'Pastoralia' is the second collection of short stories from George Saunders. It appeared in 2000, and collects six stories, varying in length from ten to nearly seventy pages, all of which originally appeared in 'The New Yorker' magazine between 1996 and 2000. Although the stories have been arranged with the long title story first, there seems to be no compelling reason to read them in this order: and in fact the shortest story, 'The End of FIRPO in the World', gives a very good idea of Saunders' strengths and characteristic manner.
Saunders came to attention with his initial collection, 'CivilWarLand in Bad Decline' (1996), which won the author reasonable comparisons with Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, and rather more strained comparisons with Thomas Pynchon and Samuel Beckett. 'Pastoralia' is very much a continuation of that first collection, and for the reader completely new to Saunders the earlier book is the more obvious place to start.
Nonetheless, 'Pastoralia' is well worth reading in its own right. Saunders writes about ordinary people in a way that brings out the sheer weirdness and existential flimsiness of modern life. His characters tend to be marginal people, defeated by life, seemingly trapped in toxic relationships or sidelined by age - children, old people, the poor, the physically unattractive and mentally precarious - engaged in forms of work that offer little satisfaction and are intrinsically insecure, battling with deadening forms of language and the agendas of others, but still hopeful. They have vivid, even violent imaginative lives, and Saunders, whose ear for internal monologue and personal dialect is exceptional, extracts great comedy from the contrast between the facts of their lives and their compensatory understandings of them.
It's the humour and the author's knack for disclosing hidden emotional depths beneath the comedy that makes these stories worthwhile, taking them beyond the limits of the stereotypical 'New Yorker story' - funny, clever, complacent, slight - into the realm of the more serious. Saunders isn't Beckett or Kafka, at least not at this point: but the comparisons with Heller and Vonnegut, and with Donald Barthelme - another 'New Yorker' favourite - all of whom pushed realism to the borders of surrealism in the name of satire, are not unreasonable.
I recommend 'Pastoralia' to anybody who enjoys humorous fiction with some bite. Including 'CivilWarLand', there are three other collections of Saunders' short stories in print, so if you enjoy this there is plenty more in the same vein to explore.