George Saunders
George Saunders; drawing by David Levine

The short story is a minor art form that, in the hands of a very few practitioners, becomes major art. Its effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts. In isolation, striking and original as individual stories might be, it’s likely that they would quickly fade from literary memory, as a few scattered poems of Emily Dickinson, separated from the poet’s great body of work, would have long since faded into oblivion.

Yet one might argue that collections of short fiction have been among the major literary accomplishments of the twentieth century. Surely the astonishing stories of Franz Kafka (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor,” “A Report to an Academy,” “The Hunger Artist,” among others) are a greater accomplishment than his uncompleted novels. Thomas Mann’s shorter works—“Death in Venice,” “Mario and the Magician,” “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” among others—are an achievement equivalent to that of the lengthy, ambitious, doggedly cerebral great novels.

In a very different vein, there are the brilliantly realized short stories of Katherine Mansfield, who never wrote a novel. There is Jorge Luis Borges, whose wonderfully original, idiosyncratic work consists almost entirely of enigmatic ficciones, some of them very brief. The short stories of Ernest Hemingway, including the entirety of his remarkable first book, In Our Time, are a greater accomplishment than the novels that brought him wealth and celebrity; no novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Peter Taylor, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, among others, is the equivalent of their short stories. J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories is at least the equivalent of the immensely popular adolescent saga Catcher in the Rye, and of more abiding interest to adults. And there is the example of Raymond Carver, who wrote short stories and poetry exclusively, and who has ascended since his premature death in 1988 to near-mythic status as “the American Chekhov”: a posthumous celebrity that suggests a certain bleak irony if one is acquainted with Carver’s personal life.1

The perennial question “Is the short story an endangered species?” would seem to assume a perilous contemporary climate for the survival of this purely literary form. Despite the present-day profusion of literary magazines of varying degrees of excellence, and recent publications of outstanding short story collections by writers who have made the form their primary mode of expression, among these Tobias Wolff, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore, the late Andre Dubus, and the veterans Grace Paley and Alice Munro,2 one doubts that the twenty-first century will be as hospitable to short story writers as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been. Short stories, unlike novels, are invariably “literary” and the audience for serious literature is said to be static; in some quarters, it’s likely that the perusal of reviews of books has replaced an actual reading of “primary materials” (i.e., books).

In this radically diminished landscape, the generally reliable, heroically edited, and accessible annual anthologies The Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and The Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses are invaluable.

No more beautifully cadenced and moving collection of short fiction is likely to appear this year than Colum McCann’s provocatively titled Everything in This Country Must, a gathering of two stories and a novella. “This country” is Ireland, the time is the near-present, and the subject is the Troubles, pervasive as mist obscuring the green countryside. It’s an era when political strife is unavoidable even by those who hope to define themselves as apolitical, and when no family, Catholic or Protestant, has been untouched. Wounds are fresh, though rarely discussed; forgiveness, though reasonable and necessary, simply isn’t possible for many who have suffered personal losses. The title story begins ominously, with that air of melancholy beauty and resignation that characterize McCann’s understated, luminous language:

A summer flood came and our draft horse got caught in the river. The river smashed against stones and the sound of it to me was like the turning of locks. It was silage time and the water smelled of grass. The draft horse, Father’s favorite, had stepped in the river for a sniff maybe and she was caught, couldn’t move, her foreleg trapped between rocks.

The narrator is a young farm girl named Katie who may be somewhat slow; through her limited perspective we are brought into the lives of a Catholic family devastated by the loss of family members struck by a British army truck:

…I could hear in Father’s voice more sadness than when he was over Mammy’s and Fiachra’s coffins, more sadness than the day after they were hit by the army truck down near the Glen, more sadness than the day when the judge said Nobody is guilty, it’s just a tragedy, more sadness than even that day and all the days that follow.

McCann sustains a mood of dreamlike suspense and mounting anxiety through an adventure that involves young British soldiers vainly trying to help save the draft horse, and ends in a gesture of anguish that’s both unexpected and inevitable: “Oh what a small sky for so much rain.”


