I wrote about George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December about a year and a half ago. It surprises me to find that it was so long ago, because those stories have remained vivid in my mind as some of the best reading I’ve done in the past few years. They are sharp, vivid, weird little parables, that are as playful as river-pebbles when it comes to form and language, and as powerful as the river itself when it comes to darkness, sorrow, humanity, and compassion. Reading them, you are deep over your head before you know exactly where you are.
As in Tenth of December, the stories of In Persuasion Nation are dark, ironic, funny, satirical, sometimes grotesque. Some of them are in a contemporary, realistic setting; others are set in an all-too-recognizable near future, in which advertising executives are kings and there’s a pharmaceutical for every ill. In either case, Saunders writes about dark pockets of human behavior, the violent, the weird and outre, the shameful and rock-bottom. And he also writes about the gleams of hope and humanity he finds all the way down there, because both sides are real: don’t look away, he says, this is what people are actually like.
I think this sense of the reality of human nature that undergirds the stories is what makes them feel so familiar, despite the often vertiginous unfamiliarity of the setting. In the first story, “I CAN SPEAK! (TM)”, a salesman writes a letter to a woman who is asking for a refund on a very peculiar purchase. The I CAN SPEAK! (TM) is a mask you can strap over your infant’s face, and it will respond to what you’re saying and make it seem as if your baby is talking like an adult. And there’s more!
With the ICS2100, your baby looks just like your baby. And because we do not want anyone to be unhappy with us, we would like to make you the gift of a complimentary ICS2100 upgrade! We would like to come to your house on Lester Way and make a personalized plaster cast of Derek’s real, actual face! And soon, via FedEx, here will come Derek’s face in a box, and when you skip that ICS2100 over Derek’s head and Velcro the Velcro, he will look nearly exactly like himself, plus we have another free surprise, which is that, while at your house, we will tape his actual voice and use it to make our phrases, the phrases Derek will subsequently say. So not only will he look like himself, he will sound like himself, as he crawls around your house, appearing to speak!
Plus we will throw in several personalizing options.
Over the course of the letter, it becomes clear that the salesman is bewildered and unhappy about his own grotesque product, but “We at KidLuv really love what kids are, Mrs. Faniglia, which is why we want them to become something better as soon as possible.”
Some stories are truly menacing. If someone wanted to rewrite Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” without using any of the original elements of the story, and they were a genius, they might come up with something like “The Red Bow” (read it here), in which a family grieving a loss manages to poison a community. In “Commcomm,” a man’s murdered parents haunt his house, and this is the least of his worries as the story turns angry and dark. Others are lighter-hearted: “My Amendment,” one of the funniest stories, ponders the true meaning of same-sex marriage:
Because then what will we have? A nation ruled by the anarchy of unconstrained desire. A nation of willful human hearts, each lurching this way and that, reaching out for whatever it spontaneously desires, totally unconcerned about the external form in which that desired thing is embodied.
That is not the kind of world in which I wish to live.
I, for one, intend to become ever more firmly male, enjoying my golden years, while watching “P” become ever more female, each of us watching for any hint of ambiguity in the other.
Saunders is very interested in consumer culture and class. He knows about advertising and money, and the vicious, tail-biting circles they produce; how little joy and how much greed, hatred and confusion. But he is also interested in the human beings who create and live in this culture. And human beings, no matter how misled, violent, trapped, or oppressed, are capable of insight and redemption, if only — sometimes — by accident. As the narrator puts it at the end of “Commcomm”:
That is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.
Saunders is not willing to let the dark be only dark. His stories are satirical — original, strange, wonderful — but the best satire moves for change, and Saunders knows the direction we can head by where he sees the light.