Taking Stories Where Stories Have Not Gone: Pastoralia

PastoraliaMy friend had really hyped up George Saunders and his work, so I was excited to pick up Pastoralia. I was also a little sad because this is the last collection of short stories that I will read this year. There is something about the shortness and conciseness of this narrative form that I really like. I guess I only have a month and week or two before I can read them again anyways. Pastoralia was something completely unexpected and I guess I am having an ambivalent reaction to it. I think Saunders is very clearly performing satire and critique on a number of levels, but after reading Munro I felt like the stories in Pastoralia were not quite as satisfying. Perhaps this comes down to character as Saunders is much more interested in satirizing contemporary North American culture than writing genuine characters with problems, emotions, depth and complexity.  Perhaps I am being too sweeping in this judgment because it is not as thought there are no memorable characters in Pastoralia (Morse in “The Falls” and Mickey the barber in “The Barber’s Unhappiness” are complex and enjoyable characters) or that there is no satire in Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (her whole collection is quite critical of the small-mindedness of rural Ontario).

At the same time, Saunders does show some intriguing story-telling abilities. In the title story, we are introduced to a strange amusement park where visitors can see humans from different time periods living/acting out those lives. The narrator lives and works in a pre-historic cave with a less-than-willing co-worker named Janet. The whole story mocks our desire for “authentic” reproductions of old ways of life, but also corporate culture in general. It works amazingly well because on the surface it seems to have no relation to reality but the more you dig into it, the more you see it in the world we live in. Similarly, “Sea Oak” presents a dystopian world where the narrator works at a male strip joint/restaurant. His sister and cousin live at home with their two children while their spinster aunt slaves away at a drugstore to keep the roof over their heads. However, the aunt soon dies but comes back as a re-animated corpse to help them escape poverty. With this story, Saunders is quite critical of the work world, in a very funny way, and yet I cannot help but feel like the world he paints is not too far off from the low-income areas of many cities. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the narrative straddles the line between the fantastical and the real, constantly asking readers to question our own reality.

In writing this, I realize that what Saunders is doing is very subtle and extremely effective. He is speaking to our world in the way he knows best: by creating a magical place that seems like unreality but is in fact far too close to reality. I can see why he has won many awards – including a MacArthur “genius” grant – but I am still not sure where I stand in relation to his work. This is more a question of taste, but at the least I can say that Saunders is a prophet preaching his message to a world that desperately needs to slow down and think twice about the place we find ourselves in.

I would recommend Pastoralia to fans of Vonnegut and other satirists.

Saunders, George. Pastoralia. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.