I couldn’t get on with George Saunders’ 2017 Man Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo but made a mental note to try his short stories which were much lauded in the novel’s publicity material. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get around to it until Liberation Day popped through my letterbox. Comprising nine stories, Saunders’ new collection ranges from the dystopian near future to everyday office politics. As ever, I’ve picked a few favourites to give a flavour of what’s on offer.
Peace is not, apparently, in the general human intention, although, in the spare hour (in the dear home, in the individual heart) it may sometimes seem to be.
The collection opens with by far the longest piece, the dystopian titular story which features three people, memories wiped and electronically programmed, who perform the Battle of the Little Bighorn for the wealthy Untermeyers and their guests, until their outraged son stages a violent intervention. Jeremy, who has conceived a passion for Mrs Untermeyer, remains in character, shooting the assailants and saving the day while leaving himself in a miserable limbo.
We were not prepared to drop everything in defense of a system that was, to us, like oxygen: used constantly, never noted
Much briefer, Love Letter is written by a grandfather to his beloved grandson who wants to help a friend in trouble, urging him not to put himself in danger while lamenting not doing more to prevent the election of an administration that tore up the life their liberal family had taken for granted. A Thing at Work sees two colleagues, one stealing from the staff room, the other having an affair in working hours, both of whom snitch on each other to their hapless boss while the balance of power in Sparrow changes as an over-solicitous son falls in love with his mother’s self-effacing employee.
Nothing lasts, not pride, not affection, not walls, not barns, nothing, nothing, nothing
Saunders’ collection is characterised by a pleasing economy of expression, a style that always appeals to me. Recurring themes, including wealth, poverty and exploitation, are introduced by the opening Liberation Day, explored with the darkest of humour through Jeremy’s narrative, territory revisited less effectively in Elliot Spencer, with its memory-wiped homeless octogenarian turned protester. Many of these stories are marked by an acute observation – the inner monologue of the office workers in A Thing at Work was a particular treat – and they’re often very funny although their message is always sober. It’s a collection which blends the personal and the political, sometimes explored in somewhat surreal, entertaining pieces such as Ghoul, set in a hellish theme park, sometimes tenderly as in Love Letter. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting Lincoln in the Bardo again but I am keen to read more of Saunders’ short fiction.
Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526624956 256 pages Hardback