I don’t read much writing by men these days. I guess I am pretty unapologetic about that fact, considering I dunno, the CANON and what have you, but I don’t even do it on purpose. I am a woman writer and I write like a woman and look up to women writers and are fascinated by how they do it. And this is very gender essentialist and so pretty problematic, not to mention limits my point of view fairly significantly. So no. Try again: what I try to do in my reading is follow a thread. Trying too hard to follow it is a mistake, too, so I won’t attempt to articulate it here. But given the kinds of books I tend to gravitate towards, deliberately or no, I don’t often read books that are so primarily concerned with, or concerned at all with, um…
If I had to call this book anything, that’s what I would call it. A dad book. Not in its intended audience but in who it breathes life into, sheds light onto, spends time with, thinks inside of, moves in, etc etc. I mean, it’s all about feelings and language and interiority so in sensibility, not a dad book — hi! sorry! problematic again! — so much as reckoning of dads book. Revisiting your childhood through the eyes of a man who has his own children. Revisiting your young father self through the eyes of your older father self. You having-not through your having. All that trying and how much it meant, and what you couldn’t admit then, gone back and admitted. Pathos all painted over people who we thought just had no time for pathos, but it turns out were fucking swimming in it, were busy treading water and had no time to stop and write about it in their daily dad journals or whatever.
Duty, dignity, status anxiety, striving, looming failure, then super looming failure, then failure in real time, then the after-effects thereof. Inability to please wife, make wife proud, make wife safe — understand wife seemed to be there, which was nice — make kids feel loved, inability to fucking cope, to be okay, to feel good about how things are and were and will be.
From the story, “Puppy” (which: fuuuuuuck):
“And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash, why not buy the kids Hooked On Phonics, why not plant tomatoes, and then they’d get to wrestling around and *she had no idea why she remembered this) he’d done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair-snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.
Which had made her feel special, him trusting her with that.”
(Which made ME feel special, George Saunders, you trusting me with that.)
That story is a devastating one and they all are in their way, so baldly open and urgent yet banal — often written in the most familiar, trite voices (oh my god), filled with likes and funny turns of phrase and sounding often like reality television, or high school. But it’s not a distraction somehow. Or ever too cruel (to me at least, though my tolerance for cruelty in pretty, uh, high (catholic school, ya’ll)).
I read this book very slowly, as my psyche seemed to demand, only able to take in so much fucking pathos and bitter reality at once. I read a little bit each train ride, then every night before bed (laughing quietly, remarking out loud, driving my essentially male partner crazy — I haven’t read a book that’s this funny in a really long time), and then, I read it once at lunch, alone. I sat by myself at a restaurant for an hour during the work day for the first time in my life, thinking, Oh, so this how people get by.
Long lunches and then reading books by people also concerned with getting by and how we do it — people who write sentences like this,
“Coatless bald-headed man. Super skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.”
Or conjure images like this, that are so on point they’re still with me weeks later,
“When Eva tiny, had big head of black curls. Would stand on couch, eating cereal from coffee mug, dancing to sound in head, flicking around cord from window blinds.”
[Mostly because YES: aren’t kids always flicking around the cord from window blinds? How much time did you spend with that cord and the plastic thing at the bottom of it when you were a kid? The straight up MAJORITY of your time? Exactly.]
Death-renderingly hilarious and accurate turns of phrase aside, the final story (and by far the best, anyone who disagrees is wrong and needs to learn how to READ, obviously) transforms from a confusing experiment in fucking Virginia Woolf-type of switching POV, stream of consciousnesses, into fucking “This is why we have art” levels of brilliance (IMHO!!). I haven’t been wrecked so, uh, significantly (??) by a story, nay, book since WILD (page 29ish of Wild is now the barometer for crying-while-reading).
And yes I would like this guy to write me a novel, as if that were how art works, as if we were owed anything. It’s not and we aren’t, but yes a novel would be cool. THAT SAID, George Saunders could print out a packet of beautiful, exacting sentences he’s written and I would pay $28.00 for it*.
Take this little passage, for example, which I read out loud to my boyfriend as he got ready for bed, prefaced with the fact that it’s a scene with a guy cleaning out the dregs of a pond with a shovel and accidentally killing a bunch of almost-frog tadpoles, flinging them about the yard. Soon he becomes complicit in it, and so:
“It was like either: (A) I was a terrible guy who was knowingly doing this rotten thing over and over, or (B) it wasn’t so rotten, really, just normal, and the way to confirm it was normal was to keep doing it, over and over.”
I read that out loud to Dustin and he was like BOOM and I was like, “And there it is. The secret of the universe. What underlies everything, revealed.” And he’s like, yep, and wow and I’m like, “The reason why you ate the entire bag of cookies while I was at work today!” And he was like, “Actually I was thinking more of the Holocaust!”
So think about THAT.
* Actually, come to think of it, maybe ideally George Saunders would have a talk show, and there would be a live audience, and we could go to it (too much energy / fear involved in actually talking to him one-on-one). It would just be him sitting there and thinking really hard with a white board and maybe his wife (I mean, this is my fantasy ok let me go there) and they cry and talk about their lives and show pictures of their kids and talk about all the hard decisions they’ve made and we could just sit there and watch him and maybe submit a question every once in awhile.
Guilt! Shame! Duty! Failure! Dad stuff!