11/19 George Saunders & Patrick Somerville
I finished the George Saunders story first and my immediate reaction was very positive. I enjoyed the story, found it funny and sad, sometimes at the same time. One thing that struck me as pretty amazing about the story is how much internal consistency there was with the absurdity of the story. The world of the story makes internal sense, even though there are ghosts, to say nothing of the setting, those surreal/absurdest details fit with each other really well, and required only a quick readjustment of my expectations of reality for me to sink back into the story. I guess I want to use the word verisimilitude, (something Saunders is begging me to do what with the narrator's job description) the weirdness of the story was a shift of reality from mine to the story's version of reality.
Another thing that elevated the story for me was the humor, as I mentioned, and how there were still moments that were touching and emotional. I felt really sad for the narrator and the boss when they get drunk together, and sad for the ghost family, and sympathetic at how genuine the narrator's love of his children are, and the the narrator's general predicament. Though he lays down like a dog at the end of the story, which I found disappointing, and sucked some of my compassion away. BUt I think that's what I mean about the entire story, I was involved in this unreal character, in this unreal world, in this unreal circumstance, enough to lose compassion once earned by the author, enough to be disappointed in the last paragraph.
That being said, I was left a little empty where meaning and theme are concerned. If there was a larger metaphor at work, something Faustian in hiring the ex-soldier for security it was lost on me emotionally, and anything deeper and I couldn't describe it, though it felt like something more was going on, that I might have to reflect upon more.
But it was fun and funny, and touching, and I did enjoy it.
After finishing the Somerville story I had a very different reaction. The absurd details of that story had no internal consistency, it was more like an actual dream than something crafted to be surreal. Everything seemed random and yet the plot was contrived, it never achieved humor or meaning, or emoted anything strong, the narrator wasn't sympathetic or really hateful, just a blah-character with who behaved too randomly to have any consistency in a reality that was itself to random for me to get a hold on. Food scientist a death blow, a wheelchair bound bird man, a 12 year old who can't tie his shoes, a 19th century mustache on a rude god, it was all so random I found it boring, and I didn't trust that the author wasn't just indulging himself the way David Lynch does at times. Ultimately, I just didn't care, and except for one or two lines, the writing wasn't all that compelling either, so it was a hard slog to get through.
And disappointing that I read it after the Saunders piece, which I found effortless to get through, and engaging.
I really liked Patrick Somerville’s Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow. I did not read the comments at the beginning of the story before I read it or had my five minutes of quiet time, but I would agree with mostly what is said; “he had me a spray-on cheeses.” I thought the story was very funny and it kept me wanting to turn the page, even before the line “his cheese-man dad is a murderer.” I think what I liked about it most, more than how interesting the story makes the manipulations of milk seem, is the fact that his anger really comes out when someone sneezes on the back of his head. He has clearly been boiling for a long time and been dissatisfied with his life, but it wasn’t any of the larger mitigating factors in his life that set him off, it was a total stranger displaying a complete disregard for Jim as a person.
Okay, now I think that I like Civilwarland In Bad Decline even better. I keep thinking of that poor little boy dressed as an accountant for Halloween and being shot at. I really liked that visual. Both of these stories were excellent and kept me wanting to read more. I think what I liked most about both of these stories is that the main characters have very unusual jobs and Civilwarland is an incredibly gimmicky place to set a story about murder and mayhem in, but it works so well. I think they were so interesting because I was never bored, the movements kept changing and kept me guessing, but it wasn’t exhausting and it wasn’t like there was too much happening. Just enough.
During the closing-the-eyes exercise, I started thinking about too much knowledge re the Shadowy Deathblow maneuver. The problem should be uniquely for someone whose moral constraints are based only on the pragmatic. But knowing too much is a growing problem for all us these days, regardless of our moral state: our civilization has learned how to destroy our own planet. I wish sometimes we could turn the clock back centuries and know far less and have done far less damage to our fellow creatures and world; we are so disrupting the natural order of things.
I love the cheesiness of this story and how it was so perfectly placed in the author’s birth state of Wisconsin. I reflected about how going to something totally of a time and place as Sommerville does here can paradoxically let a really talented writer do something immensely universal in theme. The self-characterization the lead character gives himself of amorality (as opposed to immorality) shows self-delusion that is utterly credible. Many people justify their own immoral acts by seeking to convince themselves their acts are “merely” amoral; this story is oddly true to life in showing that.
This is a story that gets power from its humor. A good many of the characters we have read about this semester would probably offer up amorality as their own condition. And they surely share the same banality that Sommerfield so humorously captures.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline made me remember that it’s George Saunders’ sense of humor that gets to me, far more than Patrick Sommerfield’s. I think it’s because of what I think of as George Saunders’ generosity and good-heartedness. He is incapable of being mawkish, and he sees people with honesty and, I think, affection, despite how inconsequential are their lives. Where Sommerfield’s protagonist self-defines as being amoral, Saunders' character in CivilWarLand is a working stiff (like Saunders was for a good while) who wants to care for his family -- both in this story and in his new The Semplicia Diaries, we might add. His people get all caught up in the material and have messed up values: I think of George Saunders as a brilliant fiction-writing Vance Packard, but a whole lot more. This story is so great: I love his little touches like Hatred Abatement Breathing (you can see the influence of his Buddhism in it) and the way he talks about how Mr. A “has considerable influence in Rotary.”
