George Saunders’s work, which appears regularly in The New Yorker, has earned him countless accolades and awards (including a MacArthur Genius Grant) and has been collected into three anthologies. The Saundersian landscape is a complex one, providing his characters with plenty of quandaries but no easy answers. Instead, the best they can hope for is to somehow emerge with as much of their dignity intact as possible (providing, along the way, plenty of laughs). What readers learn from Saunders is that, even if for just a moment they looked for the humor in their own lives, they might find the experience more tolerable — and they just might get by with their dignity intact.
Ben Kharakh: What are some of your earliest memories of things that made you laugh?
George Saunders: I think my mother was my first humorous influence. It wasn’t that she was a big joke-teller or anything, but she had this way of making it clear that everything was all right. No matter what happened, she was always able to respond with a lot of dignity and generosity. I think what this does for a kid is teach him that the way you respond to the world can, in turn, teach the world, in a sense, how to respond to you. If I brought my mom a problem, she was always good at smiling about it, not freaking out, not getting anxious – making it clear that things were workable: an essentially hopeful attitude that also had the effect of making me feel decent about myself and about the fundamental decency of the world. If someone, for example, was treating me badly, she could somehow be on my side while, at the same time, encouraging me to think about things from the other person’s point-of-view – how did things look to him? Underlying this was the idea that the other person’s viewpoint had validity; the idea that what looked insane/aggressive/indefensible from my perspective was, from his, of course, perfectly reasonable. So what all of this has to do with humor is that it puts the power in your hands, if you’re willing to be generous. It says that the person who can control his own perceptions is powerful. It says that whoever has the broadest, most generous imagination wins. My mom also had a couple of brothers who lived with us for a while, and they had the gift of the monologue. They could do goofy voices and then perform these little one-man skits in those voices. You could be in the middle of some typical, boring day, and one of them would come in, turn it on, and light up the room. That was impressive. My dad was the same way. He has this very wry, funny sense of humor and really knows how to work a room. I think I was kind of a fearful kid, and humor was a way, it felt to me, of simultaneously acknowledging the fear and chasing it away. So the upshot of all of this was that humor = a kind of power.
BK: What was your relationship with humor like when you were older?
GS: Like many funny people who also consider themselves somewhat smart/intellectual, I went through a few very serious periods where humor was seen as low and exiled. Parts of college were like this: I started reading Thomas Wolfe and Hemingway and came to see humor as something anti-intellectual. This has actually been a longstanding push-and-pull for me. I have a fundamentally tragic view of life but a fundamentally humorous feeling about life, and a skill-set, as a writer, that is much more happy when being funny – or at least trying to be funny. Or maybe “funny” isn’t quite the right word. I guess one response to a tragic view of life is to be serious. The other is to be more courageous – walking toward the fear, as it were — not editing anything out of the mix. Dropping one’s dignity. This is “the comic tradition”: opening all of one’s lenses to let all the data in, even the most terrifying data, and not being too enamored of the idea that a human being can be strong enough or tough enough or smart enough to avoid the shit flying towards him. He can’t. Sooner or later, life is going to humiliate and kill all of us, but there is a certain dignity and power in not screening out this information but trying to let it wash over you as much as possible, and just standing there smiling with shit all over you.
BK: You’ve been called satirical. What’s your take on the label?
