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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Consolations of short stories

The Statistically Improbable Phrases generated by for George Saunders' Pastoralia are: lime crone, show your cock, attitudinal difficulties, heavy girl, and small bugs. Among the choice Capitalized Phrases are: Separate Area, Human Refuse, Big Slot, Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form, Reserve Crackers, Inner Peace, Little Slot, Shit Fee, Wise Mountain Hermit, Client Vignette Evaluation, and Saying Positive. If you already know and love Saunders, you'll recognize most of those terms from the two best short stories in that collection, "Pastoralia" and "Sea Oak." If you haven't read Saunders, those data sets will still tell you infinitely more about Saunders' genius than Deborah Solomon's interview with the author in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Your new collection of short stories, "In Persuasion Nation," presents America as a commerce-saturated but happy place where children go to live with market-research firms and giant Twinkies run through fields of flowers. Is it fair to call you an ecstatic appreciator of trash culture?
Excuse me. Can we require readers to read my books before they continue with this interview?
No, I am afraid not. What are you hoping they might gain?
When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. What I want is to have the reader come out just 6 percent more awake to the world.
But more awake to what, exactly? To talking Dorito chips, which play a part in the title story in your new collection?
Everything in the world is holy and unholy at the same time. If we didn't have that part of us that craved Doritos, then they wouldn't exist. I'm actually working on a story now that is all product names. There's not even a verb.

Part of me wants to say good for Saunders for not giving into Solomon's aggressive mediocrity, but the other part of me wants to assure people that his stories are a million times better than he himself describes them in this interview. There is absolutely no way you could convince me to read a story about a talking Dorito--unless you told me first that Saunders had written it. Even then I might be skeptical. Pastoralia is an uneven collection, and I haven't been thrilled by his recent work in the New Yorker. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, is really great (and Jeff's post about this topic has an inspired title).

I was struck by the language of consolation in the Times interview, when Solomon asks Saunders what he hopes readers will gain from his work, and he says he wants readers to be more in love with the world around them. Really? That's not what I want from a George Saunders short story. I want theme-park dystopias, repetitions of empty phrases rendered for comic effect, frustrated cavemen, ghosts who enact their own murders and play with Rubik's cubes, zombies who are impossible to please. No one else does it quite like Saunders. I'll look somewhere else to fall more in love with the world.

Writing about Mary Gaitskill in December, I copied out a paragraph from Lorin Stein's NYRB review of Veronica about the consolation/correction grain in Benjamin Kunkel's novel, Indecision, among others:
When Kunkel's narrator says 'I want to conclude with some vacuous statement we can all agree on,' when Lipsyte's narrator strings together a litany of garbled platitudes--'Volunteer in your community. Bathe the children in your neighborhood'--the writers are making similar jokes, not about class reunions, but about our desire for uplift, our demand that new novels model a slightly better world than the one we live in.

I asked which other contemporary American writers work against the consolation/correction grain besides Gaitskill. I think Saunders may be one possibility, although that's the only thing those two writers may have in common. Saunders is the kind of writer who makes you weep with laughter; Gaitskill is the one who makes you just plain weep. In Saunders, the litany of corporate-speak platitudes don't do any work of consolation; they're empty, false, and divisive (for example in "Pastoralia," when the male caveman actor has to fill out evaluation sheets of his partner, but these comments become markers of their obsolescence).

Until I read the latest issue of Bookforum, I might have put A.M. Homes on that anti-consolation list, too. Here's the brilliant lead of Darcy Cosper's review of Homes's new book:
In 1980, the New Statesman held a contest to determine the world's most improbable book title; the winning entry was "My Struggle by Martin Amis." The punch line was probably more amusing at the time than it is today, but even if the joke had lost none of its original impact, "This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes" might still provide formidable competition.

After all, Homes's work isn't exactly what one would call uplifting. She's made her name with dark, often very disturbing fiction-—ferociously intelligent, inky-black novels and stories rich in mordant humor that challenge convention, both literary and social. Her oeuvre includes The End of Alice, an eroticized portrait of a pedophilic murderer that manages to be authentically shocking rather than merely sensational; the thrilleresque In a Country of Mothers, in which a therapist and her client, who may also be birth mother and daughter, become obsessed with each other; and Music for Torching, Homes's renowned upending of genteel suburban literary tradition, featuring a pair of yuppie parents run amok. In a seditious rage against middle-class mores, the two try to burn their own house down, go on a crack binge, carry on scandalous affairs, and generally wreak havoc on the leafy sanctity of Wapshot country.

It would appear, then, that the title of Homes's latest novel is ironic, the first sally in another deft and savage assault on contemporary culture and those who succumb to its anesthetizing siren song. Except, as near as I can tell, it's not. And the book itself is . . . well, uplifting.

(Weird, true story about A.M. Homes and I was looking up Music for Torching on the site one day, when I noticed a disturbing trend on Amazon's recommendation sidebar. I was using a public terminal and whoever had been using Amazon previously hadn't signed out. That person had viewed pages for books by Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter. The three recommended books were:
Who's Looking Out for You, by Bill O'Reilly
How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), by Ann Coulter
The End of Alice, by A.M. Homes
Two things to take away: 1) the features are endlessly fun for producing trivia and non-meaningful coincidences, 2) O'Reilly and Coulter shouldn't find out about The End of Alice, or, say, "A Real Doll" in Homes's short story collection, The Safety of Objects.)

I'm not sure I need to read an uplifing book by A.M. Homes, but we'll see.


Blogger Marina on Thu Apr 13, 08:07:00 PM:
how can 'show your cock' ever be a statistically improbable phrase? I can't seem to go for a quiet drink with some friends without it being used multiple times.

Oh. Does that make my life sound bad?
Blogger Alice on Thu Apr 13, 10:32:00 PM:
Well, the phrase is less quotidian and more literary when it's being uttered by a belligerent zombie.
Blogger Ben on Fri Apr 14, 05:11:00 AM:
Oh, he's the CivilWarLand in Bad Decline guy! Now I want to read about a talking Dorito too.