Monday, June 05, 2006

Book Club Is Here! Welcome to Saunders Week!

Okay, so easy discussion question to start. Which story/stories were your favorite(s) and why? I think I’ve already written about my love for CommComm and In Persuasion Nation here, so I’ll start by saying that another favorite of mine was Adams. One of the things I love about Saunders is that his characters have what seem to be contradictory character traits. The narrator of this story is talking about “wonking” his neighbor Adams in the first paragraph, so we know he has a violent, angry streak, but we know right away that at least in this case it’s because he perceives a threat to his children. Okay, and let me pause right now to say that where Saunders comes up with a word like “wonk” I don’t know, but it’s so specific, and so perfect, and somehow in my mind, softens the violence of this man, like, makes it less threatening even though it seems clear that this wonking is pretty not good. Anyway, so but then the story goes on and we find out he’s kind of obsessed with Adams, and he thinks about the lengths he would go to to protect his kids, and then the last page and a half, in my opinion, are just so gorgeously painful, when he talks what he’ll miss about his wife and kids if he dies, yahhh!!! So, to come around to the point I was trying to make, here’s this guy who’s willing to battle violently because of this huge love. And it makes me think about so many things, like, I don’t have kids, but I’ve written a couple of stories now about characters who do, or are about to, and I have to say, I think I have more than a little Roger in me. I would totally, at the very least, think about wonking anyone who hurt my kids, and I don’t even have any yet.


B. E. Pinkham said...

Me first?
My favorites are Bohemians, CommComm and Christmas. (Right below those, probably Adams and Jon.) I'll never get enough of his ghosts, but yeah, I prefer the more naturalistic stories. (Ghosts are naturalistic, right?)
His characters's contradictions are fascinating and also humanizing, given some of their heinous activities. For some reason I find murderous humans less disturbing than murderous snack products. Maybe practice would help me with his extended metaphors--throughout I Can Speak, I had to keep reminding myself that it was a satire and not to worry about the babies too much.
I love the way his characters are only barely haunted by consciousness of the forces at work on them. (e.g. grief, guilt, jealousy and, always always, the distorted values of consumerism.)
How does he get away with allowing all that unrelieved pain to defeat his characters without completely depressing us? Maybe CommComm is last because the ending is not only beautiful, but positively uplifting.

Dean said...

Ok: first off, I haven't finished the whole book yet. (Insert favourite excuse of the moment here.)

That said, my favourite story so far is 'Christmas'. I like how Saunders ends it, as if he is doing penance for his failure to help John. And I like the absurd detail of the photo of John's friend's girlfriend. It's that sort of detail that makes the story sing: it's so absurd that it has to be true, and when a story is true, well, then, it sings.

I'm still on the fence about 'Adams'. I dislike Roger because he overreacts so much. The irony in the story is that Roger goes overboard over a percieved threat: why Adams was standing in his house in his underwear is never explored. Roger just assumes that he's up to no good, and goes from there, becoming more and more absurdly 'proactive' in his attempts to head off any percieved threats.

I love Saunder's masterful use of dialect. He invents it, fits it in, and it gives each story tremendous voice.

Betsy said...

Very thoughtful comments, Ellen and Dean. Ellen, yes, I agree, his characters have a sort of wonderful - unselfconsciousness of their character defects, if you will. And I'm glad you saw CommComm as uplifting as I did. I think he gets away from being depressing in the end because the humor is laugh-out-loud, and also, the humanity and essential truth of his stories, as you point out, Dean. And I couldn't agree more, the way his characters talk is to me brilliant.

smussyolay said...

okay. i'm going to start and then come back...because i have to leave and go to a gathering, but was comm comm that one where the guys bury that body and stuff? see.... that was one that i just didn't 'get.' i didn't get into it that much. maybe at that point i was reading too fast because i wanted to make sure that i had finished the book by today or something.

but i just didn't feel that one.

i liked the 'i can speak' one...although i was horrified, i did think it was funny (although, when people said that george saunders was 'funny,' i found that in reading him, i only found him funny in the way that funny is when you're really uncomfortable about things and it's funny in that weird-ha-ha way, not just strictly a ha-ha-laughing way.), albeit disturbing.

i think maybe my favorite was the one with the commercials and the girlfriend and the boyfriend (that was in persuasion nation? am i horrible for not just going over and getting the book?). again, disturbing.

okay. i need to get going to my gathering. i'll be back. i love this book club.

Matt said...

Strangely enough, the two stories that hit home the most for me seem to be the most diametrically opposed: '93990' and 'Christmas'. '93990' works because it is almost a clinical version of the absurd satirical stories in the collection. The monkeys are as oblivious to their surroundings as most of Saunders' other human characters, put through horrendous pain and suffering constantly from an all-powerful but not all-knowing other, and even those endure and persevere ultimately perish as unthinkingly as all the others. The starkness is offputting but powerful.

I like 'Christmas' because it seems to have the most positive final outlook for humanity that can be gleaned from Saunders' writing. The usual elements still are present (boorish, unthinking human distance, weakness, and suffering), but at least there is hope in the glimmer of awareness at the end. With awareness, there is at least the chance of possible betterment or further understanding. Compare this to 'the red bow' where the "human" compassion is more unthinking and instinctual or 'comcom' where you could argue that otherworldly outcome seems a tad value neutral (however encouraging based on what the reader might bring to the table) and you can see why 'Christmas' can be an appealing thought to grab onto.

