Short Story of the Day, Sticks by George Saunders

The first time I brought a date over she said: what’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

—- George Saunders, Sticks

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Conjoined, Roxy Paine

George Saunders is a writer that amazes me. If I could write like any one person I would want to write like him (though I have said the same thing about  Raymond Carver… so, well, maybe it’s a tie).

I’ve written about stories by Saunders before:

Today’s short story is a one minute piece of flash fiction that contains an entire life full of frustration and regret. It’s funny and sad, in the terrible way that only funny things can be so sad. It’s called Sticks.

 

You can read it here: Sticks, by George Saunders

In the introduction to the published version in “Story” magazine he explains how he developed the idea for the story (if you follow my link above you can find out for yourself). That short explanation is as amazing as the fiction itself. We all see things along the road, especially along our commute to work, that become part of our lives so intimately that they disappear. Still, your imagination is filled with these things and the stories they generate. Only a genius like George Saunders can imagine something so poignant and unforgettable, so buoyant and unforgivable.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 1 – A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today, the first of June, I present a nice, brief, short story by George Saunders, A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room. It’s available online, here:

A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room

Go ahead and read it – won’t take too long.

I have become a fan of George Saunders in the last few years. One of his stories, Sea Oak, was read and written about in the aforementioned June of 2013. More recently I wrote about the book, Tenth of December – his most recent tome of short fiction. I have checked his book Pastoralia out from the local library and it is next on my reading list.

His stories are full of tragedy and absurd humor. They dwell on the corporate influence on our lives today and take the soulless void of daily life – and stretch it to the extreme. Below this surface, though, lies the innermost desires and passions of the human heart struggling to rise through the thick layers of bullshit to be seen in the light of day.

Or something like that.

Today’s piece, A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room is of the type. It’s typical Saunders fare. As a matter of fact, it is prototypical.

What made the work interesting, is an introduction by author Tobias Wolff. Tobias Wolff is another of my favorite writers – his story Hunters in the Snow was also in my list of last year’s June subjects. I hear him speak at the Dallas Museum of Art once – his lecture on a classic poem (Two roads diverged…) has affected my views on literature ever since I heard it.

Read the introduction here:

Genius: an Introduction to George Saunders’ “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room”

It turns out that Tobias Wolff picked A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room out of the slush pile back in 1986 and gave George Saunders a fellowship that jump-started his writing career. In the years since Saunders has emerged as one of the most important writers of our day.

It’s always interesting to learn what twist of fate has enabled someone to rise from the vast pool of striving mediocrity into the rarefied air of success and fame.

That’s all it takes – the ability to craft something that will grip an uber-talented man like Wolff and make an impression strong enough for him to remember the moment of reading the story almost thirty years later.

That’s all it takes.

I opt for the Juarez at the Hollo-Chick Haus. It’s a South of the Border Taste Riot. A Hollo-Chick is a kind of chicken conglomerate, the size of a football and hollowed out. You can have whatever you want in there, croutons or sweet-and-sour pork or a light salad even. The Juarez is the one filled with sour cream and refried beans and some little sliced black things. I opt for extra sauce packets.

Always opt for extra sauce packets.

Tenth of December

Almost a year ago, for the month of June, I read and wrote about a short story every day, for the entire month. I’m collecting online stories again this year (already close to the requisite thirty) – though I haven’t decided whether to do the same thing again.

Any suggestions or feedback would be greatly appreciated. Si o No.

On Day 7 of last year I read and wrote about the story Sea Oak, by George Saunders. It made me want to read more. I have just finished a long, interesting, but somewhat repetitive tome and wanted something shorter and lighter. So I picked up a book of George Saunders short stories in a digital loan from my library. It was the collection Tenth of December – and has been almost universally praised, often listed as one of the best books of last year.

And it did not disappoint.

First of all, though, the negative. George Saunders has a great skill – an innovative way – with words. Sometimes it feels as if he is showing off. Unusual forms, unexpected voices, mannered style – it’s all here and may be layered a little thick. I can see why the jaded literati have are so enamored – he can be challenging. In a few places I wanted to tell him to simply get on with it.

