John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
To read one of George Saunders’s stories is to gain a glimpse into an antic, often frightening, just-slightly-shifted alternative world. To read a George Saunders collection is to discover the human sorrow his stories plumb. Reading Pastoralia was something of a revelation for me because, though I’ve read many of Saunders’s stories before, I had never dug into one of his collections and had not appreciated the full force of reading several of his stories back to back. As an aside, this would be an argument in favor of short story collections, which, well constructed and edited, should bring on a “greater than the sum of its parts” reaction in the reader.
In the case of Pastoralia, Saunders’s characters are, as ever, pathetic, trapped in soul-sucking existences, with demeaning jobs and dysfunctional relationships. What elevates Saunders’s stories from what might be depressing muck is his eye for detail and his dry (almost deranged) wit. In the long title story that opens the collection, we peek in on the world of a caveman impersonator. Imagine if the life size caveman diorama at your local natural history museum were populated by actors, and you get the idea. That sounds bad enough, but Saunders overlays the world of corporate bureaucracy and buzzword double-speak onto this “edutainment” scenario. The “actors” are as much prisoners as they are employees.
But this is not 1984 or The Matrix. Saunders’s characters do not conform to the typical occupants of dystopias – millions of buzzing drones and a handful of “enlightened” struggling against the status quo. He offers characters, who are, well, like us.
In the story “Pastoralia,” we have a guy with a mind-numbing job (fake caveman), not enough money, a sick kid at home, coworkers that range from annoying to malicious, and a company in the throes of an “employee remixing.” This sounds more like someone who spends his days stocking shelves at Wal-Mart or temping at a cubicle farm than the gray and black Big Brother, robot-controlled nightmare of the future that has always been offered as civilization’s worst case scenario.
And this is what is so subversive about Saunders. He essentially is telling us that we are living in that worst case scenario, in the dystopia that we have been taught to fear and fight against. But he does so with such humor and well crafted detail that there is none of the didacticism that one my might expect from such a point of view. Saunders is no raving Luddite, instead he has the ability to highlight the absurd minutia of modern life that we typically ignore or take for granted: the “Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form,” the “fax makes the sound it makes when a fax is coming in,” “Stars-n-Flags… They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets,” “Cute Ratings,” “Credit Calcs,” and “Personal Change Centers.”
If our dystopia hasn’t already arrived, then we are perilously close to it. And whether or not you choose to look for these parallels, consumed without prejudice, Saunders’s stories are well crafted and utterly readable. I found myself careening through, hungry for the next off-kilter detail and scenario. I finished the book thinking that Saunders is a worthy chronicler of modern life.