How Reading George Saunders Can Make You a Better Writer

 

The problem with George Saunders is that he makes writing fiction look easy. After reading, you might be tempted, because of how intuitive his stories are, to think, I can do that! Well, sorry to be the one to to tell you this, but… you can’t. I don’t care where you went to school or got your MFA. You really can’t write a George Saunders story. It looks easy. But that’s a trick. It’s not easy.

Probably the only way to prove this to you is to look at a specific story and try and unpack it’s glorious difficulty.

But which one?

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a good example of a seemingly simple story with a complex underbelly. Published in his most recent collection, The Tenth of December, it contains many classic Saundersian elements which we will analyze in due course.

Pull up your chairs boys and girls.

The story begins one evening in a medieval theme park—

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.

All of the sudden she recognized me.

Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.

Then hightailed it out to Parking, eyes black underneath from crying.

Cooking had laid out a big spread on a crude table over by CastleTowerIV: authentic pig heads and whole chickens and blood pudding.

Don Murray stood there moodily picking at some coleslaw. And gave me the friendliest head shake he’d ever given me. Women, he said.

Fake river. Pile of armor. Scullery. Peasant skirt. CastleTowerIV. Authentic pig heads—

Images and settings meant to evoke a kind of theme park of the mind. This is a mode so associated with Saunders it’s easy to forget most of his stories don’t take place in a dystopian theme park. But when they do, almost always, the technology & setting of the parks is of the future—i.e. science fiction—while their theme evokes the past. Take for example one of Saunders’ first ever published stories “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” which is the name of a theme park set in the near future, with elements of tech that seem familiar and yet slightly further advanced than our time, that is both literally and figuratively haunted by ghosts of the Civil War. Another example is “Pastoralia,” which goes back even further to the time of the Caveman.

One way to read this tendency in Saunders is to say that he’s predicting theme parks will continue play a part in modern life. Another is that the theme park is meant to be a symbol for escapism or consumer entertainment, and their exaggeration is meant to be a critique of our own culture. But, to me, this common thread that runs through CivilWarLand, Pastoralia, and especially through My Chivalric Fiasco is a clue to look even deeper. The juxtaposition of future and past in the parks, I think, isn’t coincidental; it’s the deep third layer which allows Saunders’ stories to have emotional teeth, a layer that will become more important as we move into the 2nd and 3rd acts.

See me, said a note on my locker next morning.

In Don Murray’s office was Martha.

So Ted, Don Murray said. Last night you witnessed something that, if not viewed in the right light, might seem wrongish. Martha and I find that funny. Don’t we, Mar? I just now gave Martha a thousand dollars. In case there was some kind of misunderstanding. Martha now feels we had a fling. Which, both being married, we so much regret. What with the drinking, plus the romance of TorchLightNight, what happened, Martha?

Martha: We got carried away. Had a fling.

Don: Voluntary fling.

Martha: Voluntary fling.

Don: And not only that, Ted. Martha here is moving up. From Scullery. To Floater Thespian. But let’s underscore: you are not moving up, Martha, because of our voluntary fling. It’s coincidental. Why are you moving up?

Martha: Coincidental.

Don: Coincidental, plus always had a killer worth ethic. Ted, you’re also moving up. Out of Janitorial. To Pacing Guard.

Which was amazing. I’d been in Janitorial six years. A man of my caliber. That was a joke MQ and I sometimes shared.

Erin would call down and go: MQ, someone threw up in the Grove of Sorrow.

And MQ would be like: A man of my caliber?

Or Erin would go: Ted, some lady dropped her necklace down in the pigpen and is pitching a shit fit.

And I would go: A man of my caliber?

Erin would be like: Get going. It’s not funny. She’s right up in my grill.

Our pigs were fake and our slop was fake and our poop was fake but still it was no fun to have to don waders and drag the SifterBoyDeLux into the pigpen to, for example, find that lady’s necklace. For best results with the SifterBoyDeLux, you had to first lug the fake pigs off to one side. Being on auto the pigs would continue grunting as you lugged them. Which might look funny if you happened to be holding that particular pig wrong.

