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Though George Saunders is the most exciting comic literary talent to come along in the past decade or so, his work defies easy explanation. His two collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and the new Pastoralia, are probably most notable for an eerily familiar dystopian near-future in which the dominant industry of the day is the history-themed amusement park. Though his stories race along through hysterically improbable situations punctuated by deadpan dialogue, his characters rarely experience any kind of development other than a rueful awakening to their own weakness and ineffectuality. Instead, it is the reader who experiences development in a way that’s harder to pinpoint.

Even a brief plot synopsis can prove elusive—or worse, damning. I remember trying to describe the title story from Pastoralia to a friend. It went something like this: “It’s about these cavemen who aren’t really cavemen, but they play cavemen in a historical theme park. But, see, really they’re like modern postindustrial office workers eking out a living in demeaning, repetitive jobs because the theme park is downsizing and they have to really get on the stick and start acting like cavemen instead of grousing and complaining or else they’re going to be fired….It was in the New Yorker. Did you see it? Anyway, it’s funny. Very funny.”

The comedy arises from the matter-of-fact accounts of these losers and their lives. Yet the humor is less a reason for the story than it is a consciously placed barrier to empathy. Saunders thus afflicts the reader with the same paralysis as his characters: The people who inhabit Saunders’ fiction are rendered helpless by doubt and circumstance; the reader is rendered helpless with laughter—too helpless to realize consciously that there is more going on in these stories than meets the eye.

It is possible to tease out a few recurring elements of Saunders’ fiction. There is usually a weak and indecisive male protagonist. The stories usually feature an element of performance. “Winky” is set in a stagy self-improvement seminar; the main character in “Sea Oak” is a male stripper. Most of the stories depict a decisive—or, rather, indecisive—moment in which the protagonist finds himself less than equal to the obstacles before him but also senses that despair is worse than mere failure.

Mickey, the barber in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” is impossibly lonely. Overweight, tongue-tied, saddled with the care of his mother, and, worst of all, “born with no toes,” he yearns for the affection of a woman, but his self-negating outlook limits him to the briefest of connections. Even his fantasy life spirals out of his control, as here, when he attempts to imagine a life with a passer-by he calls “Miss Hacienda”:

It was sort of a pain living with Ma. But Miss Hacienda had better be prepared to tolerate Ma, who was actually pretty good company when she stayed on her meds, and so what if she was nearly eighty and went around the house flossing in her bra? It was her damn house. He’d better never hear Miss Hacienda say a word against Ma, who’d paid his way through barber college, like for example asking why Ma had thick sprays of gray hair growing out of her ears, because that would kill Ma, who was always reminding the gas man she’d been a dish in high school. How would Miss Hacienda like it if after a lifetime of hard work she got wrinkled and forgetful and some knocked-up slut dressed like a Mexican cowgirl moved in and started complaining about her ear hair? Who did Miss Hacienda think she was, the Queen of Sheba? She could go into labor in the damn Episcopal church for all he cared, he’d keep wanking it in the pantry on the little milking stool for the rest of his life before he’d let Ma be hurt, and that was final.

Mickey at first blush seems a bit like the sort of fat, buffonish middle-aged man still clinging to his mother’s apron strings that John Kennedy Toole made such sport of in A Confederacy of Dunces. But Saunders is not out for sport. The story follows Mickey through a morning of mandatory driving school (the result of a speeding ticket), where he meets a motley assortment of men and women, including Gabby, a sweet, homely, overweight woman, to whom he takes a liking. They meet again a month or so later at a reunion organized by an older man from the class, where they kiss and arrange to meet the following morning. When he sees her next, he falters again:

Oh, she was pretty. It was as if he’d known her forever. She looked so hopeful. But oops. Oh my God she was big. She’d dressed all wrong, tight jeans and a tight shirt. As if testing him. Jesus, this was the biggest he’d ever seen her look. What was she doing, testing him by trying to look her worst? Here was an alley, should he swerve into the alley and call her later? Or not? Not call her later? Forget the whole thing? Pretend last night had never happened? Although now she’d seen him. And he didn’t want to forget the whole thing. Last night for the first time in a long time he’d felt like someone other than a guy who wanks it on a milking stool in his mother’s pantry.

Saunders has a rare knack for dead interior landscapes that represent consciousness collapsing on itself, revealing cringing doubt tinged with the staccato bursts of egoism and self-aggrandizement that ward off hopelessness. As the 20-odd pages of “The Barber’s Unhappiness” progress, Mickey seems less and less the deserving object of derision he is to his mother and therefore less easy to ridicule and dismiss. After 20-odd pages we know him better than his own mother. This progression cannot be underestimated as a technical achievement of characterization and structure, but what’s really radical is that Saunders takes the hackneyed, overdetermined story elements of transformation and epiphany away from his characters and delivers them to the reader. Just as his characters’ thoughts spin ceaselessly, so, too, the reader is lowered into the depths of self-consciousness to locate that spot beyond irony, beyond cynicism where still there lurk compassion, empathy, and love.

The story “The End of FIRPO in the World” concentrates this experience into nine short pages. Young Cody rides his bicycle around his neighborhood imagining the clever torments he could visit on his hated neighbors, the Dalmeyers—hated because they wear the right brand of sneakers (“another puzzling dilemmoid, because why did he have Arroes when every single Dalmeyer, even Ginnie, had the Nikes with the lights in the heel that lit up?”) and have good hockey equipment and, really, because they are loved and are pretty happy. Cody, it must be said, is a spiteful little kid: clumsy, reckless, and always in trouble. His mother’s boyfriend coined “FIRPO” to “describe anything he, Cody, did that was bad or dorky…and sometimes when they thought he couldn’t hear they whispered very darkly and meanly to each other FIRP attack in progress.”

As Cody’s manic, vindictive monologue reaches a climax, he’s struck by a car and dies imagining himself on his mother’s lap saying

he was very sorry for having been such a FIRPO son and Mom said, Oh thank you, thank you, Cody, for finally admitting it, that makes it nice, and her smile was so sweet he closed his eyes and felt a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance.

The sudden, heartbreaking ending serves as a harsh rebuke to the reader, saying, Who are you not to love this little boy, this little boy who was not even really loved by his mother or that jerk she dated, and now, just like that, he’s dying in a quivering heap on the street and it’s too late for you to do anything about it? This admonition can be drawn only by inference—and only by engaging the inconvenient and outmoded idea of unconditional love.

If all this sounds a bit portentous, even religious, well, it is. In his introduction to Mary Gordon’s story “The Deacon” in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories, Saunders writes, “[C]ompassion is not emotional, but dispassionate; not inspired, but solid; at its heart is attention. It has nothing to do with liking someone, and everything to do with easing suffering, with understanding one’s self as essentially not separate from the sufferer.” These are Big Christian Ideas. It’s not drive-thru Christianity, not George Dubya Christianity, but a real engagement with the here and now. As Saunders writes, “Fiction is an urgent business. It is the Dying Us telling stories to the Dying Us, trying to crack the nonsense in our heads open with a big hammer pronto, before Death arrives.” CP