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George Saunders and the art of keeping the reader reading

In his fascinating new book on Russian short stories, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders considers how readers experience fiction.

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In a Vermont farmhouse, at the end of a hot August day in 1960, John Updike came down from the room where he was working on his second novel, Rabbit, Run. “Well,” he told his wife, Mary, “I’ve just killed the baby.” At the time John and Mary’s third child was three months old, and Updike later admitted he had found writing the scene, in which Rabbit and Janice Angstrom’s daughter drowns in a bathtub, “unsettling”. But obviously, he said, “there was no real baby involved; only a few sentences and adjectives on some pieces of paper”.

For the first ten or 15 years of George Saunders’ writing career, spanning the story collections Civilwarland in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation (2006), he dealt with death in a way that suggested he – like Updike before him, but with even less pause for thought – considered the piled-up corpses in his work to be nothing more than sentences and adjectives on pieces of paper. His debut contains almost 40 deaths – 28 in the first story alone if you count the murder-suicide of four ghosts, which, owing to some paranormal glitch, repeat on a loop five times as 20 individual deaths (and why wouldn’t you?).

Born in 1958 and raised just outside Chicago, Saunders trained and worked as a geophysical engineer. In the early 1980s, as a self-described “young, Ayn Randish Republican” he joined an oil exploration team in Sumatra. He was in his thirties when he began publishing fiction, having received an MA from Syracuse University (where he has taught creative writing for more than 20 years). His early stories are deliberately outrageous: funny, distorted portraits of an America riven by class conflict and dehumanised by capitalism (in 2003 Zadie Smith called him “the king of corporate comedy”). They often prove hostile environments for children: in “Isabelle” (1994) a teenager is drowned by a policeman and a couple of pages later his 12-year-old brother “blew his own brains out across the yellow wall”. In “Sea Oak” (1998) mothers feed their babies while watching a TV show called How My Child Died Violently. In “Jon” (2003) a baby “seized up and tumped over, giving off this sort of shriek” (it’s meningitis, and she dies).

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In the last decade Saunders’ reputation has changed from outlandish satirist to beloved humanist, a role that seems to entirely suit the man (Ayn Rand and the Republican Party are both long jettisoned) but not always his fiction. Even in Tenth of December, the 2013 collection that marks a shift in his writing – with a greater desire to probe beneath the manic, blood-streaked surface of his wild situation comedies, and not always launch himself relentlessly at the next punchline – there’s still a lot of death, or the threat of it. It begins with “Victory Lap”, in which a teenage girl potters around her house conjuring romantic daydreams before answering a knock at the door. The man outside isn’t the meter-reader he claims to be, but a murderer and rapist who has selected her as his next victim.

Saunders talks about this story at one point in his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a hugely fascinating and inspiring study of seven stories by four great Russians: Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov. “I’d gotten tired of writing violent, hyperdramatic stories,” he writes, “and had decided to write something nice, like Chekhov’s ‘After the Theatre,’ in which nothing much happens except a sweet 16-year-old sits around thinking giddily about love.” He tried, but it was no good, and that’s when the rapist-murderer’s van pulled up. “Suffice to say,” Saunders admits, “my desire to write a sweet, non-violent story got upended by my stronger desire to write a story that a reader might finish.”

Throughout this book, Saunders is at least as focused on how readers will experience a story as he is on what the writer is doing. At the end of a discussion of “The Darling” by Chekhov he describes the elements essential to writing “a story that a reader might finish” as being like the “battery-powered plastic ‘gas stations’” that once propelled his toy Hot Wheels cars around the track. These gas stations might be occasions of “honesty, wit, powerful language, humour”, or a sexual predator’s fist knocking on a suburban door.

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Of all the questions an aspiring writer might ask herself,” Saunders writes, “here’s the most urgent: What makes a reader keep reading?” Saunders’ professorial persona is so likeable, so smart and astute – throughout this book he proves again and again what a weapons-grade noticer he is – that it was a page or two after I’d read and instinctively agreed with this line that I felt compelled to go back and think harder about what it meant. It reminded me of something he said in a recent interview in the New Yorker: “The real value of a work of art isn’t in what it stands for or in the meaning it spits out at the end but in what happens to the reader along the way.” All writers write with readers in mind, to a varying extent, but Saunders’ reader service operates at a radical level.

Saunders urgently asking himself “what makes a reader keep reading?” would certainly explain all that death. If you’re always focused on delivering surprise, escalating the action, ensuring the stakes are clear and significant (all positions he endorses here), then death is likely to keep cropping up – not for any philosophical reason, but simply because “if death is in the room, it’s pretty interesting”, as he told the New York Times in 2013. In the latter stages of “Master and Man”, Tolstoy’s story about a landowner and servant lost in a blizzard, Saunders says “we’re reading to see who dies”, just as in many of his own stories, from “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” to “Victory Lap”, “Escape from Spiderhead” (torture, suicide) and “Tenth of December” (a teenager, trying to save a suicidal old man, falls into a frozen lake and must be saved in turn) we’re reading to see whether or not someone will.

Saunders’ most recent story, “Ghoul” – set, like some of his earliest work, in a hellish theme park – describes a sequence of escalating events that require the narrator to decide whether or not he’ll denounce his colleagues before they denounce him. Anyone so denounced gets kicked to death by a mob of their co-workers. It’s a very fun story – we keep reading – but the moral questions at which it seems to gesture are blunted by the distribution of action and reaction: “do this or die” isn’t a choice at all. Dramatically speaking, Saunders has his thumb on the scales.

