Thursday, 4 December 2014

CharacteroLogics

Full title: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Short stories and a novella
Attributes: 180 pages, paperback
Publisher: Riverhead (1997)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

I'd hate to be a character in George Saunders' stories, coz he would make me work my butt off and would throw me into the narrative bin as soon as I'm done with the labor.
By saying this I am touching (part of) the essence. The stories in the collection make full use of the characterological component and deal with almost everything through the agency of these poor (I mean mostly minor) characters met along the story line.
Saunders populates his texts with significantly large crowds of characters. Under normal circumstances, that would lead to organizational problems (chaos, to be more precise): how to manage these actors, how to send them off doing things, how to make sure you're not mixing them up, how to handle their crowd without seeming teacherly – that kind of organizational problems. But Saunders is a smart storyteller. He is well organized and he’s got a plan. He revels in the picaresque mode. In the picaresque (take Tom Jones for a good example), characters roam freely. They engage in actions without much interest in the outcome. They walk and drive and ride and hike and when they do so there's hardly ever a destination across the horizon – only the accidents that befall them, and for which they are forever grateful. When they meet other characters they look at them as nothing more than accidental encounters: no sweat, no piss, no hard sentiments.
So these are characters who, as I said, have a helluva lot to do. And they do it all in half a page or less. When they don't have things to do they have things to look at. When there are no things to look at they have a lot to talk about. Oh, yes, they talk. A. Lot. Especially the minor characters, who jump into discussions as if they didn't want to miss their only chance of self-affirmation. Which is very much the only shot they get (so – they’re actually right to be so jumpy after all).
Of course, these (and especially the narrators) are not mad characters. They are just overly perceptive. There's nothing escapes their wandering eyes. Nothing in the landscape, nothing in the demeanor of others. And they pepper their observations with considerable dozes of political analyses (mind you, well veiled behind narrative stunts).

George Saunders. Source: Slow Muse
There's one big thing everyone will tell you, in case I haven't said it already: George Saunders is a goddamn good storyteller. With this volume (his debut, no less, first published in 1996), you can see his favorite tools at work. The disengagement of the narratorial voice is one of them. Saunders builds his narration in such a way that he leaves you wondering if those things you've just seen unfolding on the page are the thoughts of the character, of the author, or (gee, now that's a thought!) perhaps your very own.
And then the way characters speak, as if they were all storytellers. Their ability to make a point in a jiffy is exquisite. Although sometimes they go overboard, saying, perhaps much more than a real person would say, or (if they're on the other side of the dialogue) waiting, patiently like hell, without interrupting, for the vociferous other to finish whatever it is they've got to say.
But this one aspect, about the speaking of Saunders' characters, is easy to justify, since every nut and bolt of his stories is put there with a single purpose in mind: to sing the narrative ode that puts the story together. I believe George Saunders has experimented, here as well as in his other volumes of fiction, with just about everything in his authorial sight that could aid the progression of a story.
So yes again, some of the techniques are easy to spot and they become a kind of trademark. As, for instance, the way new characters are introduced. It goes like this: the narrator bumps into a complete stranger. He knows nothing about the stranger: no name, no place, no space, no anecdotal detail. And with the narrator, we’re in the same blur. But luckily enough, through some kind of lucky coincidence, the narrator hears the stranger's name. And now (almost always starting from the sentence right next to the revelation), the new character is mentioned by the name we have just found out. We become intimate with the complete stranger, and the complete stranger starts telling their own story. With confidence. A very detailed story every time. We find out about their past, their present, their future, a thing or two about the relationships they are entertaining, and so the characters grow to life-size in no time.
But then, just as quickly as they appeared they disappear as well, and we're somehow left with the feeling that we've lost touch with a close acquaintance. We are, in other words, emotionally invested. And damn if we know how it's happened. It was maybe the familiarity of the landscape (names of places poured into the story until you have no choice but believe it's true); maybe the familiarity of the speech lines (they talk like Americans, breathe like Americans, drive cars, use furniture, dream about burgers like Americans – because, well, they are Americans); or maybe the familiarity of many situations (no way you'll find something over-the-top here, not even when you're in a post-apocalyptic setting). With all these options you never know what's hit you. But you're left with a good taste in your mouth after all. The taste of good stories. And that’s fine, because that’s what you've been looking for. So tick.