In Which I Get Schooled by Mr. George Saunders

My book of George Saunders essays ran out this morning and I got sad. But then I remembered that I have a short story collection and his novella waiting for me at the public library, and I got happy again. Seriously, is there nothing this guy can’t make good?

I devoured every piece in his most recent anthology, The Braindead Megaphone. I can always tell I really love someone’s writing when I have to cover up its last few lines with my finger; both to keep my eye from racing ahead and to ration out the last morsels.

So anyway I’m just reading along, and out of nowhere I get the reward ne plus ultra in an essay called “The Perfect Gerbil,” about Donald Barthelme’s story The School. Saunders basically gives me a personalized master class on how to write Dead SULs:

“The School” belongs roughly in a lineage of “pattern stories,” which might be said to include, for example, Chekhov’s “The Darling” (woman with no real personality of her own takes on the personalities of a series of men with whom she gets involved); Gogol’s “Dead Souls” (guy goes around to a series of people, trying to buy the deeds to their dead serfs); “A Christmas Carol” (stingy man is visited by series of ghosts who try to convert him); and the stateroom scene in “Night at the Opera” (tiny room gets filled with series of people). In each of these we know, fairly early, what to expect: we grasp the pattern.

So: part of the fun of “The School” is going to be the gradual unveiling of a series of Things That Die.

But then immediately—writing short stories is very hard work—Barthelme is in trouble. The reader is already, here at the beginning of paragraph four, subtly ready to be bored. The reader knows The Pattern—and is suddenly wary that The Pattern may turn out to be all there is.

After setting up this narrative problem he then provides a solution: continue to escalate the action until it can’t anymore, and then, when that tactic runs out, go for “escalating escalation.” In other words: keep thrilling the reader by how I tell the story, and then at the end, thrill even myself.

As if this weren’t enough, reading Saunders’s essay leads to yet another parting gift. I find Barthelme’s The School online (for free!), amidst a special NPR feature on death and dying. And by this point it only vaguely disturbs me that I think a special NPR feature on death and dying is an awesome find. I’m thrilling even myself.

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