Life is impossible; it can’t possibly continue; and then it does. Existential despair accretes; time passes; the color of one’s despair changes. Time seems to change its velocity, its direction. Suddenly everything is different. The title story in Twilight of the Superheroes describes this problem so gently and bravely: “And yet, here he is, he and his friends, falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age. … Yet one second ago, running so swiftly toward it, they hadn’t even seen it.” Deborah Eisenberg’s stories remind me of William Maxwell’s; they are wise, kind, careful, benevolent.
I concluded my voyage through Liberal Arts in May 2000—a typical fairly useless poised-to-succeed-and-doomed-to-fail twentysomething of a hazy new millennium, and a less typical city-sluck Irangelite-turned-Brooklynite with no concept of the country I’d lived in for nearly two decades—when George Saunders’ second collection came out. I was of course was many universes and still many years removed—it took me a few years to discover him—from the five stories plus title novella of Pastoralia. But I was already lovedrunk on American stylists and dark humorists and determined to only follow writers who turned my world upside down—still, I don’t think I had ever read anyone as revolutionary as Saunders. I certainly didn’t know of a writer with a world as fully realized as his, that America that I wholly dreaded and yet came to grasp more tenderly after going through Pastoralia’s psyche-of-below-average-to-average-America rollercoaster ride.
Immediately I fell in love. First reason: the humor that was earth-shattering; best reason: the humanity that was something else.
Saunders is in many ways our most contemporary writer, the voice of the Boomers/Gen X-ers/Millenials world we currently inhabit, the scribe of Saracuda-crazed Jerry-Springerian Red America of the Eighties/Nineties/Aughties. But it’s not just the scenarios but the sentences—especially the seamless coexistence of high and low that only reminds us their segregation in art is actually what’s shocking—that in themselves tell me Saunders isn’t simply one of our best writers, but one of our best humans. Even in the lowest and lowliest Saunderian universe—”Winky’s” self help seminar, perhaps, to combat those “crapping in your oatmeal”—there is the infusion of an entirely genuine authorial affection. His America, our America, is of course horrible but without the horror.
Is he funny? Is he wacky? Saunders is mostly observant. The average man in Pastoralia works as a caveman at a theme park (“Pastoralia”) or male stripper at an aviation-themed-strip club (“Sea Oak”) to make ends meet. Does life look like this? Actually in our America of Reality™ and color-coded neverending War(s?) on Terror, of Parables of Joe Plumber and Tales of Tito The What-Did-He-Do-Again, I’d say we’re more there than we might wish… and maybe closer than Saunders even guessed while writing Pastoralia just before the end of a decade and millennium, and the beginning of a rather Unbrave New World.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones’ gorgeously written novel, turns the world of race relations as we know it upside down. The lines that divide the races in his antebellum are not so much blurred as crooked, doglegged, and doubling back on each other. And race is only one vector: family, power, history. and love are also in play here. Jones’ refashioning of antebellum history is profoundly subversive and profoundly satisfying. In his telling, our nation’s story is one of contradictions and cruel ironies, halting progress and lost opportunities. I hope that someone, some day, will write a novel just as good about race relations in our current vexed era. If they do, I imagine they will conclude that Mr. Jones had it right all along.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a small miracle, a novel in the form of a letter from the Reverend John Ames, 76 and dying, to his 7-year-old son. There are strands of plot in the book — flashbacks involving Ames’ abolitionist grandfather; the explanation of how Ames met his young wife and became a father so late in life; and the story of his friendship with his neighbor Reverend Robert Boughton. But Robinson is really interested in extended rumination, charting Ames’ thoughts about mercy, mortality, forgiveness, grace and doubt in great detail. The pace of these thoughts requires an initial patience from the reader that is amply rewarded. The book’s modest, carefully planed language and its concern with primary human needs make it timeless, but it’s hard not to also marvel at and appreciate the way it functions as a timely corrective. While the proudly ignorant hardcore religious right and arrogant preachers like Richard Dawkins shout past each other, Robinson addresses faith in a way that is both spiritually generous and intellectually serious. Here is religion not as a political cudgel or a claim for moral superiority but as a thoughtful balm for an attentive individual soul.