Contributing to the perplexing and unfortunate trend of describing things as being “on acid,” The Philadelphia Inquirer blurb for the 1996 story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline compared its author to Walt Disney on LSD. George Saunders could just as easily be described as a “sardonic word-meister,” a “black-humor merchant,” or a “dystopia peddler,” but as it happens, “Disney on acid” does the trick. The majority of CivilWarLand‘s stories are set in futuristic amusement parks, stocked with garish, cartoonlike characters and administered via mixtures of neologism and corpo-speak. Like Nathanael West, Saunders is a brilliant distortionist who devises dark, hallucinatory arenas and sets fierce satires against countercurrents of grotesque sentimentality.
If CivilWarLand was Disney on acid, reading Saunders’s second collection, Pastoralia, is a bit like watching him coming down from the drug. The book begins where CivilWarLand left off, with a novella-length evocation of life at a theme park’s Stone Age exhibit. CivilWarLand‘s title story, set in a futuristic theme-park re-creation of the 19th century, didn’t so much jump between historical periods as stand time on its side and bleed one era into the next; ghosts wandered through parking lots, kicking the tires on tourists’ cars, and the juxtapositions reverberated madly. Nothing quite so anarchic takes place in “Pastoralia.” Two full-time troglodytes—the narrator wage-slave and his cynical, chain-smoking partner—spend their days pantomiming actual caveman behaviors (grunting at each other, pretending to catch and eat insects). In the evening, the cave actors negotiate the byzantine politics of a corporate culture in which brutal threats and bizarrely ingratiating memos from management pass for conversation.
But despite surface similarities (the two parks may as well be run by the same company), “Pastoralia” is concerned less with technical possibilities of the science-fiction scenario than with the psychological costs of inhabiting it. “Pastoralia” gradually reveals itself to be the story of one character’s moment of moral decision: Should our caveman use his Daily Partner Evaluation Forms to betray his slovenly coworker to management? Or continue to carry the burden of her unprofessionalism? What if her son is a junkie, about to land himself in jail? Or if his child gets sick? After all, his bills are mounting, and his own job is at stake. The cave dwellers are restricted to making guttural noises and have little contact with the outside world (they can only contact family members from a fax in the back of their cave), and this enforced aphasia—which Saunders contrasts splendidly with management’s dehumanizing seminar-speak—gives them a pathos which transcends the situation’s absurdity. The story, like many in this collection, is hilarious and heartrending in equal measure.
Pathos is Saunders’s great theme, and given the breadth of his satires, he’s driven to find it in the most extreme and unlikely circumstances. In “Winky,” a self-help guru begins his spiel with a latter-day evocation of Dante: “I’m lost!” he cries. “I’m wandering in a sort of wilderness!” In “Sea-Oak,” which shuttles between a housing project and Joysticks (a restaurant which sounds eerily like a cross between Hooters and the USS Intrepid), demure spinsters return from the grave to terrorize surviving family members with cruelly demanding but well-conceived plans to lead them out of poverty.
But midway through the collection we find “The End of FIRPO in the World,” a story (it turns out to be a terribly sad one) about a boy riding his bike around the suburbs, and with it, an abrupt shifting of gears on Saunders’s part. Gone are the wicked, panoramic parodies of corporate America, the sci-fi simulacra, and the wildly exaggerated characters ensconced in them. Saunders’s sentences remain familiar, but they describe smaller worlds, infused with the hopes and suffering of people who look less like circus freaks than like our friends and neighbors. Here, and in the remaining stories, Saunders emerges as a lyricist (the boy rides his bike around blocks “shaped something like South America”) and even, unexpectedly, as a guarded optimist.
In “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” Saunders describes an aging bachelor’s torment over a first date. In “The Falls,” he contrasts the worried thoughts of a besotted family man with the musings of a poetaster, then sets two girls in a canoe hurtling over a waterfall to test each man’s response. The poet does nothing; the family man makes “a low sound of despair . . . and [throws] his long ugly body out across the water.”
With that image, Saunders seems to turn conclusively away from the scathing critique of his earlier stories and toward a quieter, but no less compassionate, defense of small things. By returning agency, and some small measure of pride, to his characters, he imbues Pastoralia with a sense of possibility that CivilWarLand, for all its flash and fury, could never accommodate.