From a very different perspective, the second story, “Wood,” depicts a Protestant family at a time when the father, a miller and carpenter, has had a stroke, and the mother must take on responsibility for the household. Here too the perspective is that of a child, a boy who comes to a realization of his parents’ precarious situation in a tensely politicized Northern Ireland; his father has distanced himself from local anti-Catholic activity (“Daddy says he’s as good a Presbyterian as the next…but it’s just meanness that celebrates other people dying”), while the boy’s mother is more willing to cooperate, and to provide poles to carry banners in the annual Orangemen’s march. The story builds to a dramatic pitch yet isn’t finally dramatic, still less melodramatic. As in the Joycean model of poetically rendered, elliptical fiction, the conclusion is only a poignant trailing off from overt confrontation:

I looked at the oak trees behind the mill. They were going mad in the wind. The trunks were big and solid and fat, but the branches were slapping each other around like people.

The novella “Hunger Strike” is a more ambitious, and more painful, depiction of a young person’s agitation at a time, presumably in the early 1980s, of intense political confrontation in Northern Ireland. A fourteen-year-old Belfast boy has been taken by his mother to live in Galway for the duration of a hunger strike by IRA prisoners in a Belfast prison; one of the prisoners is the boy’s twenty-five-year-old uncle, his deceased father’s younger brother, whom the boy has never met but whom he reveres. The novella takes us into the boy’s most intimate experience in his involuntary exile. He’s transfixed by the hunger strike, which lasts for over fifty days; with mounting terror and fury he thinks constantly of his uncle: “He was one of four prisoners on the strike—already, for each man dead another had replaced him and the boy found it strange that the living were stepping into the bodies of the gone. The dying, he thought, could go on forever.” While the boy endures his uncle’s martyrdom at a distance, he also is susceptible to frequent outbursts of destructiveness and vandalism; his rage is barely contained. In Northern Ireland, too, violence erupts anew in response to British refusal to grant the striking prisoners political status:

The riots back home were full-scale now. Some prison guards had been shot. Two joyriders had been gunned down in Twinbrook. A young girl, bringing home milk, had been hit in the head with a rubber bullet and she was in a coma. Somebody had slit the throats of a whole herd of cattle because they belonged to a Catholic farmer and the herd had been strung together to make the word NO in the field.

McCann’s powerfully imagined elegy for the passing of youth’s idealism suggests both the bittersweet, unsentimental lyricism of Edna O’Brien’s early Irish stories and those novels by Bernard MacLaverty, Cal and Grace Notes, in which the tragic shadow of the political falls across the lives of sharply rendered, individualized men and women. At the end of “Hunger Strike,” the bereft boy is forced to realize that “…the uncle he didn’t know was all the uncle he’d ever know.” Perhaps this is a way of speaking of the ambiguous relationship of a young generation of Irish writers, some of them expatriates (McCann, born in Northern Ireland, currently lives in New York City), to Ireland itself.

There’s this frantic but good-hearted guy Johnny Loop, born loser, just released from two years in a Galveston prison and now “frying across the Texas panhandle” in July to arrive in Vegas where he meets up with Fruit Loop his stunted but busty and hippy and blond-as-bleach younger sister in her wedding dress who’s about to be married to built-like-a-bull semi-pro football player Breezy Bonaventure of the Sarasota Panthers, except there are complications involving considerable violence when a pervert in a nearby hotel conspicuously leers at Fruit Loop and Breezy and the entire Panther team, obliged to seek vengeance, beat him up and Johnny Loop left to ponder his existential dilem-ma, while downing numerous cans of beer:


I do not like to gamble and done Vegas too many times. I am not lucky. Some people are lucky. The big finger in the sky is pointed at them. The big finger in the sky never so much as took the time to poke me in the eye.

