Friday, November 02, 2007

George Saunders is Inside My Head And I Can Only Hope He Remains Blissfully Unaware of This Fact

From now on, in my classes, I think I’m just going to tell my students, ‘Please go get The Braindead Megaphone and read “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra” and “The Perfect Gerbil” (along with “The School” by Donald Barthelme), because these two pieces articulate, in a far more entertaining and intelligent manner than I ever could, exactly what I think about writing, and reading, and if you have any further questions, I’m sorry about that, because there isn’t anything at all that I can add to advance or illuminate the discussion, and your time would be just as well spent sitting here in silent contemplation for the next ten weeks.’

During the school year, I have little time to spend reading the ever-growing, nay, perilously Tower-of-Pisa-like pile of books on my nightstand, much as I am loving what little of it I have poked into lately (Roy Kesey – freaking fantastic! Deb Olin Unferth – totally want to be her in my next life! Tao Lin – whoa.) One could suggest that I cut back on my television viewing, to which I would say to one, ‘ For one thing, One, I have to have some entertainment while I’m in bed weaving our new living room rug (yes, One, you heard me right) also, most evenings, past the hour of say, eight, my brain begins to fuzz over and cannot properly absorb reading as well as it can earlier in the evening, and frankly, before you judge me, One, you should really check out Pushing Daisies, because it’s about the cutest show ever, I don’t care if anyone thinks it’s too precious, it is precious, but not in a Care Bears kind of way, just in a super fairy-tale bittersweet comic love story kind of way, with super cute 1950’s style clothes, and Anna Friel, if you’re a google-yourself kind of gal, and I hope you are, I would love for you to star in the movie version of my story of your choosing. Actually, I would write a story just for you to star in. (Although Pushing Daisies people, if I had any complaints, there’s maybe just a smidge more cleavage taking place on this show than seems necessary to move the plot. But maybe that’s just me.)

Getting back to Saunders, the piece about Vonnegut is so freaky to me, because the trajectory of my life as a writer bears some very similar, albeit completely different experiences. Unlike Saunders, I was introduced to Vonnegut in sixth grade – we also read a bunch of Pinter, and the following year, Salinger, and my pre-teen imagination ran completely wild. I had decided when I was eight that I was going to be a writer, and I had always loved reading, but it had never been more clear to me that this was what I wanted to do. Forget that I didn’t have much of an idea at the time about what any of it meant – it was odd and hilarious and gorgeous and it made me write stories about made up creatures that lived under the dining room table and babies born in empty rooms who aspired to be on Johnny Carson, but then I was assigned to read some people like Hemingway and some other perfectly fine writers like Austen and Fitzgerald (and with regard to Hemingway, heavy emphasis here on ‘assigned’, because I’m quite sure this assignment was in no way completed) and for reasons that escape me now, I completely forgot that the Vonneguts of the world existed and started thinking about themes and climaxes and denouements and trying to describe things, like I dunno, wildlife? bullfighting? women in petticoats named Eliza Jane? which weren’t things I was especially interested in, in our 11th floor apartment at 588 West End Avenue, I was interested in Wacky Packs,

and the Partridge Family,

and why my friend from fifth grade was showing up at school with belt marks on her back, and why my friend from sixth grade who used to be into old movies like me came back after the summer to seventh grade suddenly into sex and the marijuana.

Hm, this is so not where I thought I was going with this. Where was I going with this. Nowhere as usual, likely. The point, I think, is that it appears that Mr. Saunders had his own circuitous route to writing the way he writes, and I very much appreciate my unaloneness in that, and am reminded why I try to encourage my fellow writers and writing students to read all kinds of different stuff, not because they should be writing like Vonnegut or whoever floats their boat, and especially not to write in nice tidy upward sloping stories before coming back down at some mathematically predetermined end, but so that they go, ‘So, you’re saying that if Vonnegut writes like Vonnegut, maybe I can write like, er, me?’

To which I say yes, yes you can, and you don’t even have to wait until you’re thirty-five before you let anyone read it.


carolyn said...

wickedly awesome post, dude. lovelovelove pushing daisies and hello i thought I was the only one who noticed the cleavage thing! you were the one who introduced me to george sanders (last year during your 'let's read short stories' promotion. are you going to do that again this year? hee hee)so for that i thank you. and the last para? love it.
carry on. ;)

Nick Ostdick said...

I've been meaning to buy his new book since it came out! Sounds like you're enjoying it. More so than his fiction?

B. E. Pinkham said...

Great post! It's me again, with a belated comment! Last summer, my precocious writer nephew, apparently all puffed-up by his triumphant successes in high school and the multiple college acceptances that followed (yes, U of C wanted him, but not badly enough to give him real money,)told me that he was disappointed to discover that "Vonnegut only wrote like a six-year-old." I managed not to gasp, but could say nothing while flashing on the image of me wiping the kid's butt when he was 3 months old. He's at least 6 ft 3 inches, now.
So, of course, I read Saunder's essay on Vonnegut with great excitement and relief. And triumphantly sent a copy to that nephew. Haven't heard back from him, yet. He may just be too busy enjoying the fabulousness of being a freshman at the College of Wm and Mary. But at least I tried!

Saunder's piece about Barthelme got me to go read "The School." which really did remind me of you, and reinforced my belief that the best stories are always slightly mysterious. Maybe I ought to copy that story and Saunder's excellent commentary on it for the Nephew. I'm not giving up on him yet!

Josh H. said...

So, right now I am reading Haruki Murakami's short story collection The Elephant Vanishes. I know Murakami is a divisive figure amongst people who care about such things but oddly enough I think the vast majority of the short stories in this collection are about how to write short stories. It's actually pretty amazing and there is one in particular called "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning." Maybe I am getting to meta with a meta author but I swear this short story has nothing to do with a girl and a guy and everything to do with how to craft a short story. And there are other more obvious ones as well. It's really starting to blow my mind. And, by the way, George Saunders is genius. Pastoralia probably serves better insight into out social/political lives and problems than any work of non-fiction in the past few years. But, seriously, as a writer and a teacher, read The Elephant Vanishes and if I am wrong I will, I don't know, give you your money back as like a Josh Honn Guarantee or something.