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Pastoralia by George Saunders

Pastoralia (original 2000; edition 2001)

by George Saunders

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1,382None5,486 (4.07)47
Authors:George Saunders
Info:Riverhead Trade (2001), Paperback, 208 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:short stories

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Pastoralia by George Saunders (2000)


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George Saunders must surely be the master of the excoriating inner monologue. Across these six stories, his typically sad, misfit, life-bludgeoned characters find fault with themselves (and others, though usually that eventually comes round to self-criticism). It is as though Saunders has looked around him, picked out the saddest, loneliest looking people he can find and then set himself the task of imagining their inner lives. Their inner lives, it turns out, are just about as sad and lonely as their outer lives. Long passages of passionate self-examination and scab picking are then punctuated by brief actions or exchanges involving others. What is most surprising, however, is that these desperately sad characters usually end up doing something brave, self-sacrificing, or noteworthy. Not that anyone notices, or cares, or cares to notice. Except that Saunders himself notices and through him so do we.

The sad characters in Saunders’ stories most often have tedious, mind-numbingly inane, bureaucratically mangled jobs. In the long opening story, “Pastoralia”, the unnamed narrator spends his days as a caveman. He is working at a futuristic theme park with live action recreations of human history. He and the woman portraying his cave wife, Janet, must follow a strict code of cave behaviour throughout the day. They’ve both been at this job a long time. And the theme park isn’t doing especially well, so very few guests poke their heads in to witness the lives of cave people. Just as well as Janet is usually filing her nails or speaking in English (which is not allowed). To be forced to endure such humiliating work might be bad enough but the indignity is magnified by cost-cutting, self-serving management intent on firing as many of the staff as possible to rescue the bottom line. Every person we encounter is desperate about the few dollars that their employment can bring in for their families. Most would do anything to keep their jobs, including ratting out the poor behaviour of their peers. It is a sad and sorry world and Saunders drags us through it by the hair (caveman style). And it has no end. Because, I suppose, life, he is suggesting, has pretty much been like this since the days of our earliest ancestors. Despite its light tone and embarrassingly awkward moments for the characters, the effect is chilling.

The remaining stories, although they share satirical features with “Pastoralia”, tend toward the more hopeful endings mentioned above. It is as though we are seeing Saunders himself progress as a thinker, a writer, a humanist. In the final story of the collection, “The Falls”, the principal narrator, another self-excoriating character named Morse (which might just as well be “morose”), is dragging himself home at the end of another painfully long day at work. No need to detail his particular squalor. What is peculiar here is his action at the very end. Despite all of his convincing of himself not to do it, he goes ahead and does something wonderful. It is so startling that you might wonder whether Saunders himself was surprised by this ending. It really is remarkable.

Every story here is worthy of numerous readings. Heartily recommended. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Mar 23, 2014 |
One can easily read Saunders and DFW as doing something similar: taking the cynical 'postmodern' literary style/pose and turning it inside out, so you start off with the cynicism and pose and end up, either to your disgust or delight, with an intense emotional connection to these characters. But they're not real people! But narrative is an oppression of the real world! Oh, you are so inauthentic! But more importantly, you're a human being again.

This is particularly effective, I think, in the longer stories. In those Saunders does an amazing job of showing our non-romantic relationships, with our bosses, work-mates, family and our selves. It's easy to write a love story in which the real world has no impact; it's much harder to write about the relationships Saunders focuses on and forget that these relationships are often deformed in horrific ways by the pressures of, well, modern capitalism. A nice, if repetitive device is the violence with which the bosses and authority figures always treat the English language. In Saunders' universe, it appears, the inability to use syntax is identical with the inability to be a decent person. I think that's about right.

I love all of that: very self-aware, emotionally moving stories that are moving because of the harm the world inflicts on people rather than because of the characters being so well fleshed out that you can't help but get invested, and that show you in no uncertain terms how important syntax is to human existence.
The problem is that it's all very one note.* This is, of course, a problem for most short story writers. Saunders is almost certainly aware of it: 'Brief and Terrifying' is clearly one way out of the short-story drudge. I really hope he can find other ways out of it, but even if he can't, the three short story collections deserve a small place in the Fictioneers' Corner, wherever that might be.

*: I have a theory, motivated entirely by one line on wikipedia, which tells me that Saunders used to be a Randian. In short, he's like an ex-smoker: his attacks on modern life aren't without cause, but they might be without end. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I have to admit when George Saunders won the National Book Award this year for Tenth of December, I thought 'who'? I picked up these short stories just to get a taste of what his writing is like. Wow - impressive. This volume is short - less than 200 pages and it's easy to devour his writing quickly. Really, the whole book could be read in one sitting. But I recommend you stop after each story and reflect. Although his writing is really easy to read - not pretentious and not obscure, but the message is powerful. The stories are funny, bizarre and very creative - great book to read. ( )
  jmoncton | Nov 21, 2013 |
More crisp and controlled than his previous work. Though I miss the sense of adventure. ( )
  Algybama | Jul 15, 2013 |
Surreal, funny, bitingly sharp and touchingly redemptive shorts

“Down in the city are the nice houses and the so-so houses and the lovers making out in dark yards and the babies crying for their moms, and I wonder if, other than Jesus, has this ever happened before. Maybe it happens all the time. Maybe there's angry dead all over, hiding in rooms, covered with blankets, bossing around their scared, embarrassed relatives. Because how would we know?”

