some times tries to hard to be 'new' or 'interesting' and interferes with the flow of his stories. For example, in The Barber's Unhappiness and in The Falls, he tends to take the free-association run-on sentence a little too far. This has been done before, and it isn't an effective device.
No big complaints though. The title story is especially wonderful. ( I also want to reccomend a story not in this collection called I Can Speak™, which I think was reprinted in his first collection).
on May 19, 2000
George Saunders is weird and then some. The America in his short stories is light years away from the picture postcard vision of sun-drenched cornfields swaying in the wind.
In the short story that gives the book its title, Pastoralia is the sort of theme park that would give Disney executives a heart attack. Visitors see people as they lived in past epochs, such as the couple who play Neanderthal cave dwellers, daubing prehistoric paintings on walls, making unintelligible grunting noises and roasting goats. But, there are few visitors to the park and the "cavewoman" Janet is cracking up under the pressure of mounting debts and a drug-addicted son.
She downs a bottle of Jack Daniels bourbon and starts using the sort of expletives no Neanderthal man would know.
In the best and funniest story, Sea Oak, a down-at-heel, bickering family tries to make ends meet in a housing estate that gives new meaning to the term concrete jungle. They spend most of their time mindlessly watching television. The stations have run out of Worst Accidents or When Animals Attack videos and have to resort to The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never happened but theoretically could. A child hit by a train is catapulted into a zoo, where he's eaten by wolves. A man cuts off his hand chopping wood and while staggering screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.
Sea Oak is a modern parable. The family's dead granny comes back from the grave to tell them to get their act together but, unlike the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, she just won't go away, but sits putrefying in her favourite armchair.
"In the morning she's still there, shaking and swearing.
" 'Take the blanket off!' she screams. 'It's time to get this show on the road.'
"I take the blanket off. The smell is not good. One ear is now in her lap. She keeps absentmindedly sticking it back on her head."
Sea Oak is like one long-running sick joke, where you know you shouldn't laugh, but can't help yourself.
Saunders sees humour in misfortune, loneliness and deformity, but it is a cruel humour laced with compassion and that makes his stories not just palatable, but at times moving and wickedly funny.
The misfits he describes are not outcasts to him. The sky may be a different colour on their planet, but the space they inhabit is as real to them as the lives so-called normal people lead.
Not all the stories are consistently good. I read The End of FIRPO In The World three times and still haven't the faintest idea what it's about. But at his best, the arrows that he fires at the alienating culture of urban America hit their mark.