In a casino bar Johnny Loop is approached by a beautiful woman who is ten times better looking than any woman who ever looked at him twice in his life, a schoolteacher from Iowa dressed all in shiny spangles. She smiles at him, and next thing Johnny Loop knows it’s hours later, he’s waking from a nightmare, his sister Fruit Loop and Breezy Bonaventure are married and gone on their honeymoon, and it’s being explained to Johnny Loop by a doctor how lucky he is to be alive because it seems that a crucial organ has been surgically removed from his body. But to elucidate any further would be to cheat the reader of the opportunity to discover how Tom Paine works out this wild, wacky, finally poignant title story of his virtuoso collection Scar Vegas.

There are ten remarkable stories here, with singular idiosyncratic voices, characters in extremis like Johnny Loop, and a passionate political vision underlying the inspired chaos of the plots. Scar Vegas is a bold and original first book rendered for the most part at breakneck speed. In the opening story, “Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?,” a young American male of the privileged Caucasian class (“The world loves me”) suffers an accident on a single-handed sailing trip out of the Bahamas and bound for St. Barts, endures hardship in the killing sun, and begins to hallucinate:

The third day the sea was glass, and then the wind whispered at noon and feathered the glass in running swaths. For hours, Eliot watched the swaths dapple in the sun…. When he awoke, his throat was on fire, and he wanted to drink from the sea and he swallowed, and the salt burned like acid down his throat…. He closed his eyes and saw the boom over the fieldstone fireplace in the pastel living room of his house in Locust Valley and saw himself standing under it telling the story of his shipwreck. There were many people in the room listening, but they were all strangers.

In this cruel parable of First and Third World experience, Eliot Swan is joined at sea and his life saved by desperate Haitians who have fled their country seeking asylum in the United States, their battered wreck of a boat adrift for twenty days. The story would seem to be gearing up for a fairy-tale happy ending…but when American rescue workers arrive in a helicopter to save the privileged Mr. Eliot, we don’t find out whether he will insist that they save the Haitians, too.

Among Paine’s dramatic stories of winners and losers, the privileged and the victimized, the companion piece to “Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?” is a surrealist horror story, “A Predictable Nightmare on the Eve of the Stock Market First Breaking 6,000,” tracing the physical and mental degradation of a female investment banker (her Cheeveresque name, Melanie Applebee) who has been fired by her superiors for having told them about her discovery that a colleague was trading illegally on inside information. Melanie Applebee has been a highly productive employee of a wealthy capitalist organization:

She had been praised by Hart’s management for her plan for a restructuring. The plan closed down marginal stores, bought a chain of cut-rate drugstores, slashed the pension program, reduced employee stock options, severely limited the health plan, and cut wages. [An associate] she went on a blind date with at the time told her everything she and he were doing was probably pure evil.

As in a medieval allegory in which “evil” is suitably punished, beautiful, blond Melanie with her MBA winds up as a piece of merchandise herself, sold by an enterprising young capitalist to an Arab sheik, and to be transported “to Mexico City, then to Oman. Or Dubai. Where the market wills.”

Clearly these savagely politicized stories are not in the fastidious, psychologically subtle mode of the mainstream modern short story that has descended through the decades from Chekhov, Joyce, and James; these are tales that play boldly with caricatures, stereotypes, and large moral issues that, in the hands of a less gifted writer, would make for unconvincing reading. In “General Markman’s Last Stand,” a Marine hero revealed as a cross-dresser prepares for his public humiliation on his last day of service. In “The Battle of Khafji” a “clean-cut Burlington [Vermont] boy” joins the marines and is shipped to fight in Operation Desert Storm, with tragic consequences (“…It was like a party: We were finally going to get some trigger time“). As this summary suggests, these are emboldened tall tales that thrive upon excess, and if the gifted Paine has any weakness it’s his very energy, which can become wearing; paragraphs dense with detail fly by us like a conveyer belt whose speed is ever accelerating, and the precarious humanity of Paine’s characters is overshadowed by the very ambitions of his prose.

