Is George Saunders brilliant, or what?

“Love Letter,” by George Saunders, was published today in the print version of The New Yorker. I read it a few days ago, when it appeared online, and I’ve been pondering it since then. I keep asking my self, is George Saunders fucking brilliant, or so erudite that his intent misses the mark?

I ask myself this question, or some variation of it, whenever I talk about Saunders. That doesn’t  happen often, but I use his  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” in my fiction writing workshop, so it happens often enough for the question to exist.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries”

This is a “futuristic” story that derives its title from the format of the story, a first-person accounting  of a middle-aged father’s comings and goings throughout most of the month of September. It’s in diary form, and kind of hard to read. It also takes its name from the Semplica-Girls: young women who have become lawn ornaments, strung together by a wire running from one girl’s head to the next.

The SGs are not very detailed, and student readers often completely miss what they are on first read, but the lessons of subservience and gratitude and privilege are all there. And our narrator is blind to it in such a way that makes him incredibly useful as a conversation piece. For instance, although he feels sorry for himself for not having money, and sees himself as benevolent, he can’t see the plight of the SGs. Upon finding his daughter Eva drawing pictures of an SG arrangement, he writes, “talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.”

There is so much to talk about with students as we work through this story. There’s all the sociopolitical stuff, race, class, gender. And there’s the writerly aspect of it. Why does Saunders set the story up as he does, in this format? What does it mean to us, as readers? Is he taking shortcuts or carefully, painstakingly crafting something incredible? Does a story have to make sense to be published?

I’m working with undergrads in this context, so it’s a fantastic story for fucking with them. It’s also great for making them work hard to analyze something from a writer’s perspective, a reader’s perspective and the one thing we all share– a human’s perspective.

So when I saw that Saunders had a new story out, I did a mental hand clap. Something else, perhaps, to add to that class?  I’ve read “Love Letter” a few times now, and I’m not sure.

“Love Letter”

In this piece we have another first-person narrative constructed this time through the trope of a letter, written to Robbie, from GPa, or Grandpa. Like the SG Diaries, it’s sort of hard to read.

Also like the SG Diaries, it’s set in the future, a tangible and specific future, according to Saunders in this interview that runs in the same issue.  The author explains how the story came about, and what it meant to him to capture this moment in time in a way that illustrates just how many of us are not actively doing something to enact change.

The letter is conversational in the way letters are, and Grandpa is of some esteemed, verbose class of gentlemanly businessmen. He admits he has some money set aside, and so he could perhaps help Robbie if things go south, but the tone and language implies that there’s perhaps more than just “some” money. Throughout the story, GPa is giving Robbie advice on a series of questions the grandson had posed in a previous letter.  We learn that Robbie is concerned about three people: G, M and J.

Something has happened to G and Robbie is advised to “let that go.” M, we learn, does not have the necessary paperwork for something. J is being held in a facility, state or federal, we do not know. Neither does Grandpa. We do not know the genders of G or M, but we learn J is female, and she is a citizen. Robbie is perhaps interested in her.

Saunders creates a wise, eloquent grandfather here, but in contrast to the way the SG Diaries’ narrator was oblivious and therefore the lens through which readers could gain some personal insights about their views on privilege, he’s perhaps too eloquent. Too all-knowing. He has privilege, and he knows it, and he’s trying to nudge his grandson to do the same, to see his privilege. In this bit of craft, I think Saunders is right on the money. Pun intended. But because it also seems as if Robbie is perhaps being gently encouraged to also bask in his privilege and not get tangled up in unpleasant circumstances, I think the story is too bougie. Even as Saunders intended to have Grandpa’s thoughts be a call to action, I think they instead only highlight more sharply inequality.

In the Q&A, Saunders says, ” And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.”

I’m grateful for the explanation that helps me understand some of the craft and intent, but it’s just not enough for me to say that Saunders is brilliant in a way that matters to anyone other than a creative writing instructor. This story is just a haughtier form of kvetching.

So, from a craft perspective, I can see Saunders doing what he does best. Getting characters and their development out of the way so that ideas drive the story and force the reader to think until their ears steam.

As with the example above, Saunders does this through the questions GPa poses, and the responses he gives:

We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

Just tell me what it all means

So why is this story stuck in my craw?  It’s intelligent. It could work in a classroom setting to push students to talk about the very same things we talk about with “Semplica-Girl Diaries” — privilege, race, writing and personal style.It is ripe with opportunities to discuss craft. But Grandpa is just a little too…too much. And  herein lies the problem for me, as a reader, a writer, an instructor, a human. This story is brilliant and subtle, but requires more of its readers than those who need to read it have (Damn; that, it kind of doubles down on its brilliance).

I argue that the people who are putting kids in cages or supporting ICE raids (some of the things that come to mind as I read “Love Letter”) aren’t reading The New Yorker, so the story and its lessons are  lost on them. And those of us who read The New Yorker, well, there we are, “swaggering around” or reading things like this drivel of a blog post while kids live in cages or stand alone before juries while their parents are deported.

So.  Is George Saunders fucking brilliant? Yes. But is he speaking too much to people like me who have time to diddle our brains over such matters, and not telling a simple enough story that it could actually force some change? Yes, again.

Saunders says about the piece that the only bit of power he’s ever had as been as a writer, and although in the end I think he’s  brilliant, I’d like to see this story put to use to work that power a little more.

 

 

 

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