Earlier in the month, author Charles Holdefer asked me if I'd be interested in a post about Pastoralia by George Saunders and that he was working on an Ig Bookmarked title about his experience with the collection and thought he could carve together something for the EWN. I thanked him for his generosity and said absolutely.
On George Saunders’ Pastoralia
As hard as it is to choose a favorite short story (where to begin?), it is easy for me to choose a favorite story collection. That would be George Saunders’ Pastoralia. It was published in 2000, on the cusp of the new century, and when it appeared, it felt as if someone had got up and changed the music. Suddenly the New Realists sounded old and the postmodern insurgents seemed less like subversives than tiresome busybodies.
Pastoralia was fresh and timely but it also felt like something deeper, a rediscovery of fundamentals. It got under my skin. I’ve read it a number of times, including once aloud, pronouncing every word.
What makes this book special? Before George Saunders, plenty of writers told tales of our era’s joyless consumerism, family breakdown, ecological crisis and spiritual bewilderment. (What a dreary list—no wonder so many people gave up on literary fiction!) Other writers offered escapism, a snug ideology of entertainment. Failing solace, they served up a distraction.
But rare is the writer that faces our era’s problems and offers a reaffirmation of why we go on. Not in the guise of “how-to-fix it” or “self-help” or “time-for-a-pep-talk.” Nor with the pretentions of The Next Big New Thinking or some other totally awesome flapdoodle. Any problem that can be solved by these kinds of formulas probably isn’t a serious problem in the first place.
Rather, I’m referring to a stubborn embrace of the human condition, in all its hurts, many of them self-inflicted.
This is not a version of holding someone’s hand and saying “it’s all right.” No—it’s looking straight on at the pain and squeezing fingers and saying, “it’s not all right but I see what’s going on and we’re going to face this mess together.”
Not easy answers, but a bracing voice, nonetheless, amid our foibles and our endless needs. Among the latter, persistently, is the need to laugh. Because it also happens that Pastoralia is the funniest book by a living American writer. Stories like “The Barber’s Unhappiness” and “Sea Oak” will make you laugh on repeated readings.
Plenty of reviewers and critics see Saunders’ achievement as one of empathy, and it’s true that he summons empathy for a broad spectrum of characters. Empathy is undeniably a good thing.
But empathy is also a slippery term, and in recent media usage it’s morphed into a fashionable platitude or, worse, it’s mentioned as a power skill, as if Saunders were a pitcher with a 98 mile per hour fastball. .
I’d say it’s something else altogether, because real empathy, as opposed to humblebrag or “playing nice,” is allergic to platitude, and it’s certainly not about power. Saunders grasps this.
His empathy, that’s what you want to call it, is more like a non-aggressive way of calling bullshit. We’re constantly bombarded by formulas that claim to explain people, that generalize, that push aside their particulars. As in, “You belong to such-and-such group so you must be such-and-such person.” These labels fall short of personal truth but are a constant temptation to a writer. They make the job easier.
For anyone who loves short stories but hasn’t read Pastoralia, I am of two minds. A bit incredulous (hey—where have you been?) and, at the same time, somewhat envious (oh—you’re going to like this!). It’s not every day that you can pick up such a book.
There is joy in discovering something rare.
Author of Dick Cheney in Shorts and George Saunders' Pastoralia, Charles Holdefer has also published four novels, including The Contractor and Back in the Game. He grew up in Iowa and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Sorbonne. He currently teaches at the University of Poitiers, France.