Despite its fatuous cover—the torso of a chunky ballerina in green chiffon, with a cutely blank Magritte-mirror for a head—Carol Shields’s third collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is an intelligent, provocative, and entertaining collection of variegated prose pieces, both conventional and unconventional. Of the twenty-two stories a few are admittedly slight and overly whimsical; several of the more promising fade disappointingly, as if the author had lost interest; but the majority are deftly, even sunnily written, and bristling with ideas, reminding us that fiction need not be emotionally devastating or “profound” to be worthwhile.

The quicksilver opening story, a sort of musical overture, “Dressing Up for the Carnival,” glides rapidly about an unspecified Canadian city (Shields, an American, lives in Winnipeg, Ontario) with Woolfian bravura: “All over town people are putting on their costumes.” In thumbnail sketches we glimpse women and men in private moments as they reinvent themselves by way of eye-catching clothing or ornamentation, or impulsive, exotic purchases (a mango, for instance, or a big bouquet of daffodils), or sporting a “smart chignon.” Shields both celebrates and gently mocks the human need to mythologize the self, in however trifling and evanescent ways. Thinks a middle-aged man who sometimes, in secret, waltzes about in his wife’s nightgown, “We cannot live without our illusions.” The “shriveled fate” these anonymous citizens perceive for themselves can be postponed, it’s believed, by such hopeful acts.

Shields suggests that “dressing up” is what we are all doing, and certainly what writers must do, in the service of creating and sustaining the illusion of art. Several of her most winning stories are about thoroughly unromantic, self-doubting women writers. Like the middle-aged female protagonist of “The Scarf,” they have come to the writing life not by way of passion and vision but indirectly, having first been editors and scholars. The author of My Thyme Is Up is puzzled by her novel’s “sparky sales,” and has been made to feel guilty in the light of the lack of success of a more gifted but less “accessible” woman writer friend; she is awarded the Offenden Prize, given annually to a novel of literary quality that has “a beginning, a middle, and an ending”—which confirms the book’s minor status. (Shields won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries in 1995.)

In a companion story, the mildly satiric “The Next Best Kiss,” two academic writers meet and begin a love affair at a conference on the fin de siècle crisis: the male professor gives a paper titled “End of the Self” (“Todd confided to Sandy that the text… might eventually find its way into the New York Review of Books, although the editors were asking for substantial changes”); the female professor presents a seminar titled “Diatribe and Discourse in the Twenty-first Century” which is “loaded with allusive arrows” to Lacan. The love affair, such as it is, would seem to have been con-cocted out of sheer verbiage, as well as groveling need on both sides. It ends abruptly, when the woman utters an unintended truth the man isn’t prepared to accept, for all his pose of unflinching honesty.

In any case, what is happiness, in contemporary times?

…Those twin demons, happiness and sadness, had lost their relevance. Happiness was a crock; no one…really had it for more than a minute at a time. And sadness had shrunk, become miniaturized and narrowly defined, a syndrome, a pathology—whereas once, in another time, in a more exuberant century, in a more innocent age, there existed great gusts of oxygen inside the sadness of ordinary people…. Sadness was dignified; it was referred to as melancholy…. It was a real affliction, like color blindness or flat feet.

A more ambitious story about writers is “Edith-Esther,” which describes the uneasy relationship between an elderly woman writer of distinction and her intrusive male biographer, who turns the writer’s lifelong religious agnosticism inside out in the service of writing an “up-lifting” biography that, ironically, will sell better than his subject’s novels have sold. Edith-Esther knows that her biographer will misuse her, as he has misused his previous biographical subjects, but how can she protect herself?

She understood how careful you had to be with biographers; death by biography—it was a registered disease. Thousands have suffered from it, butchery by entrapment in the isolated moment. The selected moment with its carbon lining. Biographers were forever catching you out and reminding you of what you once said….

Edith-Esther can escape her biographer only by dying.

The weakest prose pieces in Dressing Up for the Carnival read as if they’ve been spun of whimsy, to be hurriedly typed out even as inspiration fades: what if the National Association of Meteorologists were to go on strike, and we had no weather for weeks; what if the Queen vanishes, and the “progression of seasons” ceases. Shields is amusing, but not very interested in pursuing where these hypotheses might lead, so these pieces tend to trail off.

