By Lucy Thynne
In his titular story ‘Liberation Day,’ George Saunders narrates the strange, winding thought process of a man named Jeremy. Over the course of these scattered thoughts, we gather that Jeremy’s memory has been wiped, he is pinioned to a wall, a storm is approaching, and he is in love with the wife of the man who owns him, Mr U. ‘Soon we are drenched, and I take off my outer garment and drape it across her slender shoulders,’ Jeremy tells us. ‘I can see that it pleases her, real her, sitting cross-legged before me’ – the ‘real her,’ that is, because so many of the story’s characters are trapped in rehearsed performances. Jeremy himself is forced to act in purposeless shows curated for Mr U’s guests, operated from above by an electric ‘pulse.’ The story builds to a finale of a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand, the U.S. Army’s infamous defeat at the hands of a Native American village.
If the above sounds absurd, it is. Absurdity is Saunders’ trademark, and he makes no divergence from it here in his latest short story collection, Liberation Day. The collection spans nine stories, some approaching the length of novellas, some mere flashes in a pan, each veering between the ethics of AI, brainwashing, tense family dynamics and workplace beef. Saunders’ range – expansive, almost overwhelming – is what has won him a particular cult following in the United States, and various iterations of the title ‘Best Short Story Writer in the English language,’ including the Story Prize, Folio Prize, and PEN/Malamud Award. Yet, in this latest collection, that absurdity feels repetitive, fetishised even. Weirdness is meant to constantly surprise, not to overdo itself. It’s almost as if we’ve heard some of these stories before.
What came before? Prior to a creative writing MFA at Syracuse, where he now teaches, Saunders worked as a roofer and studied exploration geophysics. Much of what he wrote during his twenties was technical, for a firm called Radian Corporation. Writing stories was forced into any snatches of spare time, and the result was CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), a collection followed up by Pastoralia (2000) and In Persuasion Nation (2006).
These works were quietly received, but were, in retrospect, harbingers of his breakthrough work, Tenth of December (2013), lauded by the Los Angeles Review of Books as a remarkable ‘celebration of human life.’ Then Saunders showed that he could write novels too, winning the Booker Prize with his debut, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). For every writer who loves him, there is also one who envies him: Saunders is a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award, regularly publishes stories in the career-making pages of The New Yorker and counts among his fans writers from Zadie Smith to Ben Stiller. Jonathan Franzen is not the first to point out that Saunders is a writer who ‘makes the all-but-impossible look effortless.’ ‘National treasure’ is an overused term, but with Saunders, it easily fits.
Part of his status comes from how decidedly nice Saunders is. Niceness never feels like a compliment, but what word is more appropriate for the writer whose talk on being kind goes viral, who was described by a former colleague as ‘one of the most centred, well-adjusted people’ they’d ever met, who describes himself as a ‘sloppy balding hippy’ with ‘his best years behind him’? Almost any interview with Saunders picks up on his generosity: Benjamin Nugent in The Paris Review opens with the claim that Saunders is incredibly ‘easy to interview ... chatty, nice, and free with an anecdote.’ The Guardian brings us constantly back to Saunders’s film-worthy love story with his wife, Paula, to whom he got engaged just three weeks after meeting at their MFA program. A practising Buddhist, Saunders is regularly asked about how his ‘meditation and fiction-writing converge.’ Of this latest work, the writer Anne Enright asks: ‘Why is such a nice man so mean to the nice people he invents?’ But she's not exactly right. As with many of Saunders’ stories, the characters of Liberation Day do revolve in and out of various, absurd prisons – whether they are literally ‘pinioned’ to a wall as in the collection’s eponymous story, or fed-up with tightening borders in ‘Love-Letter’ – but niceness is hardly lacking. It arrives in Saunders’ keen sense of empathy. Take ‘A Thing at Work,’ one of the collection’s strongest pieces.
We begin the story through the eyes of Gen, who is unhappy with his colleague Brenda for stealing coffee pods and stationery from the office. Brenda then steals that very viewpoint and we find our pity transferring. She’s the underdog, we realise. As the plot twists, so does point of view, and we shift finally to boss Tim, who is faced with managing the escalating office feud. Initially letting Brenda off with a warning, Gen’s blackmail and recognition of his own responsibilities at home means Tim’s decisions are forced into another 180 turn. These spins in perspective are dizzying, radical acts of empathy, exercises in the art of being nice. Bad practice as it is to confuse the art with the artist, it strikes me as obvious that Saunders’ niceness is inextricable from his writing.