One thing in this story shocked me with recognition. It’s where Saunders describes Quinn as “dirt-poor with six kids” and Mr. A says "that’s a plus, as we’ll need someone between a rock and a hard place.” I once worked for a multinational bank. I was there early one evening when the news came of the death of a direct report to the Comptroller; she suicided and her skeleton was found in a lock on the river. This man sat on the edge of desk and told several of us how he sometimes hires people like her seeing they are desperate; he had seen desperation in her. He said he figured she would be likely to give the firm her all well beyond reason. You know eventually they'll self destruct, he said of that type of employee; you get a good run from them before they do.
I know the Comptroller would not have recognized himself in George Saunders’ story. I did. I thought, it’s a pity he couldn’t magically be transported into Patrick Sommerville’s story. I can imagine how maybe inside it he might have coughed on the protagonist and received a shadowy deathblow. Were I designing the action, I would have had it happen before he had risen enough to have the power to hire.
The George Saunders’ podcast was terrific. I was familiar already with the bones of what was said in the interview until near the very end. I was comforted and interested with the fact that the issues of plot and structure are such that they limit his production to “one or two things a year,” which is part of why he also enjoys doing some journalistic work where he can write for “almost anybody who can read.”
I love the realistic absurdity of both stories....how fantasy situations occur in the "real" world.
With eyes closed, I thought about the deathblow and the idea of sic-fi or supernatural martial arts and how much I liked the coming together of fact and fiction to create a new world that, as the reader, I really wanted to believe could exist in some way.
In the George Saunders podcast, i liked the part where he talked about studying geology but recognizing that he came alive when reading or writing. Then when he began to write, he struggled because he was trying to write his version of Hemingway. He says that when, out of desperation he finally gave himself permission to do what came naturally, he started being a successful writer....this is a freeing moment I imagine every writer should have.
This is my second time reading "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," and I have to say that this time around, I was able to appreciate the humor a lot more. While this story is bizarre—even by Saunders standards—it also exhibits an exceptionally humorous exterior, but underneath, it's an surprisingly dark story: the narrator's marriage is collapsing around him and Samuel, for all the humor he brings, is actually a very damaged and disturbed Vietnam vet. Even the the MacKinnons, while entertaining, have that horrific scene where they keep replaying the moment when Mr. MacKinnon hacked them all to death. Having heard how much Saunders labors over his stories—and particularly his endings—I'm still a little surprised by this one. It almost comes out of left field in a way, even though all of the "warning" signs were there.
I immensely enjoyed Somerville's "Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow." (As a Wisconsin native, I was predisposed to love it, i.e.: "Eric is at heart a good boy with a sharp wit. There was a time, even that night, out in the yard, under the stars—Wisconsin can be a wonderful place—when I believed he would grow into a good man. Perhaps a strong man.") This is another story where humor plays a significant role with a dark underside—after all, the story's narrator kills two people (albeit in a funny way). I thought the first half of the story stretched out a bit longer than I would've liked, but once he learned the deathblow and started looking for Minkowski, I was completely onboard. The scene in the bathroom is incredible, so good, in fact, that I forgave him a rather lackluster ending. It almost seemed as if Somerville had taken te story as far as it could possibly go and then couldn't find an adequate way to wrap it all up. But, given the brilliance of that bathroom scene, I can't really blame him. Almost anything would've been a letdown.
It was refreshing (and sort of heartening) to hear that even the most well-established writers like Saunders suffered through failed novels (so bad that even his wife couldn't finish it), the trials of the working world, and occasionally swam in rivers filled with shit.
This is one of the darkest stories I've ever read, in part because it's also one of the funniest. The humor serves to highlight the disturbing, rather than alleviate it, but it also keeps you from becoming depressed and not enjoying the read. The story seems to be about how humanity is doomed—doomed because we cannot avoid the past (the McKinnons miming their deaths over and over again and the end; the whole theme park based around recreating the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history; Sam's abusive childhood…I'm sure there are other examples). It shows a world where the only way to change things is to destroy them, where things are pretty much hopeless and humankind is beyond any chance of redemption.
I spent much of the five minutes trying to think of a story that I think is darker or bleaker, and I couldn't. I also thought about why the world of this story is still relatable even though it's so exaggerated. I usually lose interest when things veer too far into caricature. Some of Kurt Vonnegut's stories come to mind. Saunders pulled it off I think because all of the strange things—the theme park, the ghosts, Sam's killing spree, the characters' exaggerated qualities (esp. the wife and the boss)—are 1) All only slightly stranger than something you'd find in real life—it's their cumulative effect that makes the story seem very weird, 2) crafted in believable enough detail so that if you weren't convinced that something like CivilWarLand was a real thing, by the end it's vivid enough to see.
