“Repays repeated viewings” – Liberation Day by George Saunders

IMG_2022-7-25-192943There is no one like George Saunders. Can we all at least agree that much? We’ve slurped up everything he has done and we’ve loved it all. At the same time, we know, don’t we, that there are people who find him difficult. Where we loved Lincoln in the Bardo, for instance (it’s currently, at six re-reads, the Booker winner we have re-read the most), we are aware of people who struggled with it, who gave it up, who found it difficult (both too strange and unusual but also too uncompromising).

His short stories present similar challenge. Anyone who has picked up (we want to say ‘devoured’ because that is what we did) Pastoralia, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, In Persuasion Nation or Tenth of December, will no doubt recognise that Saunders has a recognisable habit of either/both ‘starting off his stories in an unfamiliar world that you have to acclimatise to’ / ‘starting off his stories using unusual linguistical positions’. We have some sympathy for those people who choose not to stretch the old grey matter (but man o man, what you people are missing!). Liberation Day has a healthy handful of such stories.

The title story for instance which opens the book could (just) be said to be a story about Custer’s Last Stand. There is a lot of information in the story about Custer’s Last Stand. Parts of the story feel a little Red Badge of Courage. But (of course there is a but) the story is told from the point of view of a pinioned person. I say person – there is some debate about that. The pinioned people are basically sort of slaves – people whose minds have been wiped and reprogrammed to function as sort of storytelling automatons for wealthy people. And, of course (didn’t you just know it) there is a groundswell of activism fighting to free the pinioned people. All of this comes to a head in ‘Liberation Day’. In terms of what we were saying, though. ‘Liberation Day’ opens:

“It is third day of Interim.

A rather long  Interim, for us.

All day we wonder: When will Mr U return? To Podium? Are the Untermeyers (Mr U., Mrs U., adult son Mike) pleased? If so, why? If not, why not? When next will we be asked to Speak? Of what, in what flavor?”

Similarly ‘Ghoul’ (which begins “At noon Layla wheels over Vat of Lunch. For a sec I can be not-scary, leaning against our plastiform wall meant to resemble human entrails.”) and, perhaps most of all, ‘Elliot Spencer’:

“Today is to be                                    Parts of the                             Parts of my

Sure, Jer                                 Please do                                Point at parts of me while saying the name of it off our list of Words Worth Knowing.”

If you are someone who feels a teensy bit put off by unusualness, we would say hang on in there. Saunders’ stories always make sense. He isn’t out to bamboozle you. He’s just taking you on a ride unlike any other.

The apparently more straightforward stories still have it in them to wrongfoot you. You can’t read George Saunders’ stories on autopilot. Take ‘Mother’s Day’ as an example (a story in which a mother and daughter take a walk, observed by a neighbour who was once the lover of the mother’s late husband), which switches perspectives in a way that will force you to reassess your position as you go.

Things you expect from a Saunders’ collection (engagement with modern politics? Check – see ‘Love Letter’, a post-Trump imagined future in which he has bagged the 2024 election; engagement with the world of work? Check – see ‘A Thing at Work’, which deliciously engages with office politics, dipping and diving between what people say to each other and what people really think; beautiful bittersweet humour? Check – see ‘Sparrow’, a story about a woman “who, all [her] life, people have shied from and avoided”) are all present and correct.

There is joy here. Engagement with the frazzled world. Saunders has, for me, claimed the crown once worn by Vonnegut as the great humanitarian comedian of our time. Like Vonnegut, everything he does is utterly essential – and Liberation Day is no exception. As At Swim in a Pond in the Rain showed us, Saunders is a craftsman. You know each word has been placed where it has been just so. Although half of these stories have appeared previously in The New Yorker, the thing with Saunders is that his stories repay repeated readings.  So, as with Lincoln in the Bardo (and Pastoralia, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, In Persuasion Nation or Tenth of December and all the rest of them), Liberation Day becomes one more parcel of pleasures that you can return to over and over.

Any Cop?: Saunders’ quality control shows no sign of dipping and Liberation Day is every bit as good as every previous Saunders’ collection. 

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