George Saunders, American
An Interview with George Saunders
by Jim Hanas
[ Note: We had slated to run this interview in the final issue of the
print mag, but since we're not sure whether there's going to be a final
issue, I wanted to go ahead and get it out. —CM ]
George Saunders' short stories, with their characteristic absurdity and wit, have always taken aim at the ridiculous in American culture—from amusement parks to cure-all consumer products. Since 9/11, however, his work has taken on an even sharper political edge. His 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil—which started out as a children's book but turned into a parable about genoicide—pursued the logic of power to its ultimate conclusion, while occasional pieces he's written for Slate and The New Yorker have offered modest proposals that similarly dissect the machinations of the “new normal.” What if every single American went to Iraq and helped out with the mundane chores of daily life? What if we could kill all the people who want to kill us without, somehow, making more people want to kill us? What if we all simply refused to fight and went about our business?
Saunders' latest collection—In Persuasion Nation (2006)—contains stories composed both before and after 9/11, many of which stuggle to diagnose what the author takes to be the growing cruelty of American culture. In the title story, advertising spokesthings try to escape from their ritual humiliation. In another, "Brad Carrigan, American," a character on a TV show is distracted from his role by horrific human suffering.
We talked to Saunders about 9/11, the war, TV, Buddhism (of which he is a devotee), and hope. —Jim Hanas
STAY FREE!: It seems like your recent stories, particularly in In Persusation Nation, are more politically charged than your previous work.
SAUNDERS: I think so. Like many people since 9/11, I am tormented by what I see happening in the country, and also by a deeper idea that it could actually be, well, two things. One, that stupidity wins. That stupidity actually does carry the day. And second—and this is maybe a softer lesson—that, as David Byrne said, it's the "same as it ever was."
Our political system is run by dunderheads, by guys living in a different stratosphere than the rest of us. They have minimal contact with actual American life. And they might just win. Maybe I was just naive, but that was kind of shock to me. All of that angst made its way into the stories. Sometimes I wish it hadn't. I don't think that's, aesthetically, the easiest stuff to work with, but I've definitely got a level of outrage and sadness that I haven't had before. It's kind of tough to deal with. I like the Chekhovian model, where you're kind of lovingly regarding human nature—but somehow, in the last five years, I haven't felt that way. I'm trying to. I've got to find a way to disrupt the polarity that I've got in my mind—Us versus Them—and try to work with that anew, because it's a real dead end.
STAY FREE!: Is that why you've branched out into writing essays?
SAUNDERS: That was the idea: If I'm pissed off about this, let's get it out of the way and write about it. It kind of helped, and then it became fun in its own way. A story will sometimes take a year to fully overflow its banks, and those pieces are much simpler and shorter. You can just say, "I don't like penguins," and you can write a 300-word piece about penguins, and then you're done.
STAY FREE!: When you look at American culture today—commercialism, reality TV, the war, all the things that are in your stories—what do you see? What is your diagnosis?
SAUNDERS: I'll give you a couple answers. One, there's a cultural divide between the people at the top and the people underneath. So, in commercials: who's making them? A handful of people. Why are they making them? To persuade us to buy things. There's a group of people who have the power to broadcast and to put this huge machine at their disposal—this very beautiful machine that can make incredible images and sounds—and then there's the rest of the population, which is "done to." I would say that the gap between the doers and the done to is wider than it's ever been. The politicians—the people running the country—are isolated from us. I'm 47 and I've had one contact with a congressperson—[New York congresswoman] Louise Slaughter called me back one time when I wrote her a letter—but that's it. I've called a number of them, and you know that somebody checks off a box and then that's it. That's a huge thing, and I think it's a new thing. I don't think that people have ever felt as powerless or unimportant.
That's one answer. The second, and probably more complicated, answer is that it's always been thus. I've been disabused, in the last few years, of the notion that the purpose of life is to fix shit, that we're in this world to make it better. On a relative level, we have to think that way and we must think that way. But in an absolute way—from the point of view of someone who's now almost 50—you say, well, actually the world has always been trouble and suffering and discontent. It flows a bit. Who's suffering more, who's inflicting what on who—that changes. But, in a funny way, I'm starting to learn to see this all as a beautiful display, and part of that beautiful display is torment and upheaval and oppression and the whole thing. In a fishbowl, the fish food is floating around different places in the bowl and different fish are underneath the little plastic diver, but the stuff is constant inside there.
