The Poetry of Inarticulateness
By Ben Winters
MAY 22, 2000: If Saul Bellow is, as the New York Observer recently suggested, the "emperor" of the American sentence, then George Saunders is the crown prince. That both men are native Chicagoans ought to be something to crow about. But so far no one, including the New Yorker -- who last year named Saunders one of the best young writers in country -- has said much about the funniest man in American fiction hailing from south suburban Oak Forest.
Granted, there are some very good reasons to keep a lid on that sort of background. Namely, that Richard Roeper is currently the only identifiably south suburban writer in the Christian world. But Saunders is so funny, and so humane, his talents might just be great enough to lift the spirits of everyone living south of 95th Street.
Clearly, South Siders will be able to recognize a little of themselves, and their surroundings, in the otherwise unnamed and unspeakably bleak landscapes Saunders conjures up with the slangiest, jargony dead-on prose in print. From "Sea Oak":
"We gotta come out here like every week," says Jade, at the funeral of an aunt who died of fright.
"I know I will," says Min.
"What, like I won't?" says Jade. "She was so freaking nice."
"I'm sure you swear at a grave," says Min.
"Since when is freak a swear, chick?" says Jade.
Saunders is also the only writer currently championing the use of the declarative interrogatory sentence. From "Pastoralia":
"It's kind of weird, Dad," the kids says. "Those kids at school are better than me at a lot of things. I mean like everything? ... Plus they're nice. When I missed a catch they were really nice. They always said, like, Nice try. And they tried to teach me?"
Nobody knows what the hell they're talking about in Saunders' stories, and it shows. And they say everything so awfully; their nouns and verbs, truncated in a sing-song of colloquial idiocy, are so banal that Saunders is able, with a few well-placed phrases, to jab with bruising authority at the flabby paunch of the American mind. Want to see the future of the Republic? Check out the weak-willed, self-loathing, inarticulate ninnies and "inadvertent substance misusers" that populate his second collection of short stories, "Pastoralia."
But he's not all Cassandra or zinging chronicler of bad grammar and abused articles ("a asshole"). Sure, Saunders' work is bitingly, terribly funny, but it's heartfelt, too. Even sentimental. His work is run-through with hope: even in the midst of so much dehumanizing stuff going on in and around his characters' lives, they are surprisingly decent. The latter-day Walter Mitty character of "Winky," determined to turn his life around by identifying his mildly retarded sister as his "oatmeal-crapper" (read the story) and boot her out on the street, cannot do it. Partly because he's weak, but partly because to do so would be inhumane.
Even in the wasted, bombed-out quasi-suburban ruins where Saunders sets his stories, people continue to retain their souls.
He is deeply unforgiving for the meannesses people can visit upon themselves and others, particularly when those abuses are the product of boob-tube ignorance. But Saunders also uses his wit, and language, to send up and dismantle ignorance and meannesses. And to urge people to do the same.
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