Wednesday, October 22, 2014

George Saunders and the Absurdly Human

If I were to describe the plot of one of George Saunders’ stories to someone who’d never heard of him before, such as: When a family purchases a quartet of Semplica Girls (four young women from disadvantaged situations attached by wire through the brain as a lawn display) to please their eldest daughter for her birthday, things go wrong when one morning the family awakes to find the SGs stolen, and their financial situation in dire straits—I would get very strange looks. How can such an absurd story be meaningful? In an interview with Heather Sappenfield, Saunders said “The idea that absurdism and humanity might not, or should not, exist in the same story—I don’t feel that way. They’re not different. When Hamlet’s father comes back as a ghost, it’s totally perfect and necessary—the best possible way of objectifying the actual psychological reality of the moment. Plus it kicks ass.” Saunders claims that absurdism in a story not only doesn’t diminish its attempt at meaning, but enhances it. Do you agree with Saunders on this? Is there a place for absurdism in a story trying to grasp at humanity? Do you find that his stories, as bizarre as the situations are, touch at something innately human that we can all relate to?
Aimee Bender in her introduction to Saunders in 3x33 says, “…he does not spare his characters, and his dialogue is heart-sinking and embarrassingly familiar. I talk like that. I know a million people who talk like that. I watch those shows. We are these people. And in the reflection, ugly as it may be, inside the wince, is a clarity. How does he do it?” Saunders somehow manages to make us relate to the weird worlds he creates, despite the fact that the places and the situations seem so entirely fictional. Do you find Saunders’ stories believable? And if so, how is he able to make them so believable in the midst of such strangeness?
Saunders goes on to say “I put a so called ‘absurd element’ in because I think it is the best way of describing the way life really is, and really feels, when we can momentarily shuck off our habituation. Or to be more honest, I put it in there because it seems enlivening at the moment. I am trying to kick ass. It shakes things up, or raises the stakes.” Could you see yourself using ‘absurd elements’ as Saunders does to raise the stakes and ‘kick ass’ in your own stories?


  1. So, I have not until today read any of George Saunders work, and all I can say is “woah.” I had heard people explain some of his stories and how he creates these entirely fictional worlds, but it’s something I kind of feel like I had to read to really understand. Like Jay said, the plot of these stories can sound absolutely insane. Yet when you read them, the unusual pieces do seem to work well with the story, and still create a very meaningful and consuming story.

    For me, I felt like the meaning in the stories in 3x33 was a lot more clear than that in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” mainly because of the style of this story is more minimalistic and kind of seems like thoughts as they come to mind than the other stories, however, I think the absurd aspects of all of them are more meant to reflect the situation that the narrator and their loved ones are in at the time, a lot of times representing financial straits. In “Semplica Girl Diaries” the family begins poor and, in a sense, “tied” to their debts, and when they incur wealth, they buy SG’s and string them together in their yard, in order to help them pay their own debts, which I feel is a very powerful way to convey the idea of financial need. You get stuck in debt and once you do it isn’t easy to get out. He also does this in “Sea Oak” with the image of Bernie, who is trying desperately (and aggressively, personally I found her terrifying) to get the narrator, Min, and Jade to stand on their own two feet and work, all while she’s falling apart completely. And that’s exactly what the family is doing. The narrator is trying to make a living, to keep the family and children safe in a dangerous neighborhood, but his job is sleazy and his sister and cousin uneducated, leaving them very little means to better themselves, and, in that sense, falling apart.

    While I admire Saunders ability to marry these larger than life aspects with a very human story, I’m not sure if I could use these methods myself, simply because I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do what he does and end up basically writing fantasy. The way that he uses this method is so careful to me. It doesn’t feel overdone or understated, and I feel that personally until I have more of a grasp on writing, I wouldn’t want to add an element like this in just yet.

  2. Like Aimee Bender, I don’t know how Saunders creates his world, although I too say his name with the exclamatory excitement it deserves. The genius of Saunders is that he makes the absurd plausible by not even commenting on the abnormalities within the story, as if we’re supposed to accept them as they are. Mid-way through “The Semplica-Girls Diaries,” I returned to the beginning of the piece, hunting for an explanation of SGs. Even conscious that it was a Saunders story, I literally paused for a minute and wondered what an SG was, as if it I might have come across it on Deg Lawn earlier that week without noticing. So I felt kind of ridiculous when the father explained the lawn ornaments as living women, and thanked our lucky stars that society hasn’t yet collapsed entirely. Margaret Atwood says of her dystopias that she only takes society to its natural progression. The same, I would argue, could be said of Saunders. He too develops accepted societal practices (say, the objectification of women, current dynamics of sex trafficking, and rich people’s tendency to pimp their lawns with the newest fad) into its worst-case inevitable conclusion (women being strung through their temples as lawn decorations). The seeming absurdity becomes organic, acceptable in this vision of society. We react so fiercely to his stories because they’re absurdly plausible. (Not to mention clever, humorous, concise…okay, I’ll stop gushing.)

    I am not George Saunders and will never be. My writing isn’t funny. Humorous writing—comedy—is leagues outside my skill set. At best I’ll someday write a haunting satire, devoid of Saunders’ quirks and wit. I could see myself exaggerating a social gaffe widely practiced by the masses, although even that might be stretching my already limited talents thin. That, however, does not stop me from appreciating and loving Saunders’ work.

  3. Saunders kind of reminds me of Lorrie Moore the way he uses dark humor, but with how absurd he is it's like Lorrie Moore on steroids. I remember last year when I began reading his collection, The Tenth of December, I was totally unprepared for his absurd style of writing. It was so different from what I had been learning in Intro. to Fiction, and I kind of had a what the heck moment. It was a good feeling though. I really liked the way he took really human issues and made them so absurd, yet I agree with him that in the absurdity is reality. I really enjoyed "Winky," which was a piece by him that I hadn't read before, because even thought the whole seminar seemed absurd, I believed it. Everyone feels like everyone else is crapping in their oatmeal. It's just a fact of human reality. Saunders writes it in an absurd way, but is it really so absurd an idea? If it's really a part of being human, then can it really be so absurd. I could see someone saying that the answer is to start doing whatever you want whenever you want. It seems like a good answer at first because hey now you'll be happy, but then Yanicky's inability to follow through with the idea makes him seem even more human because wouldn't a lot of people feel bad if they had to crap in someone else's oatmeal in order for them to feel happy? But then wouldn't crapping in someone else's oatmeal make you feel like you had crapped in your own oatmeal? This logic seems to add to the absurdity, yet the logic of reality convinces me that reality and absurdity are one and the same.

    I think Saunders is right in saying this is a way to increase meaning because by amping everything up to an absurd level, suddenly these truths about reality that we might not often think about or want to admit become so obvious they can't be ignored. I think it's absolutely genius. Why be subtle about the meaning? Why not completely hit the reader in the face with it so they are forced to deal with it? It would save them time trying to figure out the meaning, and lead them right to discussing what the meaning has to do with reality.

    As far as using this technique myself, I would love to try it. I'm just afraid it would come out sounding to much like Saunders. I think the challenge would not be making a story absurd, but making it absurd in a way he wouldn't do himself. I think it would be a lot of fun though to just go crazy with the writing and break the boundaries. For it to work though, the story would have to be like organized chaos because even though he has absurd aspects, the characters and the world they live in believe in these things. A story could not be completely crazy, but would have to have the absurd be the norm for the world in the story to be believable.