GS: It may just be a semantic question. If you define satire as being a piece of writing where the writer, knowing what he believes, pillories the opposite of what he believes, I never had much interest in that. I think that kind of story is essentially anti-story: it knows too well what it’s doing. (Not to say I haven’t done it anyway, despite my ideology. But I try not to.) I think what happens is my settings have a fundamentally humorous relation to “real” life, so people assume this means I am satirizing something. Mostly I consider myself to be a realist, a la Raymond Carver. But to make a story feel real, it seems to me, you sometimes have to exaggerate the elements of the story. For example: let’s say Ben Franklin came back to life and accompanied a person as this person went to a funeral. Before the funeral, this person had to go buy a handkerchief. Okay. So what does this day seem like to good old Franklin – an intelligent, literary person? Well, first there’s the whole terrifying car thing. And maybe Sonic Youth is on the radio. Then Franklin goes into one of the biggest buildings he’s ever seen (Walmart, say) and walks past a wall of plasma TVs, in front of which there’s a girl standing in an incredible state of undress (No bra! Short skirt!). Then it’s back in the terrifying car, and across town (Powerlines! Billboards!) to the funeral parlor, which is right across the mini-mall (A mini-mall!) from Chuck E. Cheese, outside of which this giant rat is strolling out to his car. So how to represent what this day would be like to Franklin because, at some level, aren’t we all Franklin in the sense that all of this shit seems weird to us too? I do remember being kind of surprised when the first reviews of CivilWarLand came out, claiming that I was “roasting fin-de-siecle capitalism” by constructing “dystopian” worlds. I remember having to look up “dystopian.” The thing was, I kind of knew I was doing those things, but I was doing it by constricting my vision — to look at one made-up person who was in a situation roughly analogous to the one I was in at the time (i.e., working a dismal job and slowly sinking down). So this is a case where, seems to me, the political is the personal, and vice versa.
BK: How do you deal with/feel about the absurdities that you see around you?
GS: Honestly, when a person feels that something is absurd, they are really just noticing that their worldview is too small for the actual world. To an infinitely vast mind, nothing would seem absurd. It would all make perfect sense. So the notion that something is absurd might be defined as the gap between our projection of the world (and hence our expectations of it) and the world itself.
BK: How much of the world we live in do you find to be “dystopian,” if you find any of it to be that way at all?
GS: None of it, really. When writing a story, you are creating a weird little scale model (even if you are a realist). And then the relation of that story to how you actually see the world is pretty nebulous. It’s like if you write a song – it’s a song, first of all. Does it reflect how you see the world? That is, do the chord changes and so on reflect your view of life? Well, kind of. It might sound like “you” or something. But the relation is very nonlinear and difficult to talk about, and my experience has been that it’s actually better for the writer to not think/talk about it too much. That is, do it, make it work, make it intense, and then worry about what, exactly, you said later, if at all… It’s somehow more powerful and keeps you from becoming wedded to “your” approach, and thereby ignoring the real energy of whatever you’re working on.
BK: Another thing you have been called is a “moralist.” What do you make of this term, and how has being called a “moralist” affected your work, if it has at all?
GS: In the best sense, I suppose it just means that the reader understands that something important is supposed to be happening in the story — something that would really matter to the characters involved and may also have meaning for the reader. So in that way, every writer should aspire to be a moralist of sorts. He/she believes that what happens to human beings matters. Of course, there’s also a negative connotation (i.e., “scold”), but I hope I’m not doing that. Although sometimes, especially in the nonfiction, I guess I am.
BK: I remember you saying, on The Sound of Young America, something akin to, “Because the world is always changing, we should be willing to change with it.” Do you, then, not believe in a strict morality?
GS: I don’t believe in a strict morality in the sense of deciding upon, and then living by, a set of intractable rules, no. The strict morality I believe in is something like: always trying to be as aware and intelligent as possible, hence increasing the workability of a situation. To me, this is not only logical but more effective, more powerful. I can understand that this serial murderer is a perfect product of his environment, but I can also understand that, if I hit him hard in the face at just the right moment, I can alter his reality. So I think it’s kind of a common sense approach: we are not apart from the world but are in it, so our inclinations and actions can change it. (Or change it in a relative sense.) Likewise in the political sphere. We probably all know that the most humane approach to any problem is to have no ideological golden idols – to evaluate every situation afresh with a moral eye rather than a political one, but that is hard work. Dealing with ambiguity is hard work, and human beings like to avoid hard work and float through, and have a cocktail while scoffing at those unrepentant idiots on the other side.
BK: How can we get people to do that hard work?
GS: My approach is to start with myself. I know I can make a difference there. Other than that, the ice gets thin.