The strong concluding story, “Dressing Down,” however, is a chill counterpoint to the opening story of dressing up: a young boy’s grandparents become permanently estranged over the issue of a summer nudist camp in southern Ontario, to which the grandfather is devoted. Encouraged by the grandfather to spend time with him at the camp, the ten-year-old boy is shocked and sickened by what he sees, not liberated as his grandfather had hoped:

People with their limbs and creases and folds were more alike than I thought. Skin tones, hairy patches—that was all they had. Take off your clothes and you were left with your dull suit of invisibility.

What I witnessed led me into a distress I couldn’t account for or explain, but which involved a feverish disowning of my own naked body and a frantic plummeting into willed blindness. I was launched into the long business of shame, accumulating the mingled secrets of disgust and longing….

In a final defiant gesture, the boy’s grandmother leaves instructions that after her death her naked body be placed in a coffin to be kept open at her wake; of course, the family, mired in convention, refuses to obey.

Where Carol Shields is swift, effervescent, and inclined to ideas, Alice Elliott Dark is introspective, brooding, willing to risk a kind of Jamesian stasis in the hope of deepening our engagement with her characters. Unlike Shields’s women and men, who bounce about the page like balloons, Dark’s women, men, and children are defined by and often burdened by their histories; they are individuals not to be glibly defined in terms of class or types, though they might seem, from a distance, to be of a singular species: educated, upper-middle-class, Caucasian suburbanites for whom financial security, social status, and politics are not issues. They don’t reside in Locust Valley, like Tom Paine’s privileged ugly American Eliot Swan, nor are they near neighbors of the alcohol- and lust-driven inhabitants of John Cheever’s Shady Hill. The citizens of Dark’s suburban village Wynnemoor (an inspired name) are unexceptionally intelligent, decent, and hopeful; even the adulterous are desperately eager to do the “right” thing, and no action is performed that isn’t mulled over, conscientiously.

Dark’s characters are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, almost exclusively family-defined; quite a few are middle-aged or older; it’s rare that one can say of himself: “I was a bachelor unto myself and complete. I’d never married or even fallen in love” (“The Tower”). One of the collection’s most movingstories, “Home,” takes us into the experience of an elderly woman whose invalid husband has just been admitted to a nursing home, on the dayshe’s informed by her married daughter that her husband and the rest of the family are selling the house she’d believed was hers, and making arrangements for her to live with her husband in the nursing home. When she objects, she’s informed that she has no choice, for she has no property or income of her own. This subtly rendered story becomes by swift degrees a horror story, the more terrifying for its domestic setting. The good, dutiful wife of sixty years, Lil is coldly informed by her daughter:

You should have stood up to Dad years ago…. I hate the thought of you losing this house. You’re like one of those Indian women being thrown alive onto her husband’s funeral pyre. A suttee.

In the Gloaming is a collection of ten beautifully composed, quietly narrated short stories reminiscent of the stories of love and loss of the late Alice Adams. Each story exudes the gravitas of a radically distilled novel; though, in well-crafted short story fashion, we begin near the story’s climax, we are brought through flashbacks into the protagonists’ lives, and come to assess them in ways they aren’t able to assess themselves. The much-admired title story, which was selected by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, is a love story of a special kind: the emotional experience of a woman who discovers that her gay son who is dying of AIDS is “the love of her life,” and not her husband, who has been largely absent from his family but made into a “benign image” concocted by the wife herself, “a character of her invention, with a whole range of postulated emotions.” This elegiac but toughly unsentimental story is utterly convincing in its depiction of the dying son’s last days, and the urgency both mother and son feel about exploring their new, romantic discovery of each other: “You’re where I come from,” the son, Laird, says. “I need to know about you.” Their conversations become increasingly candid:

“I’m asking about your love life,” she said. “Did you love, and were you loved in return?”


“I’m glad.”

“That was easy,” he said.

