The Year in Stuff We Liked: George Saunders’ Short Stories

This week, in lieu of a BEST OF 2011 series, we’re running five stories focused on Stuff We Liked in 2011.

If we cheat a little bit and include December 2010 as part of  2011 — and who would really call us on it anyway, as we all know the Committee to Insure (sic) Accuracy in Literary Blog Postings (CI(sic)ALBP) only investigates blogs with much higher circulations than DBC — then George Saunders published three (!) notable short stories in The New Yorker this year. That’s quite the figure.

And these were wildly diverse stories, content-wise, that dovetailed in the way that individual writers’ works tend to dovetail, which is to say: they dealt with the same themes, those being death and suffering. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” there’s a bleak prison where the inmates are subjected to stimulants that alter an individual’s mood, language patterns, or general capacity. In “Home,” there’s a returning veteran trying to exist in a post-combat world. And in “Tenth of December,” (which we wrote about on DBC) there are two protagonists whose fates switch back and forth, one trying to leave the world and one trying to create his own.

Saunders’ comments about his own writing—as The New Yorker interviews their fiction writers weekly over at The Book Bench—were also very interesting. In an interview about “Escape from Spiderhead,” Saunders talks about his method for procuring emotion from his readers, especially re: sympathy for his characters.

Somehow—maybe due to simple paucity of means—I tend to foster drama via bleakness. If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining. And he’s made of sugar.

I’m unsure if I’m on the record about this, so put me on, record-keepers, if I am not, but paucity is one of my, say, seven favorite words in the English language.

Regarding “Tenth of December,” Saunders talked about the editing process, and the conscious way in which he’s trying to engage with his characters on a neurological level.

Well, I certainly hope it’s something we all do (ha ha). Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.” That is, of course, an impossible task, the mind being so vast and prose being so inadequate. But it seems to me a worthy goal: try to create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.

Saunders is one of those writers whose own writings on writing are as interesting as his actual writing, if that makes any sense.

So it was a good year for Saunders. I’d be interested to see what he comes out with in 2012. Unfortunately, news about authors is a bit hard to come by, and so many keep their projects close to the vest. Here’s hoping there are three more great pieces coming in 2012.

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