George Saunders circa 2013 (photo: Robert Birtnbaum)
Actually, as we said in the Chicago of my youth, I could give two shits about awards, literary or otherwise. However, when someone like George Saunders is the recipient, attention must be paid…
It has been one of the joys of my long post-graduate career to have spoken with George at least three times** Not to mention the great pleasures derived from reading his writings and other of his creative activities. In case it has escaped your attention, the commencement speech delivered by fiction writers is a burgeoning literary genre. Here Saunders declaims at Syracuse University in 2013:
Which was subsequently published as a chapbook (as was David Foster Wallace’s This is Water) and spawned an animated adaptation…***
George Saunders and my pooch Rosie circa 2006 (photo: Robert Birnbaum)
From my chat with George (2006)
RB: The last Batman was a rated as a kid’s movie. My son was terribly upset at the shooting scene of Batman’s parents. GS: Right.
RB: We walked out. Was that supposed to be okay? Not to mention that there are Army commercials with the coming attractions for kids’ movies. Maybe that is the culmination of Neil Postman’s ideas in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “And now, this just in…” GS: I see it in my own very limited brain. I can’t really do two things at once. In my view the whole O.J. and Monica thing was a kind of prep—a stupidity prep. And we said, “Oh, that’s important? It’s interesting? I can really lower myself to worry about the sperm-covered dress and not have to stop myself and I can actually pretend that’s serious cultural stuff?” All right, so then you lower yourself into that vat. And then 9/11 comes. And we are totally ready to be fed this bullshit and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. So a lot of that stuff was coming out in this book. And some of the reviews are, “Oh, it’s a poke at advertising.” Which to me—that’s not enough. Something about this idea that you said—you can’t wallow in shit and then come out smelling clean. I think culturally we somehow stupified [or stupidized] ourselves and now we are paying the price.
RB: The ubiquity of marketing is the most obvious thing. Consumerism seems to be a [government-sanctioned] religion. GS: That’s right. We are of the same generation, and I remember thinking if we could just get rid of this religious stupidity, our wonderful humanist nature would rise up. And that didn’t happen. What happened was our materialist nature rises up.
George Saunders, circa 2013 (photo: Robert Birnbaum)
From another conversation… RB: Is there a clear relationship between the writing and your personality as you move around in the world? You have been writing 20 years and you have been doing it in a certain way to refine certain things that you want to communicate, so are you a different person because of your writing? GS: Yes, yes. What happens is that the things that get brought forth when you are working in a story then become things that you can drape your personality around in a certain way. But you knew that this was a tendency in yourself—having written it, then, it’s concrete and you can jump to that next level. RB: It’s like saying, “I didn’t know I thought that.” GS: Exactly and when I was younger I thought it was the other way around. I thought you had to figure out who you were and then type it.
GS: Now it feels much more like you don’t know who you are until you have worked—and it’s not even—it happens for me over a course of months. You finish something and then you go—and even then it’s not the intellectual part, it’s the visceral part. You have made this thing. Like I just had this “CommComm” story in the New Yorker; through the long process of working on that, I figured out something about how I want to proceed with my life from here. Just a small, I couldn’t express it, a small thing. I kind of knew it before but having written the story there is no looking back. So the process of having the subconscious purify that—
RB: I don’t think I have heard anyone say that—that is, to talk about the intimacy of their own thinking process affecting their life decisions—they always seem so separate.
GS: It is discrete but then I noticed—well, for me it has to do—it never happened when I was young and I wrote a story quick. But as I get older and I am taking longer and longer, I have a feeling that the subconscious mind is sort of forming itself behind the story that you are working on in some way. And if you go slow enough it overtakes the story at the end and that’s that epiphanic thing that people talk about. And then for me that’s nice that happens—
I always think if you write a story about a clown being decapitated, it doesn’t mean that you have anything against clowns.
“best book of the year.” Feb 2013
RB: You wrote the “best book of the year.” GS: Yeah so far. But it’s only one month in. RB: I can’t decide whether you were a victim or a beneficiary of two pieces of press earlier this year. There was the New York Times, which asserted that your book was the “best book of the year.” And the other was a piece at Identity Theory opining that you are now repeating yourself. GS: No I’m not. No I’m not. No I’m not. I don’t know that piece. RB: (laughs) I didn’t read it—if had read it I wouldn’t have had time to read something else. I read the Times piece and it didn’t read like a review. It read like a press release. GS: That was in the magazine. It wasn’t really a review as such. RB: Oh right. It was a profile. GS: It had a different slant. RB: And then your publisher took out a full page ad in the Times citing that “best book of the year” quote, reminiscent of movie reviewers who write reviews with lines they hope will be quoted in ads. GS: Sure. RB: That was a big expenditure for a short story collection. GS: Yeah, yeah, I though the whole thing was— RB:—crazy? GS: Fun. At 54, at a certain point in your career it’s just nice to see action. It’s more interesting to have something energized happening than not. I kind of think, “Whatever, whatever happens” and— RB: From where I sit the world of books, literature, and publishing, I think of you as being significant and important. But maybe from where you sit, teaching at a university in the middle of New York state plowing away at your work, you don’t think of yourself as being significant and/or important. GS: No. Most of the time you are writing, writing the next thing. Or teaching, so it doesn’t seem…maybe if we’d had talked a year ago, before this book came out, I would have said something like “I don’t have a huge audience.” I wonder why not. I wonder if it is— RB: (laughs) GS: No, really. Is it something I’m doing wrong—?
Saunders 1st novel and awarded Booker Prize 2017
Hari Kunzru does Saunders’s novel justice…
Since the days of the beats, the Bardo Thodol has been known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A more accurate if less catchy title is “Great Liberation on Hearing in the Intermediate State”. Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all“bardos”, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towardsnirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterises human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body. The Bardo Thodol is intended to be read to them during this journey, an instruction manual to assist them on their way.
George Saunders has long been accepted as one of the masters of the American short story. In this, his first novel, the Lincoln trapped in the bardo is Willie, the cherished 11-year-old son of the great civil war president. As his parents host a lavish state reception, their boy is upstairs in the throes of typhoid fever. Saunders quotes contemporary observers on the magnificence of the feast, trailing the terrible family tragedy that is unfolding. Sure enough, Willie dies and is taken to Oak Hill cemetery, where he is interred in a marble crypt. On at least two occasions – and this is the germ of historical fact from which Saunders has spun his extraordinary story – the president visits the crypt at night, where he sits over the body and mourns…
George & George and Rosie (photo Robert Birnbaum)