But, still, the stories had heart. The true judge of a work is whether or not you care about the characters and in these stories you do. They will break you in unexpected places and in an unanticipated fashion.

Back to the style. One technique that he uses to devastating effect is to tell a story from several points of view – from characters that are about to intersect in surprising ways. He uses this technique to illustrate how completely different the world is seen by different people. He exposes the little lies everyone tells themselves… simply to get through the day.

The first story in the collection uses this technique in triplicate. A popular girl, an unpopular boy, and a meter reader with bad intentions all tell their own stories in their own voices, observing each other under harrowing circumstances. A delicate structure, but one of great strength.

Another story – this one available online from the New Yorker, Puppy – uses the same technique for two women. They observe and are observed by each other and both found lacking – though they both are doing the best they can.

The title story – also available online, Tenth of December – has a young boy living in a fantasy world inside his head and an older man with a big problem intersecting on a freezing mountainside. Each has no idea of the others plight but are able to arrive at an understanding in the end.

Arguably the oddest, and possible the most powerful story, the The Semplica-Girl DiariesRead it here, too, courtesy of the New Yorker – is written as a diary from a father to future generations. The jarring language and constant use of abbreviations makes it a hard read (I was halfway through before I figured out what “SG” meant) but by the end you realize it is worth the effort. A devastating comment on consumer culture, international capitalism, and exploitation of third world workers – all disguised as a diary of a father trying to have a nice birthday party for his little girl.

So, there are three stories you can read online. If you like them, get the book – it’s worth it.
And those are three more stories I can’t use for my month of short stories in June, if I decide to do that.

Don’t worry, there are more where those came from.

Short Story day 7 – Sea Oak

7. – Sea Oak
George Saunders
http://www.barcelonareview.com/20/e_gs.htm

This is day seven of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

George Saunders is a writer that I’ve heard a lot of good things about, but have never been able to sit down and read yet. Mary Karr, in Time Magazine (in its 2013 list of the 100 most influential people) says, “For more than a decade, George Saunders has been the best short-story writer in English — not “one of,” not “arguably,” but the Best.”

Well, that certainly sounds like a recommendation.

In particular, I had wanted to read his collection, Pastoralia, and am not sure why I hadn’t. Therefore, I was happy to find today’s short story, Sea Oak, – one of the selections from Pastoralia – online, served up on a glowing, rectangular platter courtesy of the Barcelona Review.

So…..

I’m going to have to read more by George Saunders – I am not yet convinced – though I feel there is some greatness here.

I should like this more than I did. It’s amazingly well written, extremely imaginative, and exquisitely crude. The problem is that he has set himself up as a satirist of our modern world – and to satire reality television, rampant consumerism, spreading idiocracy, and the general breakdown of society into a foam of ridiculousness… well, welcome to my life. That stuff is sort of self-satirizing.

To make something like this worth your while, even as funny, sad, and well-written as it is – you have to care about the characters. At least one of them. Sea Oak… well, I almost cared, but every time I began to think about these as real people, the author would throw in another witty flourish, push the freakiness up one notch, turn everything up to eleven. I don’t mean that in a bad way, really… but it left me a little cold.

Maybe I was too tired when I was reading. After a day fighting futilely, desperately, and hopelessly against the very subjects of his fiction – it was wearing to have it thrown right back in my face.

So maybe I’ll rest up and read some more George Saunders… I know I will and I’ll almost certainly enjoy it more. I’ll let you know.

At Sea Oak there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx. Min and Jade are feeding their babies while watching How My Child Died Violently. Min’s my sister. Jade’s our cousin. How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain. Today’s show features a ten-year-old who killed a five-year-old for refusing to join his gang. The ten-year-old strangled the five-year-old with a jump rope, filled his mouth with baseball cards, then locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out until his parents agreed to take him to FunTimeZone, where he confessed, then dove screaming into a mesh cage full of plastic balls. The audience is shrieking threats at the parents of the killer while the parents of the victim urge restraint and forgiveness to such an extent that finally the audience starts shrieking threats at them too. Then it’s a commercial.
—-Sea Oak, George Saunders