It’s not like we don’t know what kindness is. All of us have experienced it at least once. Still, when George Saunders writes about a woman who chains her child to a tree in order to give him freedom, about a little girl who’ll put her family’s and her well being at risk so that someone else will stop feeling pain, about an old man who almost freezes to death to save a boy from drowning, it is as if he is saying: “Now this is kindness, go rethink your values and actions in life.” In one story, a character regrets not having made his national speech on sympathy; well, I think George’s “Tenth of December” is his speech on sympathy that everyone should read.
My Syracuse days
I’m fortunate to have had a fiction class with George Saunders while I was a student at Syracuse University. If I remember correctly, the class was called: “Modern Short Story” and we read stories by Gogol, Dostoevsky, Babel, etc. and discussed them in class. Listening to George is similar to reading his stories; he manages to deliver an incredible amount of wisdom and humor in a single class, all the while radiating some positive, peaceful energy that “infects” everyone and makes us silently promise to ourselves that we’ll never again step on an insect, let alone do some other harm to another living thing. At least, that’s how I felt.
I can’t remember which writer we were talking about, but I think George was praising the author’s way of describing desire without describing desire. The story was pure sex without a line about it. George simply said: “Sex is great, but desire… Now, desire is something else,” and I had to write it down, though much of this sentence’s power lies in the way he said it.
I love all of his books, but “Tenth of December” had the greatest emotional impact on me. His previous books, especially “Pastoralia” earned him a title of the funniest author alive for me, but his new collection of stories has an added dimension that makes me feel both wonder at the human’s potential for love and goodness, and sadness because of how helpless I am in the face of cruelty out of ignorance/selfish interests.
Nothing without a good sentence
The author of a book I read recently quoted some famous writer saying something along the lines that a good sentence is what makes you a writer. I completely agree. Plot is good, but Sentence… Now, Sentence is something else. Rushdie, Saramago, Ellen Gilchrist, Barthelme, Saunders, those are the authors I can enjoy any day. If the sentence isn’t exactly brilliant and unusual, it then has to be funny. Give me a book by Bill Bryson, Douglas Adams or Woody Allen and you made my day.
George Saunders’ sentence is like a diamond cut to perfection. There is not a single superfluous word flailing around, not a single dubious emotion, unless the author wants a dubious emotion making appearance in a dialogue/interior monologue.
When he wants funny, he delivers funny that becomes that much more powerful, because it’s surrounded by difficult circumstances: people at the brink of poverty, people made to decide whether someone shall live or die, people writing motivational letters to their employees about the importance of continuing a dirty, dark deed.
Girls in white hanging in the air
The story that perhaps shook me the most is “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” It’s a story about some very possible scenario where people rent nice gardens and poor Asian girls who then hang above these gardens and flutter in the wind prettily – as status symbol. The girls don’t die on this weird job because a wonderfully smart scientist, Semplica, thought of a way to pierce a person’s head and brain with some microline without doing any damage (supposedly), thus girls travel from Asia to hang in the air as amusement for rich Americans, so they can send earned money to their families back home. The story centers around a not-so-wealthy family that dives deep into dept in order to make their precious daughter happy and rent four Semplica girls for her birthday.
What I love about George’s characters is that they are a wonderful, rich mix of thoughts and traits both good and bad, and even when they are being sickeningly cruel, they are usually doing it out of total ignorance and a desire to do good.
Many of them can’t make piece with an existing order because they know it is wrong. Some of them fight, but the existing order is stronger and can’t bend. Still, despite all the gloom and hardships that are these wonderful characters’ lives, Georges plants a seed of hope in the reader that, as long as there are people as good as those that live in his stories, the world can become a happier place.