Friday, October 12, 2012

Pastoralia, by George Saunders

For information on the Guys Lit Wire Book Fair for Ballou Sr High School in Washington DC, please see our post from last week. Over 150 books have been bought from the Powells wish list thus far! -CM From Dickensian orphans to Tom Joad, literature has found rich territory in the lives of characters struggling to get by. While they may not be imprisoned in the Marshalsea, the characters who populate George Saunders’s short story collection Pastoralia share the burden of being trapped in lives they know to be far from ideal.

The title story extracts a somewhat bleak humor from a worker portraying a caveman in a living history park; the performance of the ancient colliding with the intrusions of modern middle management. While skinning a goat or pretending to search for bugs to eat or grunting for the benefit of the rare park visitor, our narrator is called away by faxes concerning performance reviews and staff reorganization. Saunders has an ear for the faux-understanding language of these memos and, with their intrusion into the illusion of prehistory, highlights the falsity of the corporate-speak.

But the wry satire is muted by the narrator’s quiet sadness. He works to send money back to support a sick child and struggles with how to handle his underperforming cave colleague, who is distracted by an addict son and ill mother of her own. Under threat of downsizing and inconsistent food delivery, the distant corporate managers are as distant from the narrator and as unknowable as the gods or spirits of his caveman.

Other stories in the collection take settings more familiar, but no less bleak, for characters who run up against the futility of change. In “Sea Oak,” a family is visited by the formerly gentle aunt who had cared for them, now back from the grave, bolder, and with a plan to improve their situation. “Winky” features a man of the sort who goes to motivational seminars looking for life changes he cannot follow through. The stories share a heightened reality that makes more vivid their lives of desperation, in a manner reminiscent of certain Kurt Vonnegut stories, but Saunders doesn’t allow the extremes to overshadow a perceptible compassion for their quietly sad stasis.

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The book fair for Ballou Sr High School continues through October 14. For more information, check out the main post and the wishlist.

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