Late in Jonathan Franzen’s recent, fourth novel, Freedom, Patty Berglund, six years estranged from her husband Walter after her affair with Walter’s best friend, takes an unusual path to reconciliation. On a wintry October night, Patty arrives unannounced from her home in Brooklyn at Walter’s distant, frozen, monastic, northern Minnesota door. Sitting down on his front step, she refuses to engage with him. Walter yells; Walter storms; loglike, Patty sits. Walter demands that she leave. Patty’s reply, in full, is “No.”
Not dressed for the frosty night, Patty sits, minutes passing, temperature dropping. Incredulous, Walter tramps off behind his house where he fulminates until “the bite in the air became…more serious [and] he began to worry about Patty.” He returns to find her “tipped over, less tightly balled up, her head in the grass…ominously, no longer shivering.” So Walter acts. Berating her all the while (“This is so fucking stupid of you…you can die when it’s thirty degrees out”), he carries her inside, deposits her on the couch, covers her in blankets, turns up the furnace, and tries, unsuccessfully, to make her drink hot water (“she blew it right back onto the upholstery [making] vague noises of resistance”). Touching her (“fingers icy, her arms and shoulders cold”), Walter understands that desperate measures will be necessary:
She fell asleep while he took off his clothes, and she woke up only a little as he peeled back the blankets and took off her jacket and struggled to remove her pants and then lay down with her, wearing only his underpants, and arranged the blankets on top of them. “OK, so stay awake, right?” he said, pressing as much of his surface as he could against her marmoreally cold skin. “What would be particularly stupid of you right now would be to lose consciousness. Right?”
“Mm-m,” she said.
He hugged her and lightly rubbed her, cursing her constantly, cursing the position she’d put him in. For a long time she didn’t get any warmer, kept falling asleep and barely waking up, but finally something clicked on inside her, and she began to shiver and clutch him. He kept rubbing and hugging, and then, all at once, her eyes were wide open and she was looking into him.
It is an unvarnishedly romantic scene: Patty, who has come in hopes of bridging, at last, the distance her affair imposed years earlier, goads Walter, through a pose of submission that becomes a show of commitment, into relying on nothing more than his human heat to save her, them.
In October 2011, a year after Freedom appeared, The New Yorker published “Tenth of December,” a long story by George Saunders after which his new, fourth collection of short fiction and seventh book is named. The story and the collection it closes seem to have Franzen’s novel in mind, most visibly in their salvational conclusions. What’s more, the two tellings may be seen as representative of two distinct directions fiction might take as it moves into the twenty-first century—two paths that have, in fact, been debated through recent years and that we may see, in Franzen and Saunders, flowering into competing visions, not merely of fiction but of being.
“The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs,” begins “Tenth of December,” is at solitary winter play (pellet gun, invisible antagonists, imaginary ally in peril) in snowy woods near his home. Tramping through 10 degree weather, he happens upon a coat, discarded and pristine (“Inside of coat still slightly warm”). The boy scans the landscape, spying the coat’s apparent owner halfway up a nearby hill:
Coatless, bald-headed man. Super-skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.
What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.
The plucky voice inflecting the narration is that of lonely, plump, preadolescent Robin Kendall, who, grabbing the coat, goes after the man. (“It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last.”) As Robin enters the woods, coat in hand, pursuer hands third-person narration to pursued: bald-headed, fifty-three-year-old Donald Eber. Suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, despairing of life, Eber has fled his hospital deathbed to commit suicide by exposure. Though Eber has a final resting place in mind (“cross-legged against the boulder at the top of the hill”), the ascent exhausts him and he finds himself “wrapped fetally around [a] tree.”
This was it. Was it? Not yet. Soon, though. An hour? Forty minutes? Was he doing this? Really? He was. Was he? Would he be able to make it back to the car even if he changed his mind? He thought not. Here he was. He was here. This incredible opportunity to end things with dignity was right in his hands.
All he had to do was stay put.
And yet, he will not be allowed even that much-diminished “all.”