There’s empathy too, in the very structure of ‘Mother’s Day,’ which alternates between the voices of two warring women, Alma and Debi. Both loved Alma’s late husband, Paul Sr., and both have fascinating, comic patterns of speech The two women’s internal monologues are so similar that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between them. Alma berates Debi: ‘Pants with ties at the ankles, bird-skinny. Who did she think she was, Gandhi or whoever? Mrs. Gandhi?’ And only lines later, Debi approaches Alma with similar disdain: ‘Lord, what a face: shrivelled apple. Drawstring purse pulled tight.’ Saunders excels at these thoughts, written as fragments of chatter. The story is about old age, but its ability to empathise with others through ‘doing the voices’ becomes an ageless constant.
Empathy becomes the magic that binds the collection of stories together when some of the characters begin getting trapped in repetitive thematic cycles. The perspective of the underdog male, caught in some dystopian scheme, at first appears as a unique opportunity for compassion, but starts to feel a bit familiar. Jeremy is not far off from a man in one of the collection’s later stories, ‘Ghoul,’ who spends his life in the hell-themed section of an amusement park. We might start to say that Saunders’ style, which writers have complained takes great effort not to imitate, is imitating itself. This is the resounding sensation of reading Liberation Day – for fans of Saunders, it will be impossible not to notice echoes of his earlier work in these stories. Mr. U’s schemes, for example, bear overt resemblances to Saunders’ speculative story ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries,’ where immigrant women are strung up on a washing line by means of a chip inserted into their brains. And the high stakes of ‘The Mom of Bold Action’ resemble the similar structure of some of Saunders’s early stories in The New Yorker, ‘Victory Lap’ and ‘The Falls.’
Perhaps, then, even ‘the godfather of the short story’ has his own weaknesses: for settings and characters that he knows work. But where the absurdity risks enclosing these stories too tightly, Saunders’s nuanced approach to empathy opens them up again, avoiding the temptation for neat, ethical endings. In ‘The Mom of Bold Action,’ for example, a mother detracts from writing fiction to pen a ranting personal essay about an event that implicates her son, and the consequences of her actions are regrettable. She resolves that there will be ‘no more essays. No more writing at all,’ and decides ‘she could do more good in the world by, like, baking.’ There is a subtlety to the tongue-in-cheek ‘like’ – readers can sense that the narrator’s intentions are good but yet to be seen. Tim, planning his next move in ‘A Thing at Work,’ claims that ‘sometimes you had to be decent.’ But his final decision to fire Brenda, cornered by his own workers, calls into question what exactly ‘decency’ means.
If Saunders was beginning to seem unoriginal, then, the nuance to this empathy keeps these plot lines fresh. What allows the stories in Liberation Day to revive themselves is their kaleidoscopic turning between points of view. Even though ‘Love-Letter’ takes on a singular perspective, the attempts to dip into the consciousnesses of others are endless. The elderly narrator despairs at his country falling into the grip of a ‘clownish,’ ‘thuggish’ leader – Trump – but this does not hamper his own attention to the despair of others. His grandson’s friend, or lover, has been caught in a legal battle over immigration, and he responds with gentleness. He offers his own dual perspectives: ‘one as a citizen, the other as a grandfather.’ Saunders articulates these spins in perspective best:
‘When I talk about empathy, I’m talking about a space the reader and writer agree to participate in together ... in which they agree to make up a person and together, go, “What would it be like to be her? How does she think? From what valid impulse do her mistakes stem?”’
This is the exercise at the heart of Liberation Day. To treat a person with kindness is to love as Jeremy does in the titular story – through a ‘process of listening with focussed attention.’ That idea, that ‘every human being is worthy of attention,’ is what drives his greatest short stories. It’s an idea not far off from philosopher Simone Weil’s famous edict: ‘attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ That line has become a kind of touchstone for me. What pleasure to find it in fictional form.
LUCY THYNNE graduated this year from Somerville College and once edited the ORB. Her glory days are firmly behind her.
Art by Yii-Jen Deng