Much like Tenth of December, George Saunders’ Pastoralia is a collection of
fascinating yet cynical character studies. Whether portraying a troubled kid, a
self-absorbed barber, or a hack writer, he’s consistently focused on the flaws
of his subjects. And here again, Saunders often provides characterization by
fusing a subject’s tone with a third-person perspective.
The narrative trick is fun on its own, but it also makes the
stream-of-conscious writing feel surprisingly authentic. This kind of “tainted”
third-person writing has all of the nuance of first-person with none of the
conceit. In other words, there’s no tension between what a character is
thinking and how they might prefer to present themselves.
It’s not just structural, of course. Although he modifies his diction and tone
to suit the subject, Saunders consistently uses a halting style that feels
right for internal dialog. It’s stunted and honest, often to the point of
Morse found it nerve-wracking to cross the St. Jude grounds just as school
was being dismissed, because he felt that if he smiled at the uniformed
Catholic children they might think he was a wacko or pervert and if he didn’t
smile they might think he was an old grouch made bitter by the world, which
surely, he felt, by certain yardsticks, he was. Sometimes he wasn’t entirely
sure that he wasn’t even a wacko of sorts, although certainly he wasn’t a
pervert. Of that he was certain. Or relatively certain. Being overly certain,
he was relatively sure, was what eventually made one a wacko. So humility was
the thing, he thought, arranging his face into what he thought would pass for
the expression of a man thinking fondly of his own youth, a face devoid of
wackiness or perversion, humility was the thing.
Much of the writing takes the form of tangents like this, and as absurd as they
are, they still manage to help you understand each speaker. The frank, direct
language makes even conceited characters seem sincere and even judgemental
thoughts feel relatable.
That’s crucial for me. There’s so much cynicism in comedic fiction today, where
the humor is entirely derived from characters being flawed or hurt. I honestly
can’t stomach stories that encourage audiences to revel in ironic suffering. It
often feels like the creators are too self-aware (or risk-averse) to have their
characters be intentionally funny. Pastoralia comes dangerously close to this
territory, but Saunders’ attempts to empathize set it apart.
I’m coming to appreciate Saunders’ writing a bit like I do licorice. It’s taken
some getting used to, but now that I have a taste for it, I expect I’ll seek it
out every once in a while. By the same token, though, I can probably only
handle it in measured doses.