George Saunders: "You Can Talk About Sex or Religion But [Money] Makes People Uncomfortable"
George Saunders has never been to Miami. But when he arrives on Thursday to discuss his latest book, he will likely immediately recognize it. That's because Miami is almost identical to the creepy, dystopian, sci-fi landscape conjured up in his short stories.
"I'm very class anxious and have been my entire life," he tells New Times ahead of his Thursday appearance at Books & Books. "When I've written stories that have worked for me, they were always exaggerations of that interior landscape. That matches exactly what you just described about Miami: the extremes of wealth and the extremes of poverty."
"I think that's a kind of American story that I don't see very often in fiction: that naked anxiety about money," Saunders says. "Somehow you can talk about sex or religion but when you start talking about money, especially scarcity of money, it starts to make people uncomfortable."
Saunders is widely considered one of the best American short story writers alive. His latest collection, Tenth of December, puts ten tightly drawn vignettes together like cartridges in an ammo clip: each one packs a killer blow. (Spoiler alert!)
The book begins at a sprint and rarely slows down. In the first story, "Victory Lap," a teenage track star must decide how far he'll go to save a neighbor from a brutal rapist. In the last one, a man's carefully plotted suicide unravels when a young boy stumbles upon him in the woods.
In these two stories, Saunders' prose is pure electricity, propelling the reader from page to page. Each story revolves around a terrible possible outcome. And yet, they are about much more than terror.
"A lot of people think a story is dark because something bad happens," Saunders says. "But my feeling is... it's invigorating or it isn't. You listen to Shostakovich's string quartets written during the purges and they are all brooding and minor key. But they are so beautifully done that you go away kind of buzzed."
"It's an interesting thing. In America there is often a simplistic idea about darkness which is that if there is any negative truth stated, that's dark. And it's pessimistic. But to me, just telling the truth and getting the energy going is a real positive thing. That's what art is supposed to do: get the energy going. It doesn't really matter if it's got a happy ending. Who gives a shit? Read Flannery O'Conner. Or the Bible. That's not exactly a peppy document!"
"You're trying to take the reader on a wild ride" in fiction, he says. "Like when you go to the amusement park and you go on some kickass roller coaster that did things you didn't know roller coasters could do, that feeling when you come off it, it's not dark or light. It's just rrrrrraaaahhhh! Invigorating is a great word. And then you can put aside all the questions of politics and light and dark."
David Shankbone via Wikimedia commons
Lurking underneath most of Saunders' stories, however, is a political swipe at an economic system he finds grinding, even degrading. (It's a system that has spun out of control of late in America, especially in Miami, which now boasts Third World levels of inequality.)
In the excellent "Escape from Spiderhead," for instance, the narrator is an inmate in a prison research lab. Drugs are pumped into his brain -- sometimes against his will -- so that they can later be sold to consumers.
And in "The Semplica Girl Diaries" -- perhaps the central story in the book and one that Saunders took 12 years to write -- a father struggling to make ends meet for his family suddenly wins the lottery. But when he decides to surprise his daughter by decorating their front lawn with Semplica girls -- women from Third World countries who are paid to hang in the air like Christmas ornaments via a wire strung through their brains -- his desire to provide a middle class lifestyle for his family turns into a disaster.
"A lot of the stuff in Semplica Diaries is totally autobiographical," Saunders says. "It was like: 'Let's just simulate a more affluent life and thereby confer the benefits of that on our kids and then hopefully that will pay off later.'"
Like the fear of death, economic worries are a prime motivator.
"I kept thinking: that's what's really bothering me!" Saunders says of his family's leaner days before his writing career took off. "That's the reason i'm going to this job now. That's the reason why I'm a little bit grouchier than I wish I were. It's always because I look ahead and I think: 'Yeah, we might not make it. The kids might have to come out of the school there. We might not be able to make a house payment.' That kind of stuff. With us, we weren't poor but we were constantly under that low ceiling that money makes for all of us."
But what unites all the stories in Tenth of December is less anxiety than empathy. Saunders's main characters all struggle -- and sometimes fail -- to empathize with those around them, whether it's the girl in danger next door, a fellow prison inmate cum lab rat, or a poor, immigrant girl from Laos with a wire strung through her head.
Similarly, Saunders says he strives to make readers sympathize with his characters, often by showing their vulnerability.
"Sometimes it's something as silly as when someone trips and then they look up to see who saw them," he says. "Those moments really bond artist and audience."
"So for me, this thing about scarcity, I'm sure cavemen had the same issue - you have a bear and I don't, or you have a deer - so I think that's a universal issue and I'm really drawn to it because that's where I feel really vulnerable. That's where I feel embarassed and vulnerable and pathetic about it sometimes, and funny.
"That's where the heart of [a story] is," he says, "that moment when the mask falls away."
Become a better human by hearing Saunders read from and talk about his new book, Tenth of December, on Thursday at 8 p.m. at Books & Books.
Send your story tips to Cultist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.