Theme-park theodicies

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Pastoralia: Stories, by George Saunders (RiverHead Books, 2000), 188 pp., $22.95.

So the pitch for the story goes something like this: a young man, the product of a working-class Chicago neighborhood, educated as a petroleum engineer at the Colorado School of Mines, starts writing at his computer terminal on the sly short stories about sad people with hilariously bad jobs, and then out of relative nowhere gets published by the New Yorker. His first collection of stories (1997’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) brings him acclaim throughout the literary parallel-universe as a new and astounding voice, which has seemingly burst fully formed from the head of Zeus.

In a literary market that rewards innovative—but not too innovative—work, George Saunders (whose second collection, Pastoralia, was published last year) seems a comfortable anomaly, a Raymond Carver come back from the dead in the guise of cartoonist Scott Adams, consistently delivering a taut, corporatized brand of magical realism. But Dilbert this ain’t. Beneath Saunders’s fresh and brilliant humor is an impressive compassion for the afflicted, coupled with an earnest moral critique of millennial American culture in all its glimmer and gore.

But first a bit about the setup. In “Sea Oak,” the third story in Pastoralia, a television blares a show called The Worst That Could Happen: “A half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.”

The show is a good proxy for most of Saunders’s stories—all of his protagonists seem to have been thrust into a netherworld of social stigma (from the man in his forties who still lives with his mother to the eight-year-old boy doomed to wear shoes that don’t light up at the heel) or poor employment (professional cave-man, male stripper, work-at-home solderer of metal triangles). Saunders has a gift for imagining a worst-case scenario and then just letting the story unfold. How can a story (“Pastoralia”) whose protagonist must live full-time as a cave man in a “living history” amusement park—communicating with his co-workers only via grunts, and with his ever-downsizing superiors only via fax—how can such a story be anything but funny? This is Monty Python on the printed page, and as sketch comedy it works brilliantly.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the social critique really kicks in. Saunders’s stories take place in amusement parks, exotic-themed hotel conference rooms, strip-malls, and badly-named apartment blocks (“At Sea Oak there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx”). All of these, in one way or another, are about hiding from reality, via the simulation of something—the past, or another place, or the uniformity of retail establishments differentiable only by their concatenated brand-names (HardwareNiche, FunTimeZone, FoodSoQuick, KnifeWorld).

Saunders’s protagonists live in their own simulation, more often than not paralyzed by interior monologues—all but exchanging the reality of action for pure, self-contradictory thought. Take the opening lines of “The Falls,” Pastoralia‘s final story:

Morse found it nerve-wracking to cross the St. Jude grounds just as school was being dismissed, because he felt that if he smiled at the uniformed Catholic children they might think he was a wacko or pervert and if he didn’t smile they might think he was an old grouch made bitter by the world, which surely, he felt, by certain yardsticks he was. Sometimes he wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t even a wacko of sorts, although certainly he wasn’t a pervert. Of that he was certain. Or relat ively certain. Being overly certain, he was relatively sure, was what eventually made one a wacko. So humility was the thing.

In Saunders’s stories, simulations—be they mental, lexical, or physical—are ultimately about hiding from life’s inevitable unfairness. For Saunders’s characters who are able to pierce the plastic sheen of euphemism, the question becomes one of theodicy, the question of Job and Jeremiah and Psalm 73: why do the righteous suffer? Or, in the haunting final words of a “Sea Oak” resident who laments a lifetime spent pretending things weren’t as bad as they really were: “Why do some people get everything and I get nothing?”

Life’s unfairness is ultimately a spiritual, rather than a merely social, question. Start in on how you’ve been systematically shortchanged and you quickly come to question what, if any, sort of God would tolerate such injustice. But the response, when and if it comes, rarely makes much more sense than the circumstances that spawned the question in the first place. How can Job, that master of the legitimate complaint, wind up satisfied with a divine speech that provides logical answers for exactly zero of his concerns? I’m not going to attempt to fully answer that one—though there seems to be something significant about seeking God’s presence in the midst of paradox. It’s at that whirlwind-swept point that logic and conventional storytelling fall apart—and where things really start to get interesting.

Flannery O’Connor, who was never one to shy away from pounding a metaphor home, once ended a story (“The River,” 1953) by having a neglected child purposely drown himself in an attempt to find the “Kingdom of Christ in the river” that he’d heard a traveling preacher speak of—death becoming a symbol for the power of baptism, rather than the other way around. Most of the stories in Pastoralia echo O’Connor’s work, and one in particular, “The End of FIRPO in the World,” is an uncannily arresting suburbanized recapitulation of “The River.”

Cody, the aforementioned eight-year-old forced to live a life sans luminescent footwear, is a young man with a plan for self-redemption. He is, like all of Saunders’s characters, unhappy, and not without reason—scorned by the yuppie neighbor kids, yelled at by his teachers, and mocked as disgusting and incompetent by his mother and her boyfriend (“FIRPO” being the undefined yet ominous family acronym for all that is bad about Cody).

As he pedals furiously around his block on sidewalk and street, our young hero plots his revenge and vindication: he will, using a small wood lozenge, stop up the yuppie kids’ garden hose, causing it to balloon and burst, leaving them soaked and speechless and winning acclaim for himself (from the scientific community at large and his mother in particular) as the sabotage’s genius perpetrator. Everything is in place, the imaginary crowds are cheering him on, and nothing can go wrong as Cody rounds the final corner, misjudges a curb, and is broadsided by an oncoming car. Boy and bike go flying, and the car’s driver rushes over to where Cody has come to rest after ricocheting off a tree. The last two pages of the story capture Cody’s final thoughts—mostly self-condemnation for the way his scheme (like all the others) has failed, coupled with quizzical disdain for the car’s skinny and shirtless driver, who, once he realizes the boy is dying and fast, commences evangelizing:

Listen, God loves you, said the stickman. You’re going, okay, I can see you’re going, but look. Please don’t go without knowing you are beautiful and loved. Okay? Do you hear me? You are good, did you know that? God loves you. God loves you. He sent His son to die for you.
  Oh the freaking FIRPO, why couldn’t he just shut up? If the stickman thought he, Cody, was good, he must be FIRPO because he, Cody, wasn’t good, he was FIRPO. . . . The announcers in the booth above the willow began weeping as he sat on Mom’s lap and said he was very sorry for having been such a FIRPO son and Mom said, Oh thank you, thank you, Cody, for finally admitting it, that makes it nice, and her smile was so sweet he closed his eyes and felt a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance.
  You are beautiful, beautiful, the stickman kept saying, long after the boy had stopped thrashing, God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight.

All of the stories in Pastoralia end with last-ditch attempts to escape the paralysis of obsessive and ineffectual thought. Saunders’s characters, like most of us in an oversimulated world, find that they need more desperately than anything else to do something, to leave the trappings of fantasy and step into reality—to embrace theodicy rather than hiding from it. And when at last they move from thought to action, the results are irrevocable: for some, the action simply places the final nails in the coffins of their despair; for others, action is the rebirth of hope. Some find death, some find salvation, and a precious few find both.

Originally published in re:generation quarterly, summer 2001

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