“Oh, I’ve gotten very easy, in my old age.”

“Does Dad know about this?” His eyes were twinkling wickedly.

“Don’t be fresh,” she said.

So skillfully is “In the Gloaming” written, so subtle the presentation of the mother’s mental state, that the reader comes to share in her delusion that the afflicted Laird will somehow not die, and that their journey of discovery will continue indefinitely, as if the bond between mother and son weren’t predicated entirely upon Laird’s fatal illness. If Laird were well, the last place he’d be would be in Wynnemoor, in his parents’ home. Yet the mother can console herself, in the twilight, “the gloaming,” of their life together:

How many mothers spend so much time with their thirty-three-year-old sons? She had as much of him now as she’d had when he was an infant—more, because she had the memory of the intervening years as well, to round out her thoughts about him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that if a writer begins with an individual, he may end up with a type; if he begins with a type, he will end up with nothing. Alice Elliott Dark would seem to refute this theory by presenting us with characters who, at first glance, appear to be familiar types: the callow young husband/adulterer in “Close” who makes a pilgrimage to his boyhood home, quixotically seeking a sign to help him with his life; the boastful bachelor in “The Tower” who falls deeply in love, for the first time, with a young woman who is the daughter of a former mistress and who might, or might not, be his own daughter.

In the volume’s concluding story, “Watch the Animals,” a suburban stereotype named Diana Frick (one of Wynnemoor’s “moneyed blue bloods, the descendant of a signer”), dying of cancer and needing to find homes for her numerous rescued animals, is confronted by stereotypical gossipy neighbors who ponder the older woman’s behavior, which differs so markedly from their own:

[Diana’s animals] were not purebreds, or even respectable mutts. She collected creatures that others had thrown away, the beasts left on the side of the highway or confiscated from horrific existences by her contacts at the ASPCA; the maimed sprung from labs, the exhausted retired from dog tracks; the unlucky blamed for the sins of the household and made to pay with their bodies…. Immigrants from hell, she called them….

She took these animals that otherwise would have ended up euthanized at best, and she trained them and groomed them and nursed them and fed them home-cooked foods until—we had to admit—they bore a resemblance to the more fortunate of their species. They behaved, as far as we could tell. But from a practical standpoint, could they ever be considered truly trustworthy? Who knew what might set them off?

Yet these clucking old biddies reveal themselves, finally, as fully human too. “Watch the Animals” is a perfect ending for the elegiac stories of In the Gloaming, bringing together Dark’s commingled themes of impending loss and unreasonable hope. The Wynnemoor community embraces Diana Frick only when she signals to them that she is as vulnerable as they, and as mortal.

If George Saunders’s hyperkinetic dark-fantasist-satirist prose in the mode of Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme, and DeLillo is an acquired taste, it’s a taste quickly acquired. This master of low-mimetic lunacy can make you laugh aloud even as you wince at his deadpan excess and the manic, compulsive syntax that mimics, as in a ghastly echolalia, those thoughts we might consider our own, and “normal.” There’s an admirable boldness, too, in the way in which Saunders recycles motifs (America as theme park, for instance) from story to story. The six talky, bizarre tales of his new collection, Pastoralia, are very like the seven talky, bizarre tales of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996); like the entrepreneurial zealots whom he satirizes, Saunders exploits his material with slight variants, improvising upon a formula of stream-of-consciousness black humor that sometimes, but not often, spills over into sheer comic-book silliness but occasionally, as in the new collection, engages us unexpectedly.

Saunders’s brain-damaged and frequently physically handicapped characters will perhaps be more amusing to readers with no qualms about mental retardation, autism, senile dementia, and physical disabilities, but it should be kept in mind that satirists from Aristophanes and Rabelais to Swift and Céline and Lenny Bruce have been outrageously cruel, and our current politically incorrect humor is especially so:

The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter. We were young, innocent of mercy, and called her Boneless or Balled-Up Gumby for the way her limbs were twisted and useless…. She was scared of the tub, so to bathe her Split Lip covered [her] couch with a tarp and caught the runoff in a bucket.