I really loved this collection of off the wall shorts that seem to capture humanity’s foibles so perfectly. It could be depressing if it wasn't so funny. It would be easy to review except none of this is simplistic. On one level I solely adored the humour and surreal edge of the slightly twisting tale of “Sea Oak” where a self-sacrificing doormat of an aunt comes back from the grave to kick her lazy, unambitious family up the backside and let her hair down.

Then there are the ones where meaning rewrites itself, where grotesque losers twist into something recognisable. Take “The Fall” where neurotic dad berates himself as he sits on the precipice of doing something fatally heroic juxtaposed against the useless overly dramatic, unrecognised ‘genius’ who hovers nearby or “Winky” where a sad loser goes to a (hilarious) self help seminar to get rid of his more insane sister and then.. well read it find out. There is redemption and forgiveness against the sharp bite of satire.

All in all highly recommended, need I say the dialogue is superb, the characters spot on and the ideas

“Times are hard, entire Units are being eliminated, the Staff Remixing continues … please, only remember that we are a family, and you are the children, not that we’re saying you’re immature, only that you do most of the chores while we do all the thinking, and also that we, in our own way, love you.”

An excerpt of the 1st short Pastoralia is here. a terrifyingly mundane and surreal Kafkaesque theme world
http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781573228725,00.html?sym=... ( )
1 vote clfisha | Jul 1, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Here it is, revisited for our entertainment in George Saunders’ second collection of satirical short stories, the new-look land of the free: themed up, dumbed down and laid out ready for embalming. Saunders has been compared to Pynchon and Vonnegut, yet the disgust that fuels his world recalls Nathaniel West. He shares too West’s taste for grotesquery yet these stories are raised above the level of mordant masterpieces by an extra dimension: hope.
Saunders specialises in giving losers - the ugly, the weak, the self-absorbed - a flicker of appeal or delusional hope. We meet them in motivational seminars, drivers' education courses, walking home from dead-end jobs. We follow them to places like Sea Oak, with "no sea and no oak, just 100 subsidised apartments and a rear view of FedEx". Inside those apartments, the tenants are watching TV: "How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who's always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they've been sainted by pain."

There are six stories in this collection. Four of them are very good, and the other two are at least good -- a success average that is highly unusual for a short-story collection. If, like your humble reviewer, you had to regularly review short-story collections, you would soon discover that they almost always suck -- tinseling suburban dullness with some distant derivative of the Joycean epiphany until you want to scream: Basta! That Saunders stories are on such a high level is close to miraculous.

Saunders's extraordinary talent is in top form in his second collection, in which his vision of a hellishly (and hopefully) exaggerated dystopia of late capitalist America is warmed and impassioned by his regular, irregular and flat-out wacky characters.
These characters may not have much, but they do possess the author's compassion, and so are enigmas of decency enshrouded in dark, TV-hobbled dumbness. Saunders, with a voice unlike any other writer's, makes these losers funny, plausible and absolutely winning.
added by steevohenderson | editPublishers Weekly (May 1, 2000)
The freakish, cowed characters filling Saunders's acclaimed debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1995), have spawned a new crop of unhappy, scabrously comic campers in these six stories, as the struggle among them to be happy and do the right thing continues.

Being inside the teeming heads of these folks is amusing and enlightening. So accurately are they rendered, in all their flawed glory, that they appear not only perfectly human but familiar.

added by steevohenderson | editKirkus Reviews (Apr 1, 2000)
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I have to admit I'm not feeling my best. Not that I'm doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about. Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No. Because I'm Thinking Positive/ Saying Positive. I'm sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke in their heads. Although it's been thirteen days since anyone poked in their head and Janet's speaking English to me more and more, which is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.
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Collects these stories:
"Sea Oak"
"The End of FIRPO in the World"
"The Barber's Unhappines"
"The Falls"
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 074755000X, Paperback)

In both his acclaimed debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and his second collection, Pastoralia, George Saunders imagines a near future where capitalism has run amok. Consumption and the service economy rule the earth. The Haves are grotesque beings, mutilated by their crass desires and impossible wealth. The Have Nots are no less crippled, both emotionally and physically, by their inferior status. It's a kind of Westworld scenario, but instead of robots, the serving wenches, bellboys, and extras are real people, all of them mercilessly indentured by the free market.

Sounds like bleak stuff, doesn't it? Yet Saunders handles his characters with grace and humor. In the title story, for example, a couple occupies a squalid corner of a human zoo, where they act out a parody of caveman times, communicating in grunts and hand motions (speaking is instantly punishable by the Orwellian management) and conducting their lives during 15-minute smoke breaks. In "Winky," a born loser (really, all of Saunders's characters are born losers) visits a self-help seminar, where he's encouraged to rid himself of all those people who are "crapping in your oatmeal." Exhilarated at the prospect of dumping his simple, crazy-haired, religion-besotted sister, he returns home to the bleak discovery that he needs her as much as she needs him. The protagonist of "Sea Oak" works as a stripper in an aviation-themed restaurant and lives next to a crack house with his unemployed sisters, their babies, and a sweet old maid of an aunt. The aunt dies, and then returns from the grave--not so sweet, now, and still decomposing--with strange powers and a sobering message:

You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are going to have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me!
The characters and situations in the rest of Pastoralia are equally wretched. But Saunders rescues them from utter despair with a loving belief in the triumph of the human spirit: yes, things can always get worse, but worse is better than the cold dirt of the grave. And in the small space between wretchedness and death there is plenty of room for laughter, and even love. --Tod Nelson

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:26 -0400)

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A collection of stories focuses on a somewhat skewed version of America and includes the midadventures of a male exotic dancer who is haunted by a departed maiden aunt and a self-help guru given to colorful metaphors.

(summary from another edition)

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