Concentrate on the beauty of the pond, the beauty of the woods, the beauty you are returning to, the beauty that is everywhere as far as you can—
Oh, for shitsake.
Oh, for crying out loud.
Some kid was on the pond.
Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.
Within moments, Eber watches as “on the pond” becomes in: Robin—who takes a perilous shortcut to reach Eber more swiftly—falls through the ice. Faced with a choice, Eber, approaching death, finds he has no choice at all:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head….
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks.
Recalled to life, Eber stumbles downhill to the pond. With enormous effort (“It took four distinct pulls”) he drags Robin from the bank: the boy managed to flail his way to it before passing out, face down, in the snow, legs still in the icy pond. “Kid was in trouble,” Eber thinks. “Soaking wet, ten degrees. Doom.”
Eber went down on one knee and told the kid in a grave fatherly way that he had to get up, had to get moving or he could lose his legs, he could die.
The kid looked at Eber, blinked, stayed where he was.
He grabbed the kid by the coat, rolled him over, roughly sat him up. The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer. He had to get the kid warmed up. How to do it? Hug him, lie on top of him? That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle.
So Eber can’t do for Robin as Walter did for Patty when the husband “press[ed] as much of his surface as he could against her marmoreally cold skin.” Eber has no human heat to give. Rather, after Eber crosses the unstable ice of the pond to retrieve his own coat that Robin carried but dropped onto the ice as he fell through, he attempts to clothe the boy:
It was like the old days, getting Tommy or Jodi ready for bed when they were zonked. You said, “Arm,” the kid lifted an arm. You said, “Other arm,” the kid lifted the other arm. With the coat off, Eber could see that the boy’s shirt was turning to ice. Eber peeled the shirt off. Poor little guy. A person was just some meat on a frame.
And so it goes, Eber excavating Robin from the ice (“He loosened the pants up with little punches”) and stripping down to his own underwear as he reclothes the boy, hat to boots, in all he has. Robin thaws, flees the woods, is saved. Eber sits down in the snow, barefoot, all but naked, free to die.
Were the story to end there, there would already be much to discuss about the different ways in which Saunders and Franzen approach the practice of fiction. We could compare the language in which the stories unfold (Franzen’s “pressed…his surface…against her marmoreally cold skin” and Saunders’s “Popsicle-on-Popsicle”), Franzen reaching for a “serious” register that will make many of us grab a dictionary (“marmoreally” is new to me), while Saunders is dedicated to jocoserious language that any of us has at hand (I am familiar with the Popsicle). But the Saunders story doesn’t end there, and the varieties of stylistic register are supplemented by divergences of plot.
Robin reaches his house nearby, whereupon his mother acts. Into the woods she goes to complete the “real rescue” her son began. “Strong as a bull,” the mother seems to have brought a household of clothing to swaddle Eber in (“He was piled high with clothes. He was like the bed at a party on which they pile the coats”), and all but carries him back to her house where she plants Eber on a couch before a fire, fills him with hot liquid, and bundles him up further. Eber marvels at the moment:
What a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this!… It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was—
The woman reached down, touched his scar.
Oh, wow, ouch, she said. You didn’t do that out there, did you?
At this he remembered that the brown spot was as much in his head as ever.
Oh, Lord, there was still all that to go through.
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.
But Eber will not live, neither happily ever et cetera, nor much longer. So he wonders:
If some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it?… Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld.
Withheld; withhold: Eber’s brain, prey to the tumor, is misfiring, mangling tenses and turning his insight into, if not quite a punch line, the farthest thing from a canned literary epiphany delivered by yet another creature driven and derided by vanity, or whatever. The sweet sorrow of the message—that there are no happy endings, rather, “many drops of happy” if we can catch them—is soured by Eber’s malapropism at insight’s end, a minor chord that tunes his realization to the knowing, slightly embittered tone of the human animal: a creature forever aware of his own frailty.
