I bring you a collection of short stories by an author I’ve reviewed before, and I’m not surprised some call him “the best short story writer.”
Liberation Day by George Saunders
“One of our most inventive purveyors of the form returns with pitch-perfect, genre-bending stories that stare into the abyss of our national character. . . . An exquisite work from a writer whose reach is galactic.”—Oprah Daily
Booker Prize winner George Saunders returns with his first collection of short stories since the New York Times bestseller Tenth of December.
The “best short-story writer in English” (Time) is back with a masterful collection that explores ideas of power, ethics, and justice and cuts to the very heart of what it means to live in community with our fellow humans. With his trademark prose—wickedly funny, unsentimental, and exquisitely tuned—Saunders continues to challenge and surprise: Here is a collection of prismatic, resonant stories that encompass joy and despair, oppression and revolution, bizarre fantasy and brutal reality.
“Love Letter” is a tender missive from grandfather to grandson, in the midst of a dystopian political situation in the (not too distant, all too believable) future, that reminds us of our obligations to our ideals, ourselves, and one another. “Ghoul” is set in a Hell-themed section of an underground amusement park in Colorado and follows the exploits of a lonely, morally complex character named Brian, who comes to question everything he takes for granted about his reality. In “Mother’s Day,” two women who loved the same man come to an existential reckoning in the middle of a hailstorm. In “Elliott Spencer,” our eighty-nine-year-old protagonist finds himself brainwashed, his memory “scraped”—a victim of a scheme in which poor, vulnerable people are reprogrammed and deployed as political protesters. And “My House”—in a mere seven pages—comes to terms with the haunting nature of unfulfilled dreams and the inevitability of decay.
Together, these nine subversive, profound, and essential stories coalesce into a case for viewing the world with the same generosity and clear-eyed attention Saunders does, even in the most absurd of circumstances.
About the author:
George Saunders is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short-story collection). He has received MacArthur and Guggen-heim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
I received an ARC copy of this collection of stories from NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing UK, and I freely decided to review it.
I read and reviewed Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, his first novel, of well-deserved fame, but I was aware that he was well-known for his short stories and tales, so I could not resist checking this collection. Habitual readers of this author might want to check the book’s contents, as some of them have been published before, but I found it a fascinating work, disquieting, disturbing, thought-provoking, but also beautiful and a masterclass in writing. Exploring a variety of subjects (memory, identity, manipulation, politics, lies, moral and ethical values, love, family relations, loyalty, creativity, and art…), with the multiple voices, points of view, stream-of-consciousness, epistles, varying lengths, and genres, and the many settings and characters, it is an extraordinary reading experience.
Liberation Day. A novella-sized story, an allegory, and/or a dystopian story set in a not-too-distant future (or in a parallel universe), both breathtakingly beautiful and utterly terrifying. Enslavement, murder, memory, forgetting, history, performance, love, family, work, relationships, politics, social order… Brutal and shocking as a work of art should be.
The Mom of Bold Action: This one will make readers, and especially writers, smile, as the main character, Tina, stuck for an idea for a story, keeps trying to make up stories based on anything and everything that happens around her. Unfortunately, when something important (?) happens, her writing has unexpected consequences. Duty, guilt, justice, family, and motherhood all turn this seemingly comedic story into something not quite so benign.
Love Letter: A moving love letter between a grandfather and his grandson, but also a commentary on ageing, politics, the stories we tell ourselves and the excuses we make for our own actions,on how our everyday lives and actions have an impact on History, and a vivid reminder that, as Edmond Burke wrote: ‘All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’.
A Thing at Work: This is a story told from multiple points of view (I am not sure what readers who hate head-hopping will think, but it is clear whose head you’re in at all times) narrating an incident at an office. There are good intentions, pettiness, revenge, self-justification, anger, impotence… And although what happens is of little consequence (at least in the large scheme of life), it is a gem of observation and characterization.
Sparrow: Told in the first person plural and at times even the second person, it is an unusual romantic story, beautifully told and surprisingly optimistic.
Ghoul: The same as in Liberation Day, at first we are not sure what is going on and where we are. Is it a strange amusement park, full of actors playing a variety of roles in different set scenes (even though they are called work-houses)? Is this an underground place? Is it Hell? Are these human beings that at some point went underground and now live an alternative life, a pretend one, forever waiting for visitors from above? There are laws, rules, and the consequences for breaking them are horrific. But if you are aware that someone has broken the rules and you don’t denounce the guilty party, you might end up being punished yourself. There is always room for hope, though. A dystopian version of The Truman Show, an allegory of certain political regimes, or something else entirely?
Mother’s Day: A Mother’s Day that starts pretty ordinary, but a chance encounter makes Alma’s mind wander down memory lane, and the same happens to Debby, the woman she meets, who might not be a friend, but they share a connection. We discover lies, pettiness, self-justification, regrets, and, perhaps mother nature bringing on a day or reckoning.
Elliot Spencer: Another story that begins with readers being witness to something that can have different readings: some sort of therapy, perhaps, or rehabilitation, as the main character (89, later Greg, and possibly neither) is taught words, their ‘meanings’, and trained, but, what for? He discovers he is not the only one, and it seems he is a part of some sort of operation staging protests. But why is he there? Who is he? How did he get here? Does he even know what the cause is? And does it really matter? Is that what politics has become? Memory and what makes us what we are lies at the heart of this story, as it does many of the others. It brought to my mind the first part of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
My House: Two men, with similar dreams, with much in common, whose lives cross because of a house, end up at loggerheads due to a moment’s hesitation and miscommunication. A story that questions what is really important and what meaning we attach to the things that surround us. We cannot be objective about certain things, it seems, and the house stands for something beyond even its history.
I cannot think of any good reason not to read this book. These are not classical stories with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, and a clear message. These are stories where readers have to work and bring in their own interpretations. After all, that is what reading is, or should be, about. So, accept the challenge, and enjoy these stories.
Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author, and thanks to all of you for visiting every week, reading, commenting, liking, and sharing with anybody who might be interested. Take care and keep smiling!