(“Isabelle,” in CivilWarLand)

From Pastoralia, the final minutes of a child named Cody who’s afflicted with a mysterious “nosehole”:

The boy on the bike flew by the chink’s house, and the squatty-body’s house, and the house where the dead guy had rotted for five days, remembering that the chink had once called him nasty, the squatty-body had once called the cops when he’d hit her cat with a lug nut on a string, the chick in the dead guy’s house had once asked if he, Cody, ever brushed his teeth. Someday when he’d completed the invention of his special miniaturizing ray he would shrink their houses and flush them down the shitter while in tiny voices all three begged for some sophisticated mercy, but he would only say, Sophisticated? When were you ever sophisticated to me?

…But then oh crap he was going too fast and missed it [running over a neighbor’s hose], and the announcers in the booth above the willow gasped in pleasure at his sudden decisive decision to swerve across the newly sodded lawn of the squatty-body’s house. His bike made a trough in the sod and went humpf over the curb, and as the white car struck him the boy and the bike flew together in a high comic arc across the street and struck the oak on the opposite side with such violence that the bike wrapped around the tree and the boy flew back into the street.

The America of Saunders’s uninflected prose has become a virtual-reality America of theme parks, amusement enterprises, and private habitations like Sea Oak (“no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx”), where characters watch TV programs like How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen. They live with physically impaired relatives, whom they are obliged to care for, with limited resources. And try to earn a decent living! The hapless narrator of the title story plays a prehistoric cave dweller in a theme park, but business is falling off; his mate keeps forgetting her scripted role, jeopardizing both their jobs by speaking English (“No freaking goat?” “What a bunch of shit”). Nor is romance a likely possibility for the cave couple:

She’s in there washing her armpits with a washcloth. The room smells like her, only more so. I add the trash from her wicker basket to my big white bag. I add her bag of used feminine items to my big white bag. I take three bags labeled Caution Human Refuse from the corner and add them to my big pink bag labeled Caution Human Refuse….

She’s fifty and has large feet and sloping shoulders and a pinched little face and chews with her mouth open.

As if aping primitive cognition, the title story, “Pastoralia” is excruciatingly long, and slow, as a centipede is slow, moving its legs in deliberate sections, unhurried. Here is a purposefully clumsy prose that presents a considerable obstacle to the reader, yet the effort is usually worth it, as with the effort required to get through the companion stories “Winky,” “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” and “The Falls,” in which the unattractive, seemingly moronic characters work themselves up to decisive acts, or almost. “Winky” is the funniest, its opening scene a parody of an EST-like self-help seminar held in a Hyatt, under the direction of Tom Rodgers himself, founder of the Seminars:

Now, if someone came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say? Would you say: “Wow, super, thanks, please continue crapping in my oatmeal”? Am I being silly? I’m being a little silly. But guess what, in real life people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time—friends, co-workers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids!—and that’s exactly what you do. You say, “Thanks so much!” You say, “Crap away!” You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, “Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?”

All the protagonist, Neil-Neil, wants is the courage to tell his mentally retarded sister Winky to move out of the apartment they’ve been sharing for too long, but when he’s put to the test Neil-Neil fails. Of course: “He wasn’t powerful, he wasn’t great, he was just the same as everybody else.”

In their original settings in the columns of The New Yorker, amid glossy advertisements for high-priced merchandise, George Saunders’s goofy riffs on the travails of freaks and losers who sometimes manage to rise, only just barely, to the level of the human, suggest the voyeuristic fascination/revulsion of those eighteenth-century European aristocrats who visited asylums to be entertained by the spectacle of lunatics. Yet Pastoralia is less stridently dystopian than CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and the author’s vision, if that’s an appropriate term, is less cruel. At the end of the final story, “The Falls,” a man is drawn to attempt the rescue of two girls in a sinking canoe, as if David Lynch and Norman Rockwell were suddenly conflated: “…Making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water.”

This Issue

June 29, 2000