Pastoralia Paperback – 3 Sep 2001
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In both his acclaimed debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and his second collection, Pastoralia, George Saunders imagines a near future where capitalism has run amok. Consumption and the service economy rule the earth. The Haves are grotesque beings, mutilated by their crass desires and impossible wealth. The Have Nots are no less crippled, both emotionally and physically, by their inferior status. It's a kind of Westworld scenario, but instead of robots, the serving wenches, bellboys, and extras are real people, all of them mercilessly indentured by the free market.
Sounds like bleak stuff, doesn't it? Yet Saunders handles his characters with grace and humour In the title story, for example, a couple occupies a squalid corner of a human zoo, where they act out a parody of caveman times, communicating in grunts and hand motions speaking is instantly punishable by the Orwellian management) and conducting their lives during 15-minute smoke breaks. In "Winky", a born loser (really, all of Saunders's characters are born losers) visits a self-help seminar, where he's encouraged to rid himself of all those people who are "crapping in your oatmeal". Exhilarated at the prospect of dumping his simple, crazy-haired, religion-besotted sister, he returns home to the bleak discovery that he needs her as much as she needs him. The protagonist of "Sea Oak" works as a stripper in an aviation-themed restaurant and lives next to a crack house with his unemployed sisters, their babies, and a sweet old maid of an aunt. The aunt dies, and then returns from the grave--not so sweet, now, and still decomposing--with strange powers and a sobering message:
"You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are going to have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me!"
The characters and situations in the rest of Pastoralia are equally wretched. But Saunders rescues them from utter despair with a loving belief in the triumph of the human spirit: yes, things can always get worse, but worse is better than the cold dirt of the grave. And in the small space between wretchedness and death there is plenty of room for laughter, and even love. --Tod Nelson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
George Saunders is one of the very best authors of fiction now writing -- TLS
It's like Monty Python mixed with some John Waters with some Jerry Springer thrown in for good measure. -- QX International
Like a literary take on American Beauty -- Select
This is a formidably assured exercise in black comedy -- Literary Review
This stuff is gold dust... fiercely inventive, unforgettably funny and sentimental in all the right places -- Independent on Sunday
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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.
"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.
Saunders has a lot in common with those two writers: all three write about a world recognisably similar to our own, and yet where certain rules seem to have been re-written. All are almost unbearably dark and yet almost unbearably funny. All three, by distorting recognised reality, reveal far more about the iniquities of life than they could ever do by writing "straight".
But Saunders' writing is very much in a modern idiom, his sentences are a joy to read, always deceptively simple yet revealingly deep. He has 21st-century corporate-speak down to a T, and he somehow manages to make it hilarious and legible despite its convolution.
More names that could perhaps be bandied about alongside Saunders: his writing is not a million miles away from Ricky Gervais's self-effacing satire in The Office and Extras, or Mitchell and Webb in Peep Show. But Saunders goes deeper, darker and stranger than any of these.
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This is the first stuff by him that I have read (recommended to me by a friend),...Read more
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