Some random guy might go: Look, dude’s breast-feeding that pig.

And everyone might laugh.

Therefore a promotion to Pacing Guard was very much welcomed by me.

I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him. We also had some windows that needed replacing. All winter Beth would go around shyly vacuuming up snow. If you came in while she was vacuuming, she would prove too shy to continue.

That night at home Dad calculated we would soon buy Mom a tilting bed.

Dad: If you keep moving up the ladder, maybe in time we can get me a back brace.

Me: Absolutely. I am going to make that happen.

After dinner, driving into town to fill Mom’s prescription for pain and Beth’s prescription for shyness and Dad’s prescription for pain, I passed Martha and Nate’s.

I honked, did a lean-and-wave, pulled over, got out.

Hey Ted, said Nate.

What’s up? I said.

Well, our place sucks, Nate said. Look at this place. Sucks, right? I just can’t seem to keep my energy up.

True, their place was pretty bad. The roof was patched with blue sheeting, their kids were doing timid leaps off a wheelbarrow into a mud puddle, a skinny pony was under the swing set licking itself raw like it wanted to be clean when it finally made its break for a nicer living situation.

I mean where are the grown-ups around here? Nate said.

Then he picked a Snotz wrapper off the ground and looked for somewhere to put it. Then dropped it again and it landed on his shoe.

Perfect, he said. Story of my life.

Jeez, Martha said, and plucked it off.

Don’t you go south on me too, Nate said. You’re all I got, babe.

No I am not, Martha said. You got the kids.

One more thing goes wrong, I’m shooting myself, Nate said.

I kind of doubted he had the get-up-and-go for that. Although you never know.

So what’s going on at your guys’ work? Nate said. This one here’s been super-moody. Even though she just got herself promoted.

I could feel Martha looking at me, like: Ted, I’m in your hands here.

I figured it was her call. Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.

So said something about, well, promotions can be hard, they cause a lot of stress.

The gratitude was just beaming off Martha. She walked me back to the car, gave me three tomatoes they’d grown, which, tell the truth, looked kind of geriatric: tiny, timid, wrinkled.

Thank you, she whispered. You saved my life.

The situation of both characters, Ted and Martha, is becoming more explicit. This is a textbook lesson in how to write the middle section of a story. Raise the stakes. We know explicitly what each character has to lose.

The victimization of Martha is drawn out with great detail and nuance. It seems so simple, but think of Martha’s position. Low on the totem pole. “Peasant skirt.” Taken advantage of in just the way certain medieval female peasants were by members of the male aristocracy. But the modern touch feels as relevant as you could possibly get. #MeToo? Anyone? Don can’t simply crush the peasantry underneath him into submission. Like a good modern day oppressor, he’s bound by the conceit of offering hush money.

Aha! So we see the action of the story is highly modern while the thematic undertones connect with the past. With the characters’ relative positions in the park, and what they represent as characters, it’s as if Saunders is saying: Things have always been this way. The aristocracy lord their power over the peasantry. The only difference in our time is things have been slightly nerfed. Rather than being raped and then, as a result, stoned to death or beheaded, Martha is raped and allowed to live, bearing the indignity of her position with a few extra bucks every month and a pat on the head.

And Ted is dutifully keeping quiet.

For now.

Next morning in my locker were my Pacing Guard uniform and a Dixie cup with a yellow pill in it.

Hooray, I thought, finally a Medicated Role.

In came Mrs. Bridges from Health & Safety, with an MSDS on the pill.

Mrs. Bridges: So, this is just going to be a hundred million grams of KnightLyfe®. To help with the Improv. The thing with KnightLyfe® is, you’re going to want to stay hydrated.

I took the pill, went to the Throne Room. I was supposed to Pace in front of a door behind which a King was supposedly thinking. There really was a King in there: Ed Philips. They put a King in there because one of our Scripted Tropes was: Messenger arrives, charges past Pacing Guard a lack-wit, Messenger winces, closes door, has brief exchange with Pacing Guard.

