Chattering Spirits

Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux
George Saunders, Oneonta, New York, November 2012

From beyond the grave, a zombie named Aunt Bernie questions the nature of capitalism. “Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?…Why? Why was that?” she asks. Her nephew, the narrator of George Saunders’s story “Sea Oak” (1998), in which this query appears, has no answer to that perennial puzzle. He recognizes that she has every right to speculate, however. “She never had a life. Never married, no kids, work work work.” Later in the story, he wonders whether other zombies are speaking up here and there, troubling their relatives with pointed inquiries about the economic injustices they suffered in life. “Maybe there’s angry dead all over, hiding in rooms, covered with blankets, bossing around their scared, embarrassed relatives. Because how would we know?”

The phrase to note here is “angry dead.” The dead are angry because, despite all their hard work, they haven’t had the lives they expected to have, and instead of feeling resignation or acceptance, they stick around in a state of denial, coaching their surviving family members on how to get a leg up. Aunt Bernie, back from the dead but still a firm believer in upward mobility, advises her nephew, a male stripper, to go to community college and to major in pre-law. “Pre-law is best,” she shouts from the living room floor where her body is rotting. “You’ll be a whiz. You ain’t dumb.”

The specter of failure—the abyss of unemployment—is so dire in Saunders’s short fiction that his characters typically lose their humanity in their efforts to get ahead. In this I’ll-do-anything model of free enterprise, the secret to success remains just that, a secret, to most of Saunders’s benighted characters, despite their willingness to trade in their souls to stay on the job, any job.

From the salaried worker testing out insanity-inducing drugs in “Escape from Spiderhead” to the man who reenacts Stone Age scenarios in “Pastoralia,” his characters’ capacity to cope with the work they’ve agreed to do defines their humanity, or lack of it. Like David Foster Wallace, Saunders might be described as a chronicler of postmodern employment within an anarcho-capitalist system that’s like a giant carnivalesque theme park, many of whose rides and sideshows are lethal.

In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” for example, from his collection Tenth of December (2013), the eponymous girls of the title are immigrants from the third world. Their task is to hang decoratively from a sort of wire clothesline in the backyards of those rich people who have acquired them; this wire is threaded through their brains. Neither alive nor dead, the Semplica Girls serve as the semisentient possessions of their wealthy proprietors who proudly show them off swaying prettily, half-alive, in white diaphanous dresses.

In Saunders’s stories, alienation is an antique emotion from the mid-twentieth century,…

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