By George Saunders
Random House, 256 pages, $28
George Saunders is known as a proponent of kindness, both in his persona and in his books. He is often referred to as the nicest guy in fiction, and is credited for developing a style of freewheeling, non-realist satire that softens up the reader with shock tactics and then sucker punches him with a call for better behavior. The work is original, and Saunders has been hugely influential. So upon the publication of his latest collection of stories, Liberation Day, it seems fair to ask, only partially in jest: Why isn’t it working? Our public sphere is controlled by exactly the type of people who would be George Saunders fans, yet grows no gentler.
Liberation Day doggedly follows the same formula as Saunders’s previous work. Its eponymous opening story is representative. In it, we meet a character named Jeremy with a strangely limited point of view. Jeremy is a human being who has been modified to serve as an entertainment system for a family; he lives (or is imprisoned) in the family’s home, and is networked with two other people who serve the same purpose. He and the other two entertainment-workers, called “Speakers,” have a suspiciously naive and cheerful outlook, which suggests they have been drugged or brainwashed. All of this is rendered in a signature prose style that is a pastiche of corporate clichés, self-help speak, Silly Capitalized Terminology, degraded syntax, and other linguistic flotsam, which is brilliant or tiresome, depending on your outlook.
For those who find Saunders brilliant, his dystopias capture the spirit of modern life, and are more real than realism. We are awash in broken language. Jeremy’s experience isn’t realistic, but it captures the feeling of modern work, especially corporate work, with its faceless tyrannies, digitally invasive practices, and management-consultant-designed 360-ratings demanding endless, false, cooperative good cheer. Jeremy’s cyborg reality is also relatable; his ecstasy and imprisonment resemble something like an ordinary person’s day of Internet usage. That it involves his sexuality—the wife of his owner/family secretly uses him to masturbate—is especially apt for all the porn addicts out there. In these terrible circumstances, Jeremy’s humanity is intended to shine forth and rebuke the system that exploits him, and it does, albeit in a hilariously twisted, classic-Saunders way. Jeremy is in love with the wife/mother who is sexually abusing him, and it’s all delusional, but somehow, even thus degraded, the love provides the story’s light.
The other stories in Liberation Day likewise effuse the author’s intention to promote better relations among members of our species. They come in two varieties: decent-ish people like Jeremy trapped in awful situations; or people of comic awfulness, trapped in their own awful thoughts, who will be cajoled into giving up their selfishness.
Saunders has called the goal “radical tenderness” or “kindness,” and the two terms are expansive enough to cover the range of virtues he promotes—love, giving up an insistence on being right, self-sacrifice, appreciation for another’s humanity. The writer was raised Catholic and became a Buddhist as an adult, and the stories often have religious framing or imagery. Their moral philosophy seems to combine the Catholic emphasis on love with the Buddhist idea of self-annihilation , with one leading to the other—a twist I doubt the Roman church would endorse. Sometimes, he breaks down the third wall with various authorial tricks and addresses the reader directly. “One speaks like this,” he writes, “as I am speaking to you now. Plain, uninspired, nothing of beauty about it.” Or: “Each day starts out as a certain day, dear reader, which when it begins, we call today…. what I must find out, and quickly now: for what will each of my coming todays henceforth be for?… Is this world we have made a world in which lovers may thrive?”
These ideas sound right, or at least not obviously wrong. (This is one way that “kindness” has taken over the schools as the primary form of moral education—it’s vague enough that no one could possibly object to it.) But they go wrong, as the kids say, structurally. Saunders’s form of stylized, semi-facetious unreality unmoors his characters’ moral development from recognizable events in human lives, and from the religious traditions he invokes. The Catholic injunction to Love thy neighbor as thyself is almost impossibly challenging. The Buddhist form of ego death is equally hard-won. Such states can’t be achieved through ironic-pastiche, either in life or in literature. Yet Saunders’s characters make their tear-jerking transformations through imaginary conversations with beams of light, as happens in the story “The Mom of Bold Action,” or while being tortured by cartoon hellfire while in conversation with some cherubs, as in the story “Mother’s Day.” The cornball hokeyness is intended as a wink and nod to a jaded audience, but viewed from another perspective, it makes things that are difficult, real, and of vital importance way too easy.