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The majority of the stories discussed in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, however, achieve their effects without resorting to the same extremes. Making a point about Turgenev, Saunders quotes Flannery O’Connor: “The writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” Should we conclude, then, on the evidence of his bibliography, that Saunders’s fiction requires the most fraught and melodramatic situations – rape and murder versus rescue; suicide versus renewed desire to live – to succeed?

I don’t think so. For one thing, Saunders’ greatest short story, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”, features just a single death (no death at all is, apparently, too much to ask). There’s plenty of tension – it’s as agonising as it is funny – but this arises from the narrator’s financial precarity and the fear he’s failing his kids, not from the possibility they might be vaporised, struck down by disease or kicked to death. The difference is palpable: the story stays with you in a way his more strident catastrophes don’t. There is a notable difference, too, between his “violent, hyperdramatic” stories and his Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. An account of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son and his time in the “bardo” (a Buddhist form of purgatory), it is undoubtedly death-riddled – most of its large cast is deceased, and little Willie Lincoln adds to the eye-watering child mortality statistics in Saunders’ work – but here death isn’t only a stakes-raising prop, a gas station; it’s at the core of the book’s meaning. Here is the moment Lincoln confronts the hideousness of a child’s death:

Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.

Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, planning-of-trips, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath?

When he is to be left out here?

Some critics find this schmaltzy. I find it heartbreaking; it’s the making of the book, and in a funny way (maybe this is schmaltzy on my part) I think of Lincoln’s grief as radiating back through Saunders’ work to dignify all the casually assigned and unmourned deaths that litter the earlier stories.

Yet the cartoonish violence of “Ghoul” proves this shift in Saunders’ treatment of death isn’t permanent. Discussing that story, Saunders said: “My main goal is to try to get the reader to finish [it] – no easy feat – by making each little motion of the narrative compelling”. So, he reaches for death again, but not the “horrible trap” of Lincoln in the Bardo; just like old times, this is death as joke: “I guess one never realizes how little one wants to be kicked to death until one hears a crowd doing that exact same thing to someone nearby.”

Saunders is primarily a writer of voice (by contrast, his places are barely there at all – he’s always been confident of how little is required on that score; how much the reader can supply without even noticing they’re doing the work). Most of his stories use first-person narration. Lincoln in the Bardo, which was originally conceived as a play, is constructed from a huge array of intercutting, overlapping first-person voices and soliloquies. It is voice that Saunders uses to bring his characters to life, and his comments on Tolstoy’s story “Alyosha the Pot” underline this position: “Tolstoy has reached an understanding that would pervade modernism: a person and her language can’t be separated. (If you want to know my truth, let me tell it to you in my language.)”

Saunders’ favourite voice, as he describes in an aside about writing “Jon”, is one that speaks in “sentences that would be funny because of their defective syntax but that would also feel oddly efficient”. He has not tired of this formula. Sometimes his characters talk like this because of drugs they’ve taken (“Escape from Spiderhead”; “My Chivalric Fiasco”), and sometimes because they’re writing in a journal and don’t have time for articles, prepositions and pronouns, as with the narrator of “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” (“Be bigger presence at work. Race up ladder (joyfully, w/smile on face), get raise”), and the graveyard watchman Manders in Lincoln in the Bardo (“I said I hoped so I prayed so and our voices hung there as if we were last living souls on earth”).

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There are mannerisms that recur in these voice-led stories, regardless of the differences between their narrators: use of the word “per”, which features in Saunders’ non-fiction as much as in his fiction; a brittle cheeriness; an (intentionally) awkward blend of individual utterance and the vocabulary of staff training presentations; and the extremely expressive use of exclamation marks, which in Saunders’ hands become markers of a buttoned-up panic. “In summary, the Spout up which we all have been hopefully gazing these many years is no Spout at all, but a mere shaft leading to a sad, creepy room of the dead (!)” writes the narrator of “Ghoul”.

“That’s how characters get made,” Saunders explains in A Swim in a Pond. “We export fragments of ourselves, then give those fragments pants and a hairstyle and a hometown and all of that.” Yet these familiar phrases and manners of speech can’t be what Saunders means when he writes that “a person and her language can’t be separated”. If the same small but distinctive fragments keep getting exported, different pants and hairstyles won’t suffice. Reading Saunders’ recent work I’ve begun to think: “Haven’t I been here before?” This is explicitly the case with “Ghoul”, as the story was inspired by his recent recording of the audiobook of his first collection. It made him remember “how much fun [the book] was to write. So I just felt like… trying that again.”

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In his introduction to A Swim in a Pond, Saunders discusses how his aim as a creative writing teacher is to help students reach their “‘iconic space’ – the place from which they will write the stories only they could write, using what makes them uniquely themselves – their strengths, weaknesses, obsessions, peculiarities… the goal is to help them acquire the technical means to become defiantly and joyfully themselves”. Saunders occupied his own iconic space for many years – a place of terrible violence, economically exerted humiliation, casual slaughter and nightmarish theme parks – then went beyond it in Lincoln in the Bardo. Now, greedily perhaps, I don’t want him to go backwards but further forwards, and not to think so much of his readers while he does it – well, none of them but me.

Chris Power’s new book, “A Lonely Man”, is published on 1 April by Faber & Faber

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
George Saunders
Bloomsbury, 432pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 24 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks