On an Eight-Part Fantasy Romance, and a Letter to a Dissatisfied Customer:
George Saunders has published four books full of short stories, and I have read all of them, thirstily, like a cat at the water bowl. I drink up the disfigured, misogynistic, abused, middle-aged man lusting after a younger woman. I absorb the harried, foolish, sycophantic employee sympathizing with the furious customer and defending the company that exploits and employs him. Saunders's stories poke at the hurting places, at the sadness of our little lives, and in these stories, we are all small, we are all victims of the system.
However, in addition to reminding me of pain and smallness (my own and others'), the stories also make me feel the largeness of the suffering individual. The suffering individual is everywhere: in driving school, getting drunk at the wedding, coming every week to the Altar and Rosary Society, employed by KidLuv. We are all there, in this connection we can sometimes rise above our limitations. We can laugh, for one thing. And laughter releases us. We can also think about and learn to read or perceive the forms that trap us. In "The Barber's Unhappiness" Saunders shows me that the form of a "fantasy" is perhaps an invisible trap. In "I CAN SPEAK!" he reveals corporate language, or any jargon embraced by a power-hungry group, as another kind of trap. If there is any hope at the end of the barber's story, it is that he is making an attempt to go beyond the boundaries of fantasy. Ironically, in expressing himself in the form of a letter, Mr. Rick Sminks both puts on the mask of the LuvKid company and he also reveals himself as the unhappy baby that he is.
I'd like to point out two craft elements involved in these stories: both stories are based on innovative formal structures and a point of view that is very close, embarrassingly close, to the painfully small-minded protagonist. The structures are innovative, but we can easily recognize them. The barber's story is patterned almost like a fairy tale. The letter, while ridiculous, is very much a letter. In both stories, the protagonist is distanced from us by being so small-minded, but then Saunders gives each such specific language that his magnified small desires become our own. We ogle, too. We picture the pretty girl rubbing corncobs. We sit stiffly. We wet our comb, flex our chest, dance around our nubs. We sit at our own (cluttered!) desk. If you have a story that wants to critique the world we live in (a magic trick a.k.a. satire), you might take your cue from Saunders's playful structure and his specificity.