If Franzen’s frozen denouement displays a romantic idea—neither new nor ridiculous—that the love of another can offer us deliverance from loneliness, Saunders’s own ending offers a metaphysically significant variation on that theme: that love of self can offer deliverance from loneliness as well. If Franzen’s ending may be read: We will die, but if we’re fortunate, we’ll feel the love of another before we go, Saunders’s ending may be read: We will die, but if we’re fortunate, we’ll learn to love ourselves enough that we’ll risk exposing ourselves to others not as we wish to be but as we are. Death by exposure indeed.
I appreciate that this can sound, in summary, like therapeutic woo-woo, but the potential fluffiness of the sentiment is in part what makes Saunders remarkable as a story writer: he is a dedicated ironist, but one who manages to smuggle what some might dismiss were it emanating from a pulpit or Oprah into narratives that are embraced, not ridiculed, for their frankness of feeling—particularly their frankness surrounding death.
“Rehearse death,” Epicurus tells us, and Saunders’s fiction has been preoccupied with such rehearsals. His first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), begins with the title story that sees its protagonist knifed to death on the final page while facing visions of the better man he could have been. In Pastoralia (2000), the body count rises, a boy flying, in “The End of Firpo in the World,” off a bicycle to his almost instantaneous end while a stranger’s consoling words compete with crueler voices in his head. In “Sea Oak,” a woman, unhappy with the life she led, dying at home but refusing to leave it, becomes a talking corpse, accepting her physical finish only when she literally can’t keep things together and is carried out in a Hefty bag, in parts.
In Persuasion Nation (2006) closes with the story “CommComm,” in which the protagonist, who lives with the literal ghosts of his dead parents, is stoned to death by a coworker. Of course, much imaginative literature from Homer and Virgil and Dante forward is deathcentric, but in the epics of those authors, death was a soldier’s reward, one greeted by funerary rites fit for fallen heroes off to find their rightful place in an empyreal afterlife. In Saunders, death or its threat typically prompts not commemoration but action: a choice in life.
“The Falls,” first published in 1996 and set in a small town with a school called St. Jude,1 presents such a choice to two men simultaneously: Cummings and Morse. Morse, married with children, under enormous stress at work and at home, is bearing up under his responsibilities. Cummings, a self-styled artist who still lives with his mother, is in the habit of congratulating himself for orotund thoughts he mentally rehearses. He sees Morse as a boob:
Morse, ha, Cummings thought, I’m glad I’m not Morse, a dullard in corporate pants trudging home to his threadbare brats in the gathering loam, born, like the rest of his ilk, with their feet of clay thrust down the maw of conventionality, content to cheerfully work lemminglike in moribund cubicles while comparing their stocks and bonds between bouts of tedious lawn-mowing, then chortling while holding their suckling brats to the Nintendo breast. That was a powerful image, Cummings thought, one that he might develop some brooding night into a herculean proem.
By story’s end, the two men end up, independently, on different banks of the same river where each sees two little girls alone on a raft drifting to doom downriver. Cummings “stood stunned…thinking, I must do something,” but does nothing. Morse, who “began to run” the moment he saw the raft, reaches the conclusion, too, that nothing can be done. The story ends:
What would become of the mother who this morning had dressed them in matching sweaters? How would she cope? Soon her girls would be nude and bruised and dead on a table. It was unthinkable. He thought of [his son] nude and bruised and dead on a table. What to do? He fiercely wished himself elsewhere. The girls saw him now and with their hands appeared to be trying to explain that they would be dead soon. My God, did they think he was blind? Did they think he was stupid? Was he their father? Did they think he was Christ? They were dead. They were frantic, calling out to him, but they were dead, as dead as the ancient dead, and he was alive, he was needed at home, it was a no-brainer, no one could possibly blame him for this one, and making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water.
Coded in Morse’s clear choice, in the sound of despair his body makes as it embraces certain, yieldless death—he will not save the girls; he will die in the trying—is the straightforward idea that he would not be able to live with himself otherwise. To close his heart to such suffering, to fail to attempt to benefit another, would be, in life, a fate worse than death. A cliché, that phrase, “fate worse than death,” and yet, dramatized in Saunders’s fiction, the force of feeling so hopeless a denouement delivers—the moment when Morse’s capacity for empathy is greater than his fear of death—is overwhelming.
