Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Pastoralia by George Saunders

Six stories of lost folks, best taken separately. Like in Persuasion Nation’s near-future world, many passages of Pastoralia are written in a choppy run-on patois that sounds like was poorly translated from a Germanic language wrought in nightmares. The dialogue is peppered with phrases that remind me of advertising jargon, and many of the constructions are illiterate, evoking the separation that Saunders’ characters feel from their hostile environments.

In the first story, “Pastorialia,” the main character is a theme park employee who spends his days imitating a caveman, doing everything form skinning and cooking one goat each day to grunting and using hand gestures with his cave mate instead of the stilted and desperate English that they speak. The park has come on hard times, and the main character is being pressured to rat out his cave mate Janet because of her “very verboten” practices in the never-visited cave, such as smoking and doing crosswords. He is a miserable schlump, but he is trying to do the right thing in a place where he is very alone and his stimuli can’t be trusted.

All the characters in Pastoralia are losers. Either hapless and not to blame, or mean and perverse, the losers just got to me. Often, whatever I was to take from the story got lost in the overblown patheticness of the characters’ plight and Saunders’ funny and occasionally brilliant writing is wasted setting up filling out these people.

The third story, “Sea Oak,” was my favorite. It takes place in a franchised, microwaved, Walmart-i-fied alternate present. When a family of idiots (in a land of idiots) loses their aunties, the only really responsible one in the group, life doesn’t really change. When she appears in the apartment, rotting and obscene, they take the direction she never gave in life, at least for awhile… This is where Pastoralia’s formula worked best. The main character’s sadly limited insight (especially as a product of his environment), gives reality to the setting and makes the surprise of the zombie aunt manageable. His flatness as a character didn’t bug so much because we weren’t meant to care about what was going on in his mind.

Each paragraph is packed with words, over explaining and inflating the situations and thoughts of the characters, which gives the prose a flatness that is at first exciting, then increasingly dull as the collection wears on. All said, this collection is very similar to Persuasion Nation, without the sci-fi edge, and I liked it much less.

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