To make the process of becoming a better person seem easy is misleading, both to the audience and perhaps to the writer himself. Saunders has spoken publicly about kindness. His remarks to the 2013 graduating class at Syracuse University, where he is a professor, were widely praised and later published as the book Congratulations, By the Way. In this speech, Saunders claimed that what he regretted most in his life were “failures of kindness,” with the example of ignoring a bullied child in grade school. He wasn’t mean when others were, but he could have done a little more. It sounds good, maybe, but to take this seriously as a moral objective is a very low bar. It also speaks of an extraordinary egotism—imagine the person who believes he is so good, he has never done anything worse than a grade-school infraction? In Saunders’s stories, characters are urged to do things that are truly difficult—sacrifice for the other, give up on your anger and conviction of being right, and so on. But the writer’s underlying values don’t seem to support these virtues.
Satire, the dictionary tells us, is a form of literature that uses “humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of politics and other topical issues.” It doesn’t sound like a format inclined toward kindness, nor toward seeing the point of view of the other person (the stupid other person, that is). Still, one might hope that the work would be even-handed enough to satirize everyone, and thus make its point for love, self-renunciation, and generosity. To do that in today’s culture would be both radical and brave.
Such hopes are mostly in vain when it comes to Saunders. The author takes a few token swipes at liberalism (#MeToo gets a jab, and so do rich-kid revolutionaries). But he is a liberal himself, and his stories are correspondingly opinionated. An early work, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, satirized George W. Bush as a jingoistic idiot whose brain keeps falling off its rack. Liberation Day includes a story, “Love Letter,” in which a sorrowful grandfather in a future tyranny presided over by “Republicans” writes to his grandson about how to survive a totalitarian world where speech isn’t free and people are imprisoned for their affiliations—one more lame contribution to the “Trump-wants-to-end-democracy” narrative. (As an aside, the stories become less successful when they are more overtly political; Saunders can’t be irreverent about Trumpy tyranny, and thus his signature formula loses an important component and sinks into melodrama—the love letter from Grandpa is played with a straight face.)
Another example of overt side-taking is the story “Elliot Spencer.” In it, we meet a man who has been brain-wiped by a nefarious cabal to serve as a protester for “freedom,” vaguely defined. Elliot has been retrained to speak in sub-literate clichés. He has been taught to yell “BastardTurdCreepIdiot” on the reasoning that he does so “for poor and sick, will defend weak, from oppressors.” “What loudness for good we make!” he says, after a protest. It’s an exceptionally vicious treatment of any protester, even the ones I personally disagree with and believe have been brainwashed. Saunders isn’t, however, targeting the American demographic most recently involved in mass protest. The sub-literate brainwashed bots like Elliot are laden with right-wing lingo and markers, and appear to be counter-protesting some other, better people less prone to violence and with more reasonable aims. On a stylistic note, this is another deadly earnest piece that’s rendered almost entirely in adult baby-talk. On a moral note, the people satirized in the story wouldn’t consider it kind.
Stephen Colbert, a master of satire, asked Saunders about this contradiction in his work in an appearance on The Late Show in 2017. Colbert is a practicing Catholic, presumably familiar with the bitter challenges of the Church’s definition of love. If we are supposed to be kinder to everyone, Colbert asked, does that mean we should be kinder to Donald Trump? Saunders essentially said no, to applause. Kindness toward Trump supporters, Saunders said, would be persuading them they are wrong. A clearer statement of being convinced one is right would be hard to come by.
Throughout his career, Saunders has made many moving and powerful pleas for human decency, in fiction and in interviews, and his body of work speaks to the energy he has devoted to that cause. Given the politics of the stories, however, the reader might conclude that decency is required from other people—the awful ones with the wrong voting record, the faceless ones controlling the system, the rich ones enslaving human beings in their living rooms as entertainment systems. No reader would recognize himself in these villains. The readers instead can congratulate themselves on their niceness, measured mostly by the size of their outrage. And they are encouraged in their self-regard by Saunders’s non-realist methodology, which implies that what matters is not external events, but merely what those events feel like. It doesn’t matter what other people actually do (imprison people in their living rooms? kneecap homeless men with baseball bats?), it’s how we interpret it. Others are how we dream them.
The Catholic mystic Adrienne von Speyr writes about love not as a closed circle, returning endlessly to the self, but as a spiral, expanding outward to include more at every stage. People inspire love, and so, she says, do things—but for the first stages to arise, we must give the world our attention. It’s an unexpected source for an argument for realism, but it seems applicable.