Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders

George Saunders In Persuasion NationLike Denis Johnson, whom I just wrote about, George Saunders represents a certain sub-quasi-genre that has never been properly defined and which I feel somewhat ill at ease writing about. Saunders has drawn, and acknowledged, comparisons to Vonnegut and like that author, his fiction is built on a sort of hyperactive social criticism/commentary not-disguised as mordant, zany, parable-like figments of enraptured sputtering. Am I letting my judgments show yet?

I don't like Vonnegut-like stories or novels. (I do like Vonnegut's straightforward essays, though. I think his metaphors work much better outside of fiction.) I don't like their habit of naming things as a way of being funny (e.g. Books that Contain Too Many Capitalized Compound Nouns) or inventing things as a way of condemning things that exist. I recognize, however, that a good many people appreciate exactly what I can't stand.

The good news, for me at least, is that Saunders is perfectly capable of writing things that don't do these things. "Bohemians" is a fantastic story (and so is "Christmas"), and it gets by on none of these metafictional crutches. I don't begrudge Saunders his penchant for social commentary, but I do think his art suffers when this commentary is powered by cleverness. When cleverness is the central focus, Saunders's stories unbalance themselves, for he leans too far in the direction of the reader in order to nudge and ask her rather persistently if she gets what his meaning is. This is the point of metafiction—to address the reader and ask if she's keeping up with you, the author. To do this in what amounts to a series of explicit parodies of consumer society is insulting to the reader.

Two stories manage to comment on social functions or social formations and yet to avoid the droll facileness of the other socially-engaged stories. "The Red Bow" is a frightening look at the way highly visible grief is used to engender violence even in the absence of real or substantiated fear and is, as you should see by that description, one of the best 9/11 stories I've read. "Jon" is, somewhat like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a story about the control of natural reproduction and the effects of that control on love and human relationships.

Both these stories succeed, at least in my view, because their subject is the human, not society. They are explorations of human consciousness and human behavior, not social organization or systems of control. Which is not to say that these are two distinct sets of things, only one of which may be treated in fiction (a position which would seem, in some dark moments, to describe James Wood's view of the novel's place and purpose, as well as its history). The social is very much a part of the novel—both its history and its (multifarious) purpose. But it cannot exist independently of the human, and Saunders too often tries to do just that.

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