Something about this story was unsatisfying. I guess it's because it wasn't all that surprising, in the end. Don't get me wrong, it was terrifically well-written and I had a lot of fun reading it, but toward the end…I don't know. I feel like there was nothing unpredictable. The shadowy deathblow turning out to be an uncontrollable curse, the homeless sneezing guy's return, the narrator fucking up his (remarkably easy) chance at getting a job—nothing about it really caught me off guard. Nothing important, at least. I was surprised at the parrots on the man's shoulders (which seems weird in a highly realistic way, a really incredible detail I think) or when he accidentally did the deathblow on his own foot, but I wasn't taken aback by any important developments in the story, and I felt like I wasn't in a different place either intellectually or emotionally than I was when I set off.
All that being said I think that on a sentence-to-sentence level, there's a lot to be learned here on how to write a captivating and readable story, particularly with Somerville's knack for creating a very weird but also very believable universe.
Patrick Somerville "Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow":
I really enjoyed this story - it made me laugh a lot and I found it bizarre in a wonderful way. As I was thinking about it I was remembering lines and images that stuck out to me - Georgia stroking the heads of both of his birds and saying not to make any sudden movements "because of the birds." I thought that was hilarious, but during the five minutes I was really conscious of how uninsightful I was being by merely recalling moments like that. And then I got caught up in how difficult I find this exercise to be, because I inevitably end up being far too self-conscious of my thoughts and whether they are useful. In any case...
Another moment that stuck out for me was when the narrator says "If you're going to survive, I thought, you have to act. If you have a problem, you have to fix it." But pretty much all of the "trouble" he finds himself in throughout the story is directly caused by this assertion and his actions, starting with his decision to confront Minkowski when he sneezes on him on the trolley. I also appreciated the instances when Somerville brings in the second person - I think it goes a long way in allowing me to accept the crazy things that happen in the story and to identify with the narrator, who otherwise might have been just thoroughly unlikable.
George Saunders "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline":
I loved this story too! Something that I really appreciate about George Saunders' work is that at the beginning of a lot of his stories I feel like I've been thrown into a universe that is both the same and different from my own, and I'm not sure exactly where I am and I have to kind of paddle around for a page or so before I can sort out what's going on. It's exhilarating. There's a sense of gradual widening in this story that I think is really impressive. The story seems to start out so small and by the end it feels like it's about everything: the cyclical nature of violence, the corrupting influence of capitalism, the obligations of family and parenthood, death. I don't understand how he does this without it being heavy-handed or simplistic. Gah.
1. Patrick Somerville's story was one of the most enjoyable short stories I read this year. When I closed my eyes, I thought about two aspects of the story. The undertone of the masculinity and the narrator's son Eric. The jabs toward his son's lack of masculinity (The world's all locusts and people like Eric are corn) These sentences were witty and funny in a dark humor kind of way. I realize, on the larger scale of the story, this was not the focal-point of the story, but it stuck with me.
2. This week's assignment was my first time reading anything by George Saunders. When I closed my eyes, I could not think of one critical comment to about this piece. I thought it was fantastic and I am looking forward to reading more of Saunders. If I could make one suggestion, I think this story could be just as effective, perhaps more, if it were structured differently and had more full page dialogue scenes, like the first assignment.
3. As it turns out, George Saunders is from the same Chicago suburb as myself. Oak Forest is (and mostly likely was) going through a lot of racial and social tension. I am curious to know if this has leaked into some of his other fiction.
Thinking about -Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow
This story made me think about how there are so many whack-jobs in the world. It’s scary to think that you never know when exactly you are going to encounter one of them. It’s even scarier to think that you might already be in contact with one of them and it’s only a matter of time until they crack. No matter how well you may think you know someone you may never really know them. It’s also possible that sometimes you don’t even know yourself. It seems like Jim Funkle always had the killing gene, but it took a certain event to trigger the crazy in him. Could this happen to anyone who gets to their breaking point? Probably to more than I’d like to think. You can never be too careful, so I never try not to set anyone off.
There were certain strange images that popped into my head. “I saw a vision of myself dying alone in a boxcar, drunk and emaciated, somewhere in southern Ohio. My dead body then rolled slowly towards the open door and fell out onto the tracks. It was sliced neatly in half by the caboose of the train.” “His penis was like a small white worm coming up from the cavernous fly.” “….I again took Harris’s shiny patent leather shoes into my hands and dragged him, his arms now up behind his head as though he were cheering at a Frank Sinatra concert….”
The safest thing to do is to never put anything past anyone. Remember that you never know what any one individual is capable of. Be polite to strangers. Try not to be too paranoid.
Thinking about- CivalWarLand in Bad Decline
I grew up in Rochester New York and used to ride my bike along the Erie Canal. My friends would go scumming off the locks. I heard horror stories of kids getting stuck in cow carcasses at the bottom of the canal where people used to dump them, and was too scared to ever jump in. I also remember going on field trips to places similar to Civil War Land. Reading this story was like having a nightmare about being trapped on one of those fieldtrips. The events are surreal, yet believable. This story will definitely stay with me. With my eyes closed thinking about it, the ending replayed over and over in my head. The McKinnons reenacting their deaths over and over and the flashing revelations the narrator experiences as he’s dying.