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What the other guy said
on 14 March 2006
Pastoralia is George Saunders's second collection of stories and, like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, it deals with a parallel or future world, a service sector gone mad and has much black-hearted satire for our own days. I read it in one day (albeit a day confined to planes and trains) and it was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. Early Vonnegut is brought to mind with Saunders's packing-'em-in brevity (see the first page of "Sea Oak" or "Winky"). My favourite though was "The Barber's Unhappiness," which seems representative with its hopeless, loveless protagonist and its cool distance and occasional absurdity. Here he is having snatched a glimpse down the dress of a woman he's trying to work out whether he should be dropping his standards to pursue:
"Well she definitely had something going on in the chest category. So facially she was the prettiest in the room, plus she had decent boobs. Attractive breasts. The thing was, would she want him? He was old. Oldish. When he stood up too fast his knee joints popped. Lately his gums had started to bleed. Plus he had no toes. Although why sell himself short? He owned his own small business. He had a bit of a gut, yes, and his hair was somewhat thin, but then again his shoulders and chest were broad, so that the overall effect, even with the gut, was of power, which girls liked, and at least his head was properly sized for his body, which was more than she could say, although then again he still lived with his mother."
Ultimately though the fun Saunders has with his characters never descends into Waughish cruelty, and - by and large - gives them hope at the end of the trek through their story, if not success. Pastoralia is an essential collection of modern short stories.