#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders

September 24, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 6 2 min read

coverI 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.

Read an excerpt from Pastoralia.
The Millions review of Pastoralia
George Saunders Year in Reading
More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)
Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

is the author of many articles and several books, most recently Brown Album: Essays on Exile & Identity (Vintage, 2020).


  1. I’m starting to fear that there won’t be any european, non-english book in this list. I myself am very focused on the English literary world, but things as “the Possibility of An Island” by the French writer Michel Houellebecq e.g. would be in this list if people had read it.

    I’m gonna wait for the full list first though, before i judge too soon. But it doesn’t look very promising.

    (In a way that is normal..but the self-centered focus of the English literary world is a bit sad. You’re missing out on a lot of good stuff there!)

  2. George Saunders is truly a master. This book, and especially the title piece, is absolutely deserving of the kind of thoughtful plaudits you give it here.

    Saunders talks about “Pastoralia,” as well as his method, the role of the author, the nature of language, and his favorite movie candies, in a new interview in Issue 3 of Wag’s Revue. Come on by and check it out for Saunders’ own take on