“I want to be more expansive,” Saunders told Joel Lovell of The New York Times Magazine in a profile occasioned by the publication of Tenth of December. “I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to.”2 In Saunders’s coterie, there is an earnest evangelism to bring readers to fiction, a certain kind of fiction unhelpfully called “literary,” the promotion of which he and Franzen and others have made a missionary cause waged on a dark continent.
“The problem isn’t that today’s readership is ‘dumb,’ I don’t think,” Saunders’s friend and agemate David Foster Wallace said, in 1993. “Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.”3 And the reason why these writers find that engagement essential despite “unprecedentedly” difficult conditions is because of their experience as readers of the kind of fiction they aspire to: their faith that the practice of reading it brings a lessening of the human burden. “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction,” Franzen wrote in an essay on William Gaddis, “is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.”
But how to do so in a culture distracted to distraction? This question has been at the heart of vigorous, public, long-term debate about contemporary fiction that has unfolded since Saunders published “The Falls.”4 How will writers of this sustaining form of fiction manage to attract readers to their retrograde delivery device of stories, one so much less user-friendly than one’s phone? Wallace, in the late stories collected as Oblivion, showed a commitment to difficulty as a solution, a sort of user-unfriendliness, the idea that if the stories require enormous dedication of a reader to ferret out the more commonly conspicuous narrative enticements—Who is telling this story? What is happening? What just happened?—the reader might work harder to seize the rewards of hard work.
This was an optimistic kind of pessimism, one in which stories from that collection—particularly “Mister Squishy,” “Oblivion,” and “Good Old Neon”—achieved astonishing degrees of narrative complexity and, for this reader, pure pleasure.5 But as suggested by Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel,” the long story that ended Oblivion (not incidentally the final book of his fiction published with Wallace’s consent), pessimism won out. That inadvertently terminal artistic statement features a striking concluding image: that of an unusual artist, one capable of defecating figurative sculpture—
“But they’re shit.”
“And yet at the same time they’re art. Exquisite pieces of art. They’re literally incredible.”
“No, they’re literally shit is literally what they are.’’
—who is poised to deliver, into a Lucite toilet, on television, on camera, live on “The Suffering Channel” and on the story’s final page, “either an iconically billowing and ecstatic Monroe or a five to seven inch Winged Victory of Samonthrace.” That the studio where this was happening was in the World Trade Center, and that the date of the live broadcast—July 4, 2001—was airing ten weeks ahead of schedule, an original air date that therefore can be computed as to have been September 12, 2001 (if we take the time to connect the calendrical dots), suggests a level of irony so acid as to render any reader mute with astonishment: the only good that could have come from September 11 would have been for it to have saved us from such a broadcast of shit both literal and figurative, but which, it turns out, couldn’t be stopped even by terrorists.
So when Saunders says he wants to be more “expansive,” I suspect he isn’t using the word incidentally. Rather, I believe he is using the word religiously: though he speaks little on the subject, Saunders practices Nyingma Buddhism, a Tibetan Buddhist tradition in which one commits to the path of the spiritual warrior whose weapons are “gentleness, clarity of mind and an open heart,”6 a practice to which he and his family, according to Lovell, “devote a significant part of their lives.”
Though I should make clear that my own knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist practice is limited to a few years of study and the beginnings of a sitting meditation practice, the word “expansive” is among those that the Tibetan nun whose teaching I’m most familiar with, Pema Chödrön (herself the student of a Nyingma Buddhist teacher), has used in lectures to describe different attitudes of mind:
If your mind is expansive and unfettered, you will find yourself in a more accommodating world, a place that’s endlessly interesting and alive. That quality isn’t inherent in the place but in your state of mind. The warrior longs to communicate that all of us have access to our basic goodness and that genuine freedom comes from going beyond labels and projections, beyond bias and prejudice, and taking care of each other.