  4. What I absolutely adore about Saunders is that he makes the absurd reality, and our reality seem absurd. After you read a story like "Semplica Girl Diaries", how can you not look at what Saunders is obviously highlighting and not see it for what it is, a bizarre practice that we've all, at some point in our lives, participated in? I don't know a single person who hasn't, for one reason or another, done something simply because everyone around them had, because it was a societal norm, because they wanted to keep up appearances. I'm also positive (or at least optimistic) that no one has gone to the extremes that the family did in the story, stringing disadvantaged women up by their heads as lawn ornaments. But the thing about Saunders is that even when it's absurd, even when it's ridiculous, it rings true. What have we done? How absurd was that, too? Why did we do it? Do we even know? If we had to justify it, would it sound exactly like the father in the story, explaining the custom to his daughter? Have we ever thought things similar to Saunders' characters, when we didn't realize we were doing it? Would we act the same way as they would in another situation, whether we'd like to admit it or not? The fact that it's absurd throws us off, and once the novelty of it wears off, the truth sets in. It's almost unsettling.

    At the same time, though, it's undeniably funny, in the darkest of ways. It's done up, it's obviously meant to be ridiculous, and there's no way you can't sit there in half disbelief, half amusement, at least not for me. I would love to be able to do what he does, but I'm not entirely sure I'm capable. My style of writing doesn't lend itself to Saunders or the way that he frames his stories, and I think, if I were to try, it would come out sounding too much like "someone trying really hard to imitate Saunders" rather than "Saunders-esque", one having a much more negative connotation than the other. I still appreciate it for its brilliance, though, for the wit and humor and truth, and there are definitely things that I can take to my own writing.

  5. I first read George Saunders last semester, and I was immediately struck by his use of absurd elements in his stories. Somewhere along the line I guess I’d internalized the notion that serious literary fiction couldn’t be humorous. Saunders turned that notion on his head. (I hope it’s okay if I mention some of the other stories I read in Tenth of December, rather than just the ones we read for class today.) His stories work on many different levels. Reading a story like “Victory Lap” or “My Chivalric Fiasco”, it’s possible to focus solely on the ridiculous imaginings of Alison Pope or the hilarity of a man suddenly talking like someone from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But beneath these surfaces, both stories deal with deep and troublesome issues. “The Semplica Girl Diaries” works because of its mixture of the absurd and the mundane. This combination provides the story with greater impact, as it begins to feel that a situation like the one described within the pages is not really so far-fetched. It does not take too great a stretch of the imagination to picture these injustices occurring in our own society. The story is an extension of where horrendous practices like human trafficking could eventually wind up.
    I do not think that I could ever write like George Saunders. As much as I admire his style and his ability to make the absurd believable and poignant, I think that any attempt I made to imitate his style would just be a maimed, poorly executed shadow of his brilliant work.

  6. George Saunders is a master of taking something absurd or implausible—like ghosts, zombies, SG’s, or inspirational self-empowerment seminars—including it in a story, and then not even making it the center of attention. The absurdities are never the main focus, although they do drive the plot and characters in unique and powerful ways. In “Sea Oak,” the question doesn’t become how is this possible? How did Bernie come back to life? Instead, it focuses on the characters and forces them to try to pull themselves together. It ends up asking the essential question, “Why me? Why did I get nothing in life?” The same question is asked in “Winky,” and while the seminar sounds ridiculous, I can 100% believe that there are seminars going on all over the country with the same message. But again, while the seminar grabs our attention with its absurdities, the real focus of the story is the dynamic between Neil and Winky and the people they are. That’s why this is so meaningful. The absurdities get our attention for their ridiculousness, but they drive the plot and characters forward in ways that a less absurd factor could not have achieved.
    I agree with Alyssa. I think one of the biggest assets in Saunders’ story in making them believable is the fact that no one even seems to comment on the craziness of it all. It’s not necessarily true in “Sea Oak,” but even then, the two nieces and nephew seem to get over the fact that their aunt has come back to life pretty quickly. They seem more preoccupied not with her zombie-state but in her mental state, how she turned from a sweet, nice woman into a selfish snarling dictator. In “Civilwarland in Bad Decline,” the narrator doesn’t even question how he’s able to see ghosts. He accepts it, glosses over it as a part of life, and so the reader does too.
    I don’t think that including such absurd things will ever be for me. I have a difficult enough time remarking on the human condition when I’m dealing with every day life things like high school and aging parents. I can’t imagine how muddled my writing would become if I created something like SG’s and threw those into the mix. At best, I think I could write about ghosts, since they’re almost the tamest extraordinary thing. But still, it might be a long time before I’m brave enough to try it.

