So threatens Doris to Brad Carrigan in George Saunder's new story Brad Carrigan, American. I'm ambivalent about "postmodern American fiction," especially when it's a Barthian "satire" that's "satirizing" objects it's "deconstructing" out of existence. I find Barth blah. Except for The Sot-Weed Factor, which I love, but only because the objects of its satire--byzantine Dickensian novels and the works of Horatio Alger--are viable satirical targets. (Reducing the 60's "Cultural Revolution" to a "Campus," as he does elsewhere, then simultaneously satirizing both the revolution and the Academy is mighty clever--and at times hilarious--but, targeting both ensures he'll always miss one.) So when I discovered the works of George Saunders, I only read them reluctantly. They're too clever by half, but they're not clever in the Barthian mold; they're clever in the way David Foster Wallace's works are clever. James Woods' description of Wallace's appeal applies equally well to Saunders:
Still, the relentlessness of his commitment to decomposign his own language can yield an authentic American loneliness, a hollowed space filled only by brand names and the sound of corporate jingling: "In his spare time Terry Schmidt read, watched satellite television, collected rare and uncirculated US coins, ran discriminant analyses of TFG statistics on his Apple PowerBook, worked in the small home laboratory he'd established in his condominium's utility room, and power-walked on a treadmill in a line of eighteen identical treadmills on the mezzanine-level CardioDeck of a Bally Total Fitness franchise just east of the Prudential Center on Mies van der Rohe Way, where he sometimes also used the sauna."
I include the Wallace quotation to bolster Woods' point, a good one, that there're three paths down which contemporary American novelists scuffle. The first leads to a rejection of contemporary American life in favor of a sometimes superficial (Updike) and sometime penetrating (Roth) analysis of how-we-got-here-from-there. The second path, blazed by Barth but currently populated with the MFA detritus of the Carter, Reagan, and Bush years, leads to the Funhouse, where everyone wears grotesque ironic smiles and nothing can, does, or will ever matter oustide of charming formulations about how nothing can, does, or will ever matter. David Foster Wallace and George Saunders pilgrimage the third path; they exploit the techniques of the Barthians to recoup the meaningfulness of life; they write what I'll call "allegories of rationalization."
What is an allegory of rationalization? Read the Saunders. It'll click. If it doesn't, you can make like Brad and go "up on to the roof, install the roof platform, duct-tape the AIDS baby to the roof platform, then come directly down, borrow your butter, and go home."
EDIT: Just found another of his stories on the New Yorker website. To wit:
"My Guilty Pleasures"
Those of us in the "literary game" often have "guilty pleasures" that we indulge in when not translating Cicero from the Latin into the German and then back into the Latin, to see how funny it sounds. My favorite guilty pleasure is watching the new TV series "The Bachelor: Who Screws the Best?," in which an ugly, poor, middle-aged married guy has sex with a series of young women who have been misled into believing that he is handsome, young, and rich, after which he decides which of them to propose to, at which time they are notified that he is actually ugly, poor, and middle-aged. I especially loved the moment when Desiree, the series' "bad girl," said, "Well, I thought there was a lot of hair on his back, but, still, I felt we were really connecting."
Also good is the new series "The Bachelor: Actually He Is Dead," in which a group of young women attempt to win the favor of a propped-up, moldering corpse that they have been told is a young, handsome rich guy who is alive.
It's still sort of hard for me to believe that none of them--not the Lawyer, not the Senior Account Rep, not the Homeless Advocate--noticed the team of people behind the bachelor, manipulating his limbs via a system of wires, while a tape recorder on his chest emitted sayings such as "I guess I'm just looking for someone who'll like me for me, even when parts of me fall off" and "Well, as far as my house goes, all I can say is, it's very small and made of wood."
I am also looking forward to the new series "The Bachelor: So What If I'm a Raccoon?," in which a group of young women live for six months in a mansion in the South of France with a raccoon they have been told is a human being who recently came into a lot of money. The last episode, where the young women all gang up on Jake, kill him, make a hat out of his fur, and eat him, promises to be a ratings bonanza. Also worthy of note is the new series "The Hag," in which a very tiny, wiry woman who is over a hundred years old is locked in a mansion in the South of France with three thousand muscular young men, who must fight one another with clubs and mallets to see which of them will be allowed to leave the house. When all of the men but one are gone, she reveals that she is actually a beautiful young heiress, at which time he reveals that he is actually a raccoon, after which she has sex with him, kills him, then makes a hat out of him and wears it to a day spa.
But, if I had to choose, I guess I would have to say that my favorite guilty pleasure is the new series "How Weird Is That?," in which a group of bureaucrats who have never themselves fought in a war are locked in the "Decision House" and allowed to select any country in the world for America to go to war with, for reasons they must invent on the spot. The candid shots of clueless families in the chosen country being blown apart as American bombers pass by overhead, along with the quick cuts back to the Decision House, where a group of young women are deciding which of the bureaucrats to marry (having been told that the bureaucrats are actually leaders of a great nation), make this a real "can't miss" program.