When Saunders told Joel Lovell that fiction “softens the borders…between you and me, between me and me, between the reader and the writer,” that idea of softness registered as part of the teachings of which I’m growing aware:
If you could have a bird’s-eye perspective on the Earth and could look down at all the conflicts that are happening, all you’d see are two sides of a story where both sides think they’re right. So the solutions have to come from a change of heart, from softening what is rigid in our hearts and minds.7
Chödrön’s insights above do not strike me as life-changing ideas any more than they speak to me in deathless prose. But among the pieces of understanding that Buddhist practice has brought me toward is that the profundity of expression, in a faith practice, is much less about messenger than message—as students of the Bible from Jerome to Wycliffe to Tyndall to King James all knew well. These ideas expressed in plain serviceable prose become radical and beautiful only when one imagines them not as words but as action, as practice.
That softening of what is rigid describes so many of the denouements in Saunders’s stories. We see that softening in Eber’s rise from the resolve to die to the resolve to save another life, thereby saving himself. We see it in “The Falls” where the decision to see the dead as dead, by Morse, is reversed, rigidity becoming fluidity as he dives into the waters of certain death, fully alive. And the bird’s-eye perspective is literally adopted, in death, by several of Saunders’s warrior heroes—those in both “CommComm,” from In Persuasion Nation, and “Escape from Spiderhead,” from Tenth of December—as they rise from the very ground to see all sides of the fraught world they are leaving. “CommComm” concludes with the narrator, who has just been murdered along with another man, Giff, rising above the world:
Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below, and we hear their prayers, grievances, their million signals of loss. Secret doubts shoot up like tracers, we sample them as we fly through: a woman with a too-big nose, a man who hasn’t closed a sale in months, a kid who’s worn the same stained shirt three days straight, two sisters worried about a third who keeps saying she wants to die. All this time we grow in size, in love, the distinction between Giff and me diminishing, and my last thought before we join something I can only describe as Nothing-Is-Excluded is, Giff, Giff, please explain, what made you come back for me?
He doesn’t have to speak, I just know, his math emanating from inside me now: Not coming back, he would only have saved himself. Coming back, he saved Mom, Dad, me. Going to see Cyndi, I saved him.
And, in this way, more were freed.
That is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.
In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice.
Which brings us to the question of the two paths for fiction. If Wallace’s, at the end, was written with an awareness of a world teeming with information and distraction that made connection unprecedentedly hard, his fiction expresses a way for the individual to connect in that world nonetheless: fighting through the information for a place of understanding.
Franzen, too, has his characters find, in an unforgiving world, salvation from loneliness though very literal, palpable togetherness; it is possible for one human to save another. But if fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.
February 6, 2014
The Most Catastrophic War
On Breaking One’s Neck
Franzen chose St. Jude as the name for the home town of his Lambert family, in The Corrections (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). ↩
See “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” January 3, 2013. ↩
See Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 1993). ↩
A selective list of contributions to this debate might include Franzen: “Perchance to Dream,” Harper’s, April 1996; and “Mr. Difficult,” The New Yorker, September 30, 2002. Wallace: “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Fall 1988); “E Unibus Plurum.” Ben Marcus replied to Franzen in Harper’s; James Wood replied to Wallace’s generation and disposition, in 2001, in The New Republic; Zadie Smith replied, repeatedly, to Wood, with reference to Wallace, in both The Guardian and, subsequently, in these pages, in “Two Paths for the Novel,” November 20, 2008, naming the well-manicured English lane she called “Lyrical Realism” (in homage to Wood’s coinage “Hysterical Realism”), and where she installed the old McEwans and new Joseph O’Neills, the other side of the tracks from the avant-garde alley inhabited by old Wallace and new Tom McCarthy. Though different in focus, aim, and tone, these many thrusts and parries are unified in a concern over how fiction can continue to reach readers in what Thomas Pynchon, in his blurb of Saunders’s second collection, referred to as “these times.” ↩
Though not for everyone. See my “Don’t Like It? You Don’t Have to Play,” The London Review of Books, November 18, 2004, and ensuing letters by Jenny Turner and my replies to hers, etc., on the difficult subject of Wallace and difficulty. ↩
See Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Shambhala, 2012), p. 67. ↩
See Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Shambhala, 2006). ↩