Soon Guests had nearly filled our Fun Spot. The Messenger (a.k.a Kyle Sperling) barged past me, threw open the door. Ed called Kyle reckless, called me a lackwit. Kyle winced, closed door.

Kyle: I apologize if I have violated protocol.

I blanked on my line, which as: Your rashness bespeaks a manly passion.

Instead I was like: Uh, no problem.

Kyle, a real pro, did not miss a beat.

Kyle (handing me envelope): Please see that he gets this. It is of the utmost urgency.

Me: His Majesty is weighed down with thought.

Kyle: With many burdens of thought?

Me: Right. Many burdens of thought.

Just then the KnightLyfe® kicked in. My mouth went dry. I felt it was nice of Kyle not to give me shit about my mess-up. It occurred to me that I really liked Kyle. Loved him even. Like a brother. A comrade. Noble comrade. I felt we had weathered many storms together. It seemed, for example, that we had, at some point, in some far-distant land, huddled together at the base of a castle wall, hot tar roiling down, and there shared a rueful laugh, as if to say: It is all but brief, so let us life. And then: What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations, although I could not recall the exact Imprecations, nor the outcome of said Charge. 

Kyle departed anon. I did happily entertain our Guests, through use of Wit and various Jibes, glad that I had, after my many Travails, arrived at a station in Life from whence I could impart such Merriment to All & Sundry.

Soon, the Pleasantness of that Day, already Considerable, was much improved by the Arrival of my Benefactor, Don Murray.

Quoth Don Murray, with a gladsome Wink: Ted, you know what you and me should do sometime? Go on a trip or something together. Like a fishing trip? Camping, whatever.

My heart swelled at this Notion. To fish, to hunt, to make Camp with this noble Gentlemen! To wander wide Fields & verdant Woods! To rest, at Day’s End, in some quiet Bower, beside a coursing Stream, and there, amidst the muted Whinnying of our Steeds, speak softly of many Things—of Honor; of Love; of Danger; of Duty well-executed!

But then there Occurr’d a fateful Event.

To wit, the Arrival of the aforementioned Martha, in the guise of a Spirit—Spirit Three, to be precise—along with two other Damsels in White (these being Megan and Tiffany). This Trio of Maids did affect a Jolly Ruse: they were Ghosts, who didst Haunt this Castle, with much Shaking of Chain and Sad Laments, as our Guests, in that Fun Spot, confined by the Red Ropes, did Gape & Yaw & Shriek at the Spectacle provided therein.

Glimpsing Martha’s Visage—which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)—I grew, in spite of my good fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to me softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It’s cool, Ted. I’m over it. Seriously. I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to thee, dear Lady.

Martha: Easy there, Ted. 

At this time, Don Murray himself didst step Forward and, extending his Hand, placed it upon my Breast, as if to Restrain me.

Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast.

And verily, part of my Mind now didst give me sound Counsel: I must endeavor to dampen these Feelings, lest I commit some Rash Act, converting my Good Fortune into Woe.

Yet the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easy Tam’d.

We’ll stop here just a few pages before the end—

Perhaps now it’s clear. The theme park is a necessary backdrop for Ted’s transformation. In other words, the surface of Saunders’ text is in full interaction with the heart of the story and with the plot. The zaniness isn’t mere style. KnightLyfe® shapes Ted’s language which in turn shapes the way he thinks about his own moral agency. Of course Saunders is being funny too. The riffs on old English serve as a catalyst for jokes, but we are beginning to take Ted’s transformation seriously when we fear he may let out Martha’s secret. Saunders is putting KnightLyfe® into the mind of the reader as well.

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a great example of short story writing for many reasons. It’s entertaining and funny, never letting the reader down with spurious detail, in sentences tight and economical, weaving effortlessly in and out of character dilemmas that are original but not over-literary or over-cerebral. This tendency in Saunders is often mistaken for simplicity or goofiness. But if we look closer we see a many-layered conundrum, and, like all of Saunders’ stories, it’s a tale both dark and comic, playful and emotionally resonant.

What to finish “My Chivalric Fiasco” and find out whether or not Ted spills the beans? Check out Tenth of December on Amazon:

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