In Buddhism, there's this idea of the absolute and the relative. So what I said first is relative. The power has shifted up in an incredible way, and the people who the power has shifted away from now may have never in their life known that it was supposed to be otherwise. The whole idea of Steinbeckian America, most people don't even remember that—the idea that in the '30s the whole shit almost fell down because of the inequity. That's the relative.
The absolute is: show me three human beings gathered together where there wasn't oppression and angst and inequity and cruelty.
STAY FREE!: Are there any commercials or TV shows that have been driving you particularly crazy lately?
SAUNDERS: I was in the gym the other day and they had like 12 TVs, all with the sound down. I'm kind of an obsessive reader, so I have to read all the little captions, and there were probably two or three different things—from completely different contexts—but I was noticing how aggressive they are. One was one of these "Making the Band" kind of shows, and it was all about mocking the people who failed. And then another show was like that—"Let's get somebody to make an ass of themselves." I've noticed that there's that strain of aggression, and it's very rarified. It's not like you actually see it in real life, but they create it and amplify it.
On the other hand, I think it's kind of funny, kind of joyful, kind of crazy—so I can look at it both ways. The point of the book really wasn't, "Let's ban advertising," but just to sort of wallow in it a bit and come out a little more aware that these things aren't really neutral.
Maybe another advantage of living a long time is you see the way the tonality of commercials has changed, even in my lifetime. And it's not neutral and it's not random. It's very deliberate in the sense that somebody's deciding to make these commercials and shows more aggressive, more hateful, more agitating. I don't know why. I'm sure it's very complicated.
STAY FREE!: A theme that runs throughout the stories is that the media has become more cruel.
SAUNDERS: I'm sure they know very well what sells and what doesn't sell. The other show, in addition to the "Making the Band" show, was one of these things where they switch wives, and even just watching it on the exercise bike with the subtitles, I was getting agitated. I could feel my heart rate spiking—me getting mad at this stupid New Age mother who can't clean her own house. Obviously, they pick these people to be agitating and they prodded them so they'd be more agitating. It's like a play, but it's a play that isn't designed to do anything except agitate you so you can't stop watching it, and that doesn't seem to be in the long-term interest of the culture.
STAY FREE!: How do you think that feeds into politics?
SAUNDERS: The only thing I really believe is that we got softened up by the stupidity of our media in the days before 9/11. Your thought process and your level of articulation are intimately related. For example, if somebody said you can only use 12 words, you would get stupider. Being able to articulate a thought reinforces your ability to have that thought. In terms of our public discourse, the O.J./Monica thing softened us up so that when 9/11 happened, we didn't have our full resources to deal with it. There's some kind of relation between a culture that's all about stimulation and quick fixes and a pervasive thoughtlessness.
STAY FREE!: How did it happen?
SAUNDERS: I think you can follow the money. Infotainment was kicking the shit out of real news. Of course it would, because Pixy Stix are better than broccoli. I don't think there's anybody planning it or trying to make us easier to lead; we were made easier to lead by ourselves somehow.
STAY FREE!: Does anything give you hope?
SAUNDERS: I've been thinking about hope a lot and I think it's kind of overrated. Hope, in a funny way, is believing that the condition you're in right now is not the one you're going to be in later. When I was young, I hoped I would publish a book. I had a big idea that if I did, life would be totally different. All my neuroses would disappear and I would be truly enjoying life. But when I published the book, I actually got more neurotic. Suddenly I had something to lose. So now I'm thinking: Why do you need hope? You wake up with a certain amount of buoyancy in the day, something you want to do. I want to write to today or I want to wash the car. That seems good enough.
Jim Hanas is a Brooklyn-based writer whose short stories have appeared in McSweeney's, One Story, the Land-Grant College Review, and Fence.
Posted by carrie on 06/14/2007 | Permalink
wait. did i miss something? when did there stop being plans for a final issue? i was all excited about it.
Posted by: daniel | Jun 14, 2007 7:46:14 PM
Man, I love both of you.
Posted by: LitPark | Jun 14, 2007 9:26:28 PM
This is great, thank you! Saunders is one of my favorite writers. This helped me understand why he really ripped into Borat in an essay last year. I wonder if he's seen the movie Idiocracy, which very humorously and frighteningly deals with the dumbing-down of society.
Posted by: Jack Silbert | Jun 17, 2007 12:38:33 AM