  7. I had never read George Saunders before now, but I had heard of his tendency to add the odd thing here and there. I would have to say that while it makes me wonder some times what to think of a certain character or situation, it definitely draws me further into the piece itself. I would say that it definitely does not diminish anything for me. Instead I would say it is in a way made more unique and memorable. The SG's are definitely not something I will be quick to forget. I think that the absurdity here is able to grasp the humanity even better than realism would be. This family is taking advantage of a person’s poorer circumstances for their own vanity something that happens in our own society today. The fact that it is part of or society, while we may not agree with it, have a built in response due to our exposure to it. The SG women are nothing like what we have in our own society, and therefore it can be shock and horrifying us to a fuller extent. In a sense sticking the point, even better especially to people who are not aware of the abuse in their own society. It is sometimes very difficult to see something fully when you are too close to it, but Saunders technique to allow you to look at it a different way, in a way that hopefully gives you a better perspective.

    I would love to be able to show deeper meaning like this in may stories in way that may make my points both darker and stranger (and maybe even better understand), but I don't know how I would go about doing it with the same success that Saunders does but I would love to learn.

  8. The characters are flat out convincing. By what they do and say, and in the tone of voice that the father writes in Semplica Girls. It feels completely normal, even though in the back of your mind you know it isn't. At all. But with the characters, you get a direct sense of them, and you want to sympathize with them. Almost want to be them in their crazy situation because the crazy makes it interesting. It makes reality seem dull, boring, and without that pizzazz (not pizza) that Saunders adds.

    What was most convincing was the narrative. The journals written in Semplica Girls were real. Everything he wrote felt lived, going through the highlights of each day to recreate the stories was a flashback, but still fresh enough that you can feel it in the present. And because they are fresh the emotions are too, and because of that there is a pattern of thought throughout. He makes decisions and contemplates them in his head as he relates back to the issues of the day. This perspective of not being in the moment, but still being right there at the height of it builds to a strong credibility of the narrative.

    That and the situation they were put in, with the birthday party at the rich girl's house, that clash of class revealed the characters and showed the opinions and feelings of the father towards all of this. It felt right that he was able to rant about all this in a journal, it felt looked back upon with enough distance to be extra angry about money. And finances are what seems to drive this family to be how it is, it defines them and by that it shows on a raw level of reality this family dynamic.

  9. Okay, so the blog decided to delete this earlier. I would love to kick ass in my own stories! I don't necessarily have an immediate interest in magical realism, but I definitely think George Saunders puts his particular genius to the best possible use in exploring the absurd.
    I fell in love with the story "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" last year when Jess came to my intro class (thanks Jess!!) and went on to read the rest of the collection. I noticed how George Saunders manages to make us read horribly sad, cringey situations with this amazing specific humor and intriguing new, complete worlds. "CivilWarLand" contains a ton of violence, and the way the narrator is treated is awful, but Saunders has such a smartly humorous voice that we can enjoy this and appreciate it at the same time.
    But Saunders doesn't try to bring any new problems to the table--all of his worlds are believable because they use absurd details to make real-life problems even realer. The idea of debt in "Semplica-Girl Diaries" is no different from ours--the father's worries about how he can't check on his family because he has practical things to worry about, etc are not invented emotions.
    And I think we could all do this if we wanted to! All we would need to do is read more authors who write magical realism and absurdism so we aren't the person who's "trying really hard to imitate Saunders" as Tess said.
    I love what Courtney said too about how the human condition is hard enough to handle already. I think I would have to spend a lot of time going to the dark place and thinking hard about the human condition before I could write stories like these.