We live in dystopian times. This seems undeniable as we’re locked down in a pandemic exacerbated by government ineptitude, corporate corruption and widespread disinformation. (If all that wasn’t enough, we also have murder hornets heading our way.) We should have been prepared for this after decades of dystopian works — 1984, The Hunger Games, Blade Runner, Terminator, etc. — but while these works led us to expect how dark and deadly our dystopia might be, none of them prepared us for how fundamentally dumb an American dystopia would be. Huxley can’t ready you for a reality TV president screaming in all caps on Twitter. Orwell doesn’t warn you of protesters in athleisure ware doing push-ups to demand gyms reopen during a global pandemic.
But there is one author who predicted these dumb and absurd times: George Saunders.
The MacArthur “Genius” and Booker Prize-winning Saunders has been publishing darkly hilarious visions of America since the early 1990s. Zadie Smith has said “not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny” while The New York Times noted “no one writes more powerfully than George Saunders about the lost, the unlucky, the disenfranchised.” Perhaps the archetypal Saunders story is “Sea Oak,” which follows a trod-upon worker at an aviation-themed male strip club called Joysticks: “Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker. Not that I’m complaining. At least I’m working.” At home, his family lives in a dangerous neighborhood and anesthetizes themselves with reality TV shows like How My Child Died Violently while fantasizing about the American dream, summarized by one character as “you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole. And finally maybe you get a mansion.”
This is the George Saunders America, one that is equal parts dangerous, cruel and silly. Sound familiar? “American culture couldn’t be reached by just simple realism,” Saunders has explained of his work, “It had to be a little nutty.”
Saunders’s fiction rarely fits into the box called “realism” — ghosts, zombies and science-fiction technology appear alongside the nuttiness — but in 2020 a common refrain is that even the wildest speculative fiction couldn’t have anticipated our reality. So perhaps the non-realists were the realists all along.
If Orwell’s 1984 gave us the concept of Newspeak, Saunders has spent a career mining what I might call USAspeak: the obfuscating jargon of a country cobbled from corporate language, self-help books and dumbed-down politics. Characters live in crime-ridden developments with names like Sea Oak (“no sea and no oak, just 100 subsidised apartments and a rear view of FedEx”). They work precarious gigs at deranged amusement parks like CivilWarLand and Pastoralia while stressing about their “Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form.” Elsewhere, politicians craft slogans like “Loyalty — It’s Super!”
While Saunders’s fiction feels perfectly attuned to the Trump timeline, his first stories began appearing in magazines like The New Yorker in 1992. Since then, what started out as satire has grown to feel descriptive. Take the 2002 story “My Flamboyant Grandson,” which imagines a future where every American carries a device that summons targeted commercials wherever they go. If you skip your ads, you’re forced to watch a “corrective video” called “Robust Economy, Super Moral Climate,” which almost sounds like something a Trump tweet circa 2020. At one point, the grandfather narrator notes “a life-size Gene Kelly hologram suddenly appeared, tap-dancing, saying, ‘Leonard, my data indicates you’re a bit of an old-timer like myself.’” A decade later, “hologram Tupac” played the Coachella music festival. And today, corporations do indeed mine our data — down to our every move and click — to conjure targeted ads wherever we go, albeit by a smartphone in our pockets instead of a device in our shoes.
In one of his darkest works, the novella-length story “Bounty,” Saunders conjures a post-apocalyptic future in which the population is divided into the healthy (Normals) and those mutated by environmental destruction (Flaweds). The Flaweds are considered expendable, with Americans literally voting to enslave them. It’s as pitch black as Saunders gets. And yet, as we watch TV pundits and politicians daily declare that countless at-risk Americans should be willing to sacrifice themselves so the economy can reopen from the coronavirus lockdown, the story feels eerily familiar.
To show us the darkness and still let us laugh is what great satirists have always done, from Charlie Chaplin to Stephen Colbert. But what also makes Saunders’s fiction so vital is that even at his darkest, the writing is not without humanity. Saunders loves his working-class losers and failures, and he makes us love them, too. In “Pastoralia,” a worker spends his days as a caveman at a bizarre amusement park grunting and slaughtering goats for gawking customers. But his real problem is that his bosses are pressuring him to rat out his underperforming coworker. It’s in his interest to do so, but he refuses with a simple “she’s a friend.”
It’s not enough. She’s fired anyway and replaced by a new coworker whose eager performance threatens the narrator’s job. But it’s something. Saunders’s characters are beaten down by mind-numbing entertainment, uncaring bosses and broken healthcare systems, yet they still care about each other. They still fight for something better. And in these insane times, maybe that’s exactly the story we need.
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