The United States literary establishment seems to love nothing more than finding an author on whom to confer the title ‘Greatest Writer of Our Time’. With the release of his new collection, George Saunders seems to have wrested the trophy from the hands of 2012’s generational voice. We can’t say how long he’ll keep it, but he is damn good. And he was once Ayn Rand’s lover. By KEVIN BLOOM.
A degree in geophysical engineering from the Chicago School of Mines is not exactly the background you’d pick for a man once described by David Foster Wallace as “the most exciting writer in America.” Of course, Wallace himself was a philosophy major whose senior thesis was entitled “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality”, but then he also majored in English as an undergraduate, and was by his own admission way more interested in books at college than he was in people. Point being, aspirant mining engineers with less than zero interest in literature don’t often end up becoming American literary grandmasters.
Other point being, Wallace did say that about George Saunders, and he said it around the time of the launch of Infinite Jest – a novel since and forever on the cusp of canonisation as the next Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow – to Joel Lovell, who was then working at Harper’s Magazine. The year was 1996, Saunders had just published a first collection of stories entitled CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and according to Lovell’s memory of the event, Wallace looked spooked.
Both writers, we now know, were onto something weird at the heart of American capitalism, something at once uncanny and real, like déjà vu if déjà vu were an arcade game you played in reverse while reciting your Dr Phil affirmations. Just as Wallace was parodying America as a land of addictions – to television, to narcotics, to the self – by setting Infinite Jest in a futuristic superstate where corporations bid for naming rights on calendar years, Saunders was constructing characters who speak in bizarre new idioms built around self-help clichés. Question is, how did Saunders go from a post-college job as a seismic prospector in the jungles of Sumatra to a first book that allegedly scared the hell out of the great DFW?
In a moving and lengthy feature article for the New York Times Magazine published in early January this year, Lovell offers two insights. The first is that Saunders picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five while in Sumatra, and, having read “virtually nothing” up to that point, was struck by the epiphany that great writing isn’t necessarily hard reading. The second is that, after he’d done a bit more reading, his stint in Asia cured him of a brief love affair with Ayn Rand.
This last part isn’t satire – Saunders really did love Ayn Rand, in the same unrequited way that many powerless young men love the founder of Moral Objectivism, and to his credit he wasn’t embarrassed to tell a New York Times reporter about it. But he got over it, as he told Lovell, when he saw old women working the nightshift deep in an excavation pit in Singapore.
Jump to late 2012, past CivilWarLand and another four books, past his MacArthur genius grant in 2006, and we see that a sizeable portion of the American public had finally come to understand what Wallace was on about. Because then, in between the writing and publication of his sublime short stories, he was publishing throwaway pieces for the New Yorker magazine with titles like “I was Ayn Rand’s lover”.
Which, needless to say, is satire – in its highest form. Near the end of the 1500-word sketch, after 17-year-old George has been dumped by 70-year-old Ayn for a young hunk named Paul Ryan, we get this:
“And suddenly it was over. Soon, she was back in her airy Upper East Side apartment, standing legs akimbo in a posture of strength at the window, regarding, beneath her, all that man had created via his indomitable will-to-power, while Paul, at a simple but elegant table behind her, worked out the details of the austere, even cruel, budget she hoped he would someday implement, and there I was, back in my sock-smelling bedroom, listening to Photographs and Memories by Jim Croce, feeling like a total dork. Or, as Ayn might have said, a ‘parasitic whining parasite’. Sometimes I’d see them in the drive-through at McDonald’s, in Paul’s red Camaro, Ayn (or ‘Ann,’ or ‘Ion,’ whatever) sitting nearly in his lap, eating his fries, chiding the minimum-wage workers behind the counter whenever they slightly slowed in their efforts – it was a heartbreaker.”
It may be unnecessary to observe that the reason the piece generated close to 10,000 Facebook likes was because it was a few weeks prior to the US presidential elections and the Paul Ryan in the piece was, well, that Paul Ryan – Romney’s running mate, the guy with the dimpled chin and the Johnny Bravo haircut who once made Ayn Rand required reading for all interns in his congressional office.
Again, this last part is not satire. In 2009, when it was already clear to the majority of American voters that it was a broken financial system which had brought the Western world close to economic ruin, Ryan poked his chin into the microphone and blamed it all on the sniveling, ungrateful poor. “What’s unique about what’s happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now,” he said. “I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.”
As a writer of fiction, how do you represent a country like that? One way is the satirical sketch, and on his best day there’s nobody in the US who does it quite as well as Saunders (if it’s true that imitation is the essence of the form, witness how he perfectly captures Ayn Rand’s authorial posture). But the more difficult way is the classic short story, with its believable characters, subtle narrative hooks, and sub-textual surprises that leave the reader feeling ever-so-slightly wiser and, perhaps, somewhat emotionally enhanced. Saunders on his best day is the American champion here too.
An example would be The Semplica-Girl Diaries, a short story that Saunders crafted and refined over more than a dozen years. Included in his just-released collection Tenth of December, which Lovell’s NYT profile named “the best book you’ll read this year” (in the headline, no less), and available for free and in full on the New Yorker website (read it, really), it’s one of the most uniquely powerful string of words that have been written in the English language for a long time. There really isn’t much more to say about it; it’s so translucently surprising that even a single sentence about the plot would be a spoiler.
Maybe the place to end, then, is with a single sentence from Lovell’s piece, a sentence that describes the moment George Saunders realised he was wasting his time trying to write like Hemingway and Carver and so started to write like George Saunders: “There was an experience he was living that hadn’t adequately been represented in fiction yet.” DM
- “I was Ayn Rand’s lover,” in the New Yorker
- “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” in the NYT
Photo: George Saunders (Creative Commons)