At least half of the George Saunders stories I’ve read could reasonably be titled “The Job from Hell.” One of my favorites, “John,” is narrated by a young man whose entire life is regulated by the advertising agency that employs, or rather owns him. Everything he wears or eats, every ‘leisure’ activity and personal interaction, is engineered for marketing purposes Within a sealed environment. If this sounds like the Truman Show, the difference is that, since John’s cultural input consists of advertising and instructions from his handlers, he can only express himself, his emotions and ideas, in commercial jingles and corporate teamspeak. This makes for a very funny and heart-wrenching story.
In both his first collection, Civil War Land in Bad Trouble, and his most recent, Tenth of December, Saunders is drawn to our culture’s portals into the landscape of nightmare, by which of course I mean theme parks. In one story, security-obsessed but ultra-cheap park management hires an armed war criminal to patrol Civil War Land, with sanguinary consequences; in another, the mood-altering drugs given to role-playing employees to put them in the proper fantasy-land frame of mind lead one of the King’s Guards into disastrously chivalrous conduct. The contrast between the superstructure of manufactured happiness and the basis of corporate cynicism makes an easy mark for satire; the key to a successful story is to use the surreal language of theme parks against itself in ways that are comical and disturbing, and Saunders is quite good at this, though it must be admitted that his stories of workplace dystopia can start to seem repetitive.
So I was happy to find a new territory being explored in Tenth of December, namely the language of kids and parents. Here, from “Victory Lap,” are the musings of Allison as she cruises into the kitchen, doing little hops and poses from her ballet class:
We might have a slight snack—un petit repas. Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh gosh, she didn’t know…in the history of the world, many had been more special than her. Helen Keller had been awesome, Mother Teresa was amazing, Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped. Which in addition she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual. She, Allison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies—not yet, anyway. There was so much she didn’t know, like how to change the oil, or even check the oil.
Who was this wan figure, visible through the living-room window, trotting up Gladsong Drive? Kyle Boot, palest kid in all the land, still dressed in his weird cross-country toggles…poor thing, he looked like a skeleton with a mullet. Were those cross-country shorts from the like Charlie’s Angels days or quoi?
How adorable is that? Note the spectrum of humor, from the unintentional (toggles, conceptual, which in addition she had been gay) to the conscious (like Charlie’s Angels days), along with some cases where I can’t decide (slight snack). As Allison opens the door for a man dressed as a meter reader and begins to sense that he is not right, we move inside Kyle’s head.
Kyle’s head is inhabited largely by the voices of his overbearing, rod-up-the-ass parents. He comes home to find a “work order” instructing him on the placement of a new geode in the yard, a task for which he will receive five (5) work points. This will bring his current total to fifteen (15) work points, entitling him to one (1) major treat, e.g. two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins. But before he can carry out his assignment, his attention is drawn away by the strange interaction between Allison and the ‘meter reader’ who has her by the wrist. He wanders onto the deck, where the stranger sees him, reveals a knife, and threatens to use it on the girl if he makes a move:
In his chest, Kyle felt the many directives, major and minor, he was right now violating: he was on the deck shoeless, on the deck shirtless, was outside when a stranger was near, had engaged with that stranger.
As it becomes clear that the man is dragging Allison to his van, Kyle thinks:
He was just a kid. There was nothing he could do. In his chest he felt the lush release of pressure that always resulted when he submitted to a directive. There at his feet was the geode. He should just look at that until they left. It was a great one, maybe the greatest one ever; the crystals at the cutaway glistened in the sun. It would look nice in the yard, once he’d placed it. He would place it once they were gone. Dad would be impressed that, even after what had occurred, he’d remembered to place the geode. “that’s the ticket, Scout!”
I won’t spoil it by telling you which side wins the struggle between the human voices in Kyle (including the fact that he totally has a crush on Allison) and his parents’ fascistical ‘directives,’ but I can tell you that Saunders’ stories include both dismal endings, including some where the main character’s suicide seems like a relatively positive turn, and (much more surprisingly) some comforting and reassuring ones. He probably needs to be careful about this: I’m sure that his use of science-fiction elements (as in “John”) already threatens his status as a serious writer, and if he starts to have too many happy endings…well, they might take away his teaching job and start publishing his books in glossy covers instead of matte. Maybe even with raised letters.