Perhaps it is unfair to George Saunders to review Civil War Land in Bad Decline when Pastoralia was the book that introduced me to him. But that is the order in which they were read and so that is the order in which I evaluate them. That being said, I suspect I may have been more pleased with this collection had Pastoralia glinted suggestively from the future instead of casting a shadow from this reader’s recent past.
Civil War Land in Bad Decline opens with a short story of the same name. And in many ways there is a flash of instant recognition with “Pastoralia” — the short story that opens the collection sharing its name. The recognition comes from many familiar-sounding echoes: people that live in or are otherwise bound to theme parks, “fake” elements of the landscape (e.g., brooks, bugs), a never-ending stream of performance evaluations and other paperwork, ghosts and other shambling undead cast members… Perhaps these are the hallmarks of Saunders’ work but these elements are more pronounced and repeat more often in these collected stories; Pastoralia‘s seemed to temper them better, rationing out these specific images more judiciously.
Maybe Saunders was just more mature when he wrote Pastoralia. I know that I read that one in about a day; compare with Civil War Land in Bad Decline where I started it and then took a 3-4 day hiatus before resuming — not really missing it and knowing that:
- I’d remember where I left off because
- I had a pretty good idea of where it was going.
And where it goes is into some pretty bleak territory. If you’re optimistic, you might say that Saunders has given us a black comedy. But I’m not so optimistic. I’ll admit there are some catchy one-liners, some humorous insights and laugh-out-loud mise en scène — but there is a grim fatalism that looms over everything. Everyone and everything in Saunders’ stories is destined for failure. Hen-pecking and cuckoldry prevail; abusive bosses nit-pick their employees more/less to literal death; good intentions are met with skepticism and rejection — moments of apparent acceptance or good fortune are thinly veiled cynical plays of one-upmanship. No one is safe. Everyone is out to get you.
You have to stop and wonder what it’s like to be married to this guy.
The epiphany moment was, for me, while reading the second story — “Isabelle”. It struck me as somehow better that “Civil War Land in Bad Decline” but it was also a bit more oblique and morally cloying. It reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s “Think” — only without the prurient overtones that got me all excited (right before making me feel bad that I kinda/sorta hoped this guy might cheat on his wife).
And perhaps that’s where I feel myself leaving off with George Saunders. Like I (the proverbial Reader) have already married DFW and I’m sneaking off to these motel rooms with handsome George for lunch-break trysts. It isn’t that he isn’t a good lover (writer) and isn’t that I couldn’t love him (his stories). But the timing was wrong. He came along after the vows had been spoken and I’d committed myself to Wallace. We could have been so happy together but instead we sneak off and keep it clandestine. We should cut this off, George; you’ve grown and you should be happy but it can’t be with me. I feel I’m being dishonest… Am I being unfaithful to DFW? Or in having married myself to him am I unfaithful to you? Even just asking these questions only seems to make your missives to me (your stories) that much more bleak, that much more depressing and hopeless.
At least as we part ways and we close the pages of this volume, you manage to pull yourself together and prove to me that you need not remain mired in despair, that you’re going to be just fine.