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August 22, 2013

“Pastoralia”

by Anne Paddock

Pastoralia is a collection of six short stories by George Saunders, a professor at Syracuse University who teaches creative writing in the MFA program, and a writer of essays, short stories, novellas (a narrative that is longer than a short story  but shorter than a novel) and children’s books. Published in 2000, Pastoralia is Saunders’ second short story collection  (the first being CivilWarLand in Bad Decline published in 1996) and my first introduction to his work.  After reading Pastoralia, I was blown away and had several thoughts:

  1. Where have I been that I missed such a talented writer on my radar? Saunders is a great writer and has published 6 short story collections since 1996 so although I feel like I feel asleep during the parade, it makes me happy to know there are five more short story collections for me to read;
  2. Most of the short stories start out in the middle of a situation or what seems like a movie that already started but the story does unfold; be patient; be alert;
  3. Saunders allows the reader to be in the main character’s head; privy to the stream of conscious ramblings that are both hilarious, sad, illogical, and often, crazy; and
  4. Each short story touches on the less attractive aspects of our culture:  consumerism, corporate greed, helicopter parenting, dysfunctional family life, revenge, the ridiculousness of reality television shows, the role of the mass media, self-absorption, health care, the inequities of education, enabling, sexual obsession, and mental instability; Saunders writes about what many of us think at times but are afraid to say out loud.

Pastoralia

Perhaps someone should explain to you the idea of how we do things, which is to make money. And why? Is it greed? Don’t make us laugh. It is not. If we make money, we can grow, if we can grow, we can expand, if we can expand, we can continue to employ you, but if we shrink, if we shrink or stay the same, woe to you, we would not be vital.

PastoraliaThe word “Pastoralia” made me think of American Pastoral by Phillip Roth, which depicts life in an idealized manner in post WWII America but Pastoralia seems almost to be a spoof on the ideal life. In this 66 page, 26 chapter novella, the narrator of the story is working in a reality theme park of sorts where the exhibits include Cave Man Life,  Sheep May Safely Graze, Wise Mountain Hermit, Russian Peasant Farm, and Pioneer Encampment.

Attendance is down and the administrators are scrambling to hold onto their jobs so when rumors of “staff remixing” and units being eliminated erupt, the administrators tell the “Remotes” (employees, for they live in their exhibits and communicate with their families via fax) to ignore rumors and to ask themselves:

Does this rumor cast the organization in a negative light? If so, the rumor is false, please disregard.  If positive, super, thank you very much for caring so deeply about your organization that you knelt with your ear to the track, and also, please spread the truth far and wide, that is, get down on all fours and put your own lips to the tracks. Tell friends. Tell friends who are thinking of buying stock.Do you have friends who are journalists? Put your lips to their tracks.

Pastoralia is a dark but often hilarious story of what happens in a culture where work and devotion to the corporation are more heavily valued than family life; when people are only valued for their profit contribution; and what people are willing to do in the face of helplessness.

Winky

Neil Yaniky spends his days soldering “little triangular things in his basement, for forty-seven cents a little triangular thing, for CompuParts, although he had high hopes for something better,” which is why he is at the Hyatt Hotel to attend the motivational seminar “Now Is The Time For Me To Win!” For the past several years, Yaniky has been sharing his apartment with his sister, Winky who is a religious fanatic. After attending the seminar, Yaniky realizes his sister really is a nut case and that it was a huge mistake to invite her to live with him because she is holding him back, but what is a brother to do?

Sea Oak

Sea Oak is one of the most hilarious short stories ever written. I read the story twice and laughed just as much the second time. The narrator of the story is a young man who works at Joysticks, a strip bar where “the minute your Cute Rating drops, you’re a goner.” When he’s not working, he’s at his apartment in a subdivision called Sea Oak where “there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rearview of FedEx.”

He shares the apartment with his sister, Min and cousin, Jade, both of whom have a baby and spend their days watching television shows called How My Child Died Violently, The Worst Thing That Could Happen, and phone sex informationals while studying for the GED (“they debate how many sides a triangle has). Aunt Bernie, a 60-year old virgin and eternal optimist also lives with the young group although she spends her days being a greeter at the local DrugTown.

One day the apartment is robbed and life is never the same.

FIRPO in the World

A 10-year old boy named Cody is the narrator of this story which primarily takes place while he rides his bike through the neighborhood thinking about all the injustices that have been done to him and how he will seek revenge. A stream of conscious thought that is both sad and funny, FIRPO in the World is ultimately a heartbreaking tale about a misunderstood boy.

When I finished the story, I wanted to know what FIRPO stands for because the author doesn’t reveal the true meaning. The reader learns that FIRPO is the word that his mom’s boyfriend, “Daryl used to describe anything he, Cody did that was bad or dorky and sometimes they just used the word “FIRP attack in progress” to describe his behavior. Could it mean “Funny, I’m Really Puzzled?” Who knows but I would love to ask the author the true meaning.

The Barber’s Unhappiness

Mickey is a thick-waisted beak-nosed middle-aged barber who can’t help but ogle and fantasize about every woman who comes within his scope of vision. Add delusional, hyper critical, and self-absorbed and it becomes perfectly clear why he is still single and living with his overly dependent bossy mother.  Then one evening, he attends driving school and meets Gabby, and the future looks promising.

The Falls

Morse – husband, father of two young children – is struggling to make ends meet and is preoccupied with how his life has turned out.  “His childhood dreams had been so bright, he had hoped for so much, it couldn’t be true that he was a nobody, although on the other hand, what kind of somebody spends the best years of his life swearing at a photocopier?” That is, when he isn’t forgetting to mail the invitations to his son’s birthday party. “Timid of conflict, conciliatory to a fault,  (and) pathetically gullible,” Morse is walking down a path one day and sees two little red-headed girls in matching sweaters in a canoe heading towards Bryce Falls, a treacherous waterfall” and must think fast.

Aldo Cummings, the local artist/eccentric who considers himself a struggling artist is “an odd duck who, though nearly forty, still lived with his mother,” didn’t work and “had his bangs cut straight across and wore gym shorts even in the dead of winter.” Self absorbed and resentful of a town that doesn’t recognize his talent, Cummings also happens to see the little girls barreling down the Taganac River towards the deadly Falls and must also decide what to do.

A short story about two men who feel greatly misunderstood and under appreciated, faced with the biggest decision of their lives.

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