It was, I thought, an awfully good joke on critical hype. The title of Joel Lovell’s interview with George Saunders in the Jan. 3 issue of the New York Times Magazine – printed in sarcastically small letters on an otherwise all-black cover – was “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”
To be pretending to say that on the cover of a year’s first (Jan. 3!) issue of anything at all is a pleasantly acerbic broadside at the merciless penchant for hyperbole in the public opinion racket. In context, it is also, simultaneously, an admission that periodically in the worlds of movies and books some (author, director, actor) suddenly hits every reliable witness as someone who must now – and ever after – be attended to. Obscurity is no longer permissible.
And this is George Saunders’ time, as his new story collection “The Tenth of December” makes abundantly obvious.
One not only finds our nation’s major newspaper shouting his name through its matchless megaphone, one finds on the dustflap of the book itself encomia from Zadie Smith (“Not since Twain” etc.), Jonathan Franzen (“makes the all-but-impossible look effortless”) and, yes, no less than Thomas Pynchon, the phantom of American fiction’s opera (“an astoundingly tuned voice – graceful, dark, authentic and funny”). One also finds more specific dustflap blurbing for “The Tenth of December” from Jennifer Egan (“George Saunders at his most subversive, hilarious and emotionally piercing”) and Dave Eggers (“a complete original, unlike anyone else, thank God” while also invoking a trio of sanctified names – Barthelme, Vonnegut and, of course, Twain).
In the world of Jung’s synchronicity, though, something else happened that brought this truly extraordinary collection of stories into far greater clarity: at the same time that advance review copies of “The Tenth of December” went out, so too did advance review copies of the magnificent 900-page Library of America edition of Sherwood Anderson’s “Collected Stories” (including many left “uncollected or unpublished at his death” in 1941 at the age of 64, from the consequences of inadvertently swallowing a toothpick from a cocktail olive, a preposterous but appallingly real joke that no putatively “humorous” writer would have dared put into a story or novel).
Despite the insistence of all the eminently justified blurbsters found on and in “The Tenth of December,” they were clearly talking about Saunders’ previous work more than “The Tenth of December” which tends far more to the horrific – even when satiric – and just as much about that Thoreauvian “quiet desperation” which was so hauntingly explored by Sherwood Anderson (as identifiably American in tonality in his stories as, say, Edward Hopper in his paintings).
Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead” is a brilliant story set in a not-very-distant future that scores satiric points off industrial drug research (human subjects receive such trademarked enhancing drugs as Verbaluce and Vivistiff from the Mobilpak they all wear), but the effect is horrifying, not funny. The tone seems the outrage of a writer who once worked as an engineer for Radian International in Rochester, not the playfulness of Barthelme exploring a social/aesthetic milieu.
“Victory Lap” is a virtuosic deep dive into the minds of two high school 15-year-olds – until, that is, the story is terrifyingly invaded by the Gothic streak that has resided in our fiction from the very beginning. The juxtaposition of those two things – teen brains awhirl with trivia and a dark world trying desperately to envelop them – is accomplished in a way that takes, say, a Joyce Carol Oates story into the 21st century.
“Puppy” is, similarly, too savagely naturalistic to be funny, even if its tone is completely original. Saunders is, it seems, not a writer who needed Emily Dickinson to tell him to tell the truth but tell it slant.
He not only worked as an engineer in Rochester, he teaches at Syracuse University and has, reasonably often, been on conspicuous tap for literary occasions in Buffalo (importantly for a library celebration of its Twain manuscripts).
He is not a writer whose stories are in a hurry to declare themselves for what they are. “Exhortation” – which presents “Todd Birnie, Divisional Director” writing a staff memorandum about “March Performance Stats” – begins with a pseudo-folksy corporate metaphor so thick that its virtuosic joke of plunging the reader into “Room 6” and “a de Facto Hall of Fame” is all the more harrowing in so few pages. Some of these stories are often told so “slant” that one can have brief doubts they’ll reveal themselves at all. But that, I assure you, is their glorious originality.
You can’t say that Saunders is incapable of giving us a clunker. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is a little theme park tale that, as short as it is, never works at all. But in a little 18-page masterwork called “Al Roosten” we’re in a sublimely inventive 21st version of that kind of small town story for “The Book of the Grotesque” that Sherwood Anderson’s old man was supposedly writing in “Winesburg, Ohio.”
Time can be a writer’s cruelest adversary but it can also come to a great writer’s rescue. Sherwood Anderson’s once-worshiped Nobel Prize-winning contemporary Sinclair Lewis hasn’t found time to be much of a friend of late. But as American literature of the past 50 years gave us Raymond Carver, Frederick Barthelme, Richard Ford and Charles Baxter, Sherwood Anderson called out ever louder to be read and not just as a key stylistic influence on Hemingway (who repaid the influence in his first novel “The Torrents of Spring” with an Anderson parody that even Hemingway’s then-wife found unnecessarily “mean”).
The Library of America answered the call with one of its best in a long time, a “Collected Stories” from Anderson edited and with biographical commentary by Charles Baxter.
Until now, Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” it seems to me, has been the most hauntingly unread American masterpiece of them all. Read the story “Hands,” for instance, and you can imagine a straight line between Anderson’s six-page story and a Russell Banks novel eight decades later.
Edmund Wilson always thought Anderson’s stories preferable to his novels. As early as 1925, H.L. Mencken was writing presciently “none of the new writers who have come into notice since the close of the Howells era in American letters seems to offer more difficulties to the academic critics than Sherwood Anderson.” But then, as Mencken splendidly points out, literary criticism is not an exact science “like thermodynamics or urinalysis … The agony of man in this world interests him immensely but he doesn’t know what causes it and he has no remedy for it. He describes it, he speculates about it, he feels the tragedy of it but the riddle that is in it he doesn’t undertake to solve.”
His ambition, as Alfred Kazin quotes from Anderson’s own memoir “A Story Teller’s Story,” was to “become a writer whose sympathy went out most to the little frame houses, on often mean enough streets in American towns, to defeated people, often with thwarted lives” (whose relative “Al Roosten” in George Saunders’ “Tenth of December” deliberately kicks the wallet and keys of an envied neighbor under a gym riser and then suffers misery over its consequences).
Hemingway’s “bitterness toward Anderson” said Kazin astutely “was as much a recognition of the older man’s advantage in his awkwardness as it was a revulsion against his self-indulgence and groping.”
So here, at last, is a whopping Anderson “Collected Stories” from the Library of America despite the fact that, along with everything else, Anderson is one of those writers easy to catch in the act of racial and religious incorrectness in our era (the case of the former, from the very expression of what was intended to be its era’s liberalism, in the manner of Carl Van Vechten).
Time, though, has given Anderson too many progeny – literary grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren – to ignore.
Literary spotlights are unavoidable – for Saunders at the age of 54, Sherwood Anderson 72 years after his death.
Tenth of December: Stories By George Saunders
Random House,254 pages, $26
Collected Stories By Sherwood Anderson,
edited by Charles Baxter, Library of America 900 pages, $35
Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books editor.