/the polar bear/eskimo encounter was brilliant and worth the price of the book in a few paragraphs

// is wonk a combo of "whack" and "bonk" as in 'I whack you and you go bonk'?

Betsy said...

Smussy, yes, that was CommComm, and no, you are not horrible, libraries are a beautiful thing. What I took away on that story comes down to a paragraph on p. 277, which is too long to quote here, but it talks about a variety of people with various struggles, and speaks of a god-ish thing described as "Nothing-Is-Excluded", which could not be a more beautiful way to describe a god I'd like to believe in.
I am so glad you're loving the club! So am I!
Matt, you are scaring me with how smart and observant you are. There's nothing you said that I couldn't say worse. I will have to read 93990 again with your comments in mind because that's the only story of his I've ever struggled with, but what you said rings true.
Am I the only one who takes something positive away from most of Saunders stories? Because as hopeless as they seem at first glance, I just feel like the endurance and often the weird faith of the characters makes me see the beauty and hope in the world in spite of everything pointing away from it.
/yes on the polar bear/eskimo encounter
//sounds good to me

smussyolay said...

you know what i think a lot of my problem is? and maybe i need to go back and re-read them all as you comment?

but i think i do this in life... and i'm not sure how to stop. but i take everything so literally. and seriously. and everything is and even though i'm funny and witty and the life of the party, a lot of times i'm very overthinking and serious and need to be told to 'lighten up,' but of course when you tell me that i kind of want to scratch your eyes out, but only because i'm so insecure and i think you're telling me something horrible about my very being or even worse, that you don't understand my very being and how very terribly important and necessary all my feelings are, and so when i read these stories i think i just instantly identified with all these characters and all this pain and suffering and heartbreak and torture and i just want to say: what is so funny!? this isn't funny!? what great light at the end of the tunnel are you all seeing? because i am not seeing it.

but, i need to give these a second look and read with a different tone, i think.

this is why i love book clubs and talking with other people and exchanging ideas. being alone in my own head is so positively lonely and often very bad.

Dean said...

What's funny, Smussy (which is probably short for something...), is the absurdity. If you find absurdity funny, then Saunders is a treat. It's sharp, satirical absurdity, but it's absurdity that illuminates and points the way.

Like the first story, about the mask that gives the illusion that an infant can talk. It was hilarious, because who would buy such a thing? Except that it's THIS CLOSE to a product that people would buy. And when it's that close, it's funny, because it's absurd.

Betsy said...

Smussy, what I think is especially cool about your reaction is that it's so honest. I would say that you have the same tenacity and hope, underneath it all, and in spite of your pain and discomfort, that I see in these characters, otherwise you wouldn't continue to work as hard to move forward in your life as I know you are. And I suspect there will be a time, years on, when the humor will be more apparent to you, when it's not so close. Because from what I know of you, I'm a little more optimistic about your future than I am for these folks.

carolyn said...

my favorites are Jon, My Amendment and Bohemians. and 93990 while it's about monkeys (monkeys! love monkeys!) i think is one of the best, because it's most disturbing, but it's not a favorite because it almost hurts to read it.

Jon was a favorite because in some ways I found the ending the most
hopeful of all the stories. My Amendment because it's soooo topical to the ridiculous crap going on in the Senate/Congress right now. and Bohemians because i come from a family of old polacks and I loved how
the kid finds out the truth...

I agree that if you read these stories as if they were "normal" stories it would be very easy to feel the way smussy did. It's like watching Stephen Colbert. sometimes Saunders is just too believable and you lose the sense of criticism that's hidden underneath...

carolyn said...

p.s. oh and the kid thing? please. when i'm with my nephew and i see some older kid even just look at him funny, i'm ready to just jump right in there and take him out!

the weird thing in that story to me is how unresponsive the other guy is - we never have any clue what he's doing or thinking, we only know the anger in adams...

Dean said...

the weird thing in that story to me is how unresponsive the other guy is - we never have any clue what he's doing or thinking, we only know the anger in adams...

Absolutely right. The wonking guy's response is disproportionate. I think that that is the clue to what Saunders is really getting at with the story. The story is called 'Adams' but Adams is almost tangential. He's the object of the wonking, and that's pretty much all he does.

Betsy said...

Carolyn, yay, you came!

aem said...

i—late to the party as i am—agree that 93390 (or whatever!) was, like, the blatant, no-holds-barred, pared-down plot for the rest of the stories in this collection. it was almost entirely without humor, i thought, and kinda served as the how-to-manual for the rest of the book. so i thought it was kinda hard to read, too. but interesting in context!

[ok, i have to tell you, i'm in a coffeeshop on this sunday morning and this dude just asked what i was working on. which is annoying enough, when you don't know the dude. i told him i was writing, and he asked if i could write about him. i said, "do you ever do really weird, kinda violent, anticorporate things, cause then i will write about you. that's the kind of thing i'm writing about right now"—cause, back to the topic, that's the context within which i read this whole gorgeous book—and the dude goes, "no. but i have a lot of really horrible fights with my wife." ]

anyway after that experience i just don't know how much else i need to say!