Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S T O R Y   C O L L E C T I O N   R E V I E W
Surviving Simulacra
t h e   r e a l i t i e s   o f   t h e   r i d i c u l o u s

BY MARK TURSI

PASTORALIA: STORIES
By George Saunders
© 2000 ~ 188 pp
New York/Riverhead Books
$22.95

"NOW, IF I came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say?" asks Tom Rodgers, a self-help sermonizer and character in George Saunders’ new collection of stories, Pastoralia. In answer to his own question, he replies, “You say, ‘Thanks so much!’ You say, ‘Crap away!’ You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, ‘Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?'" Self-help fanatics, pseudo-strip-waiters, a prehistoric theme park, and an assortment of bizarre, as well as disturbingly “normal” characters, fill this often hysterically funny collection of stories.

The literary world needs more writers like George Saunders to crap in the oatmeal of convention, and then stir it up a bit. John Updike recently declared that the short story is a dying genre. And, he is correct to some extent, but an upheaval seems more like it. Writers like Saunders (along with David Foster Wallace, Diane Williams, T.C. Boyle, Curtis White, and many others) are part of a new brigade of fiction writers who have revitalized and revolutionized the short story. In a culture where the personal computer is as common as the refrigerator and the Internet makes pornography available anytime, anywhere, at the click of a button, we are in need of a new vision. The short story has certainly and fortunately transformed in response to this changing shape of reality and our perception of it. Often very dark and despairing, or outrageously absurd and comic, this new type of short fiction reveals a culture that revels in the ridiculous and glorifies the tragic, with an often comic, yet disturbing effect.

Saunders’ new work is no exception. In "Pastoralia," the title story, for instance, the scene is a theme park where the characters attempt to continuously re-enact the life of a Neanderthal couple while onlookers “poke there heads in” at any given moment -- a paleolithic Panopticon of sorts -- whereby the characters’ behavior is controlled and structured by the off-chance visit of a perusing tourist. The narrator who is also the main character takes his role as hunter-gatherer rather seriously (though perhaps somewhat sardonically), whereas his cynical partner, Janet, makes a comic mockery of the situation: “I mime to her that I dreamed of a herd that covered the plain like the grass of the earth, they were as numerous as grasshoppers and yet the meat of their humps resembled each a tiny mountain, etc. etc., and I sharpen my spear and try to look like I’m going into a sort of prehunt trance. ‘Are you going?’ she shouts. ‘Are you going now? Is that what you’re saying?... Christ, so go already,’ she says... ‘Bring back some mints.’"

"Sea Oak" invites readers into the world of a Chippendales-style waiter who lives with his aunt, his barely literate teenage sister and teenage cousin, and the girls’ two babies, in a small apartment that is stuck in the middle of what seems to be gang warfare. The scene portrays the classic American white trash stereotype with comic hyperbole: “After dinner the babies get fussy and Min puts a mush of ice cream and Hershey’s syrup in their bottle and we watch 'The Worst That Could Happen', a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could ... 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 life of this family grows worse and worse by the minute, with it finally culminating in the death of their beloved aunt, who then appears missing from her grave.

However, she reappears, having apparently resurrected herself, and begins to make orders to the family in an attempt to change their lot: “ ’You, mister,’ (Aunt) Bernie says to me, ‘are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it...'" The story showcases a family in deep poverty and with seemingly no means of escape. However, Saunder’s presentation is so ridiculous and comic that it is often difficult to sympathize with the characters. Ultimately, though, you are led to feel for their plight and understand Aunt Bernie’s lament, “Some people get everything and I got nothing... Why? Why did that happen?” The story is so shocking in its reality that you feel yourself believing the weirdest events (Aunt Bernie’s resurrection and subsequent magical powers for instance), and also, a feeling of guilt for having laughed so hard. This is magical realism in a fantastic new contemporary garb, which means that it is both potently comic and tragically convincing in the same breath. Saunder’s reminds us again and again that laughter reveals what is difficult and uncomfortable as well as what is humorous.

"The Barber’s Unhappiness" depicts a sort of contemporary Walter Mitty character whose thoughts about what could happen with various women take him on a ridiculous and fictional roller coaster. The final story, "The Falls" reveals another very obsessive character, lost in worry about what might happen, but ends with a very hopeful and amazing twist about what one human being is capable of doing to help others.

These stories are full of angst and anguish, revealing characters lost in a world of human cruelty and despair, and unable to break through the ridiculous simulacra of culture (love communicated via fax machine, quick self-help recipes, classic and dangerous gender stereotypes). At times, the stories are so funny you will find yourself laughing uncontrollably, while also lamenting the human condition -- a very powerful effect. However, embedded in each story seems to be at least a glimmer of hope for human kind, as remote as that sometimes seems.

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Rev'd 2003/08/25