The Beginner, the Doofus, the Aspirant
Christopher Tayler · George Saunders
It’s been George Saunders week in the US, with an adulatory profile by Joel Lovell in the New York Times Magazine, Saunders’s new preface to his first book in the Paris Review and excitement even on websites that often greet lit biz news with a ‘meh’. Interesting titbits thrown out by the flurry – occasioned by Tenth of December, his new story collection – include the information that Saunders and his wife ‘devote a significant part of their lives to the practice of Nyingma Buddhism’, and that, among the pictures on his shelves, there’s ‘a great one from his jazz-fusion days of him playing a Fender Telecaster, with white-blond Johnny Winter hair to his shoulders'.
In the preface he describes assembling the pieces that went into CivilWarLand in Bad Decline on an office computer ‘strategically located to maximise the number of steps a curious person (a boss, for example) would have to take to see that what was on the screen was not a technical report about groundwater contamination but a short story’. That was in pre-internet days, and it’s sad to consider the amount of creative energy that now gets siphoned off via other outlets from the world’s bored office workers.
Saunders also writes amusingly about his earlier efforts, which included a Malcolm Lowryesque novel called La Boda de Eduardo – this caused his wife to be found sitting with her head in her hands within minutes of being shown the finished manuscript – and many MFA-type stories written in long periods of enslavement to Raymond Carver and Hemingway. Theme parks, he reveals, became important settings for him in part because they’re hard to be Hemingwayesque about.
He’s nostalgic for ‘the total artistic freedom . . . afforded only to the beginner, the doofus, the aspirant’, and he’s probably right to be, since, judging by Lovell’s profile, there’s a widespread urge to cast him in the role previously occupied by David Foster Wallace. That role isn’t only that of the writer who’s imitated most slavishly by today’s MFA students (though Saunders gets a lot of votes on that front too). It’s also that of a Kwisatz Haderach figure who can bring a compassionate, even moralising feelingfulness to the postmodern bag of tricks – great feel as well as great technique, as Telecaster players say – without boring the crap out of everyone in the process. It’s not an easy role to fill and, in that respect at least, Nyingma Buddhism looks like a sensible course. As for how effectively Saunders is filling it, I haven’t read the new book yet, so in my capacity as a bored office worker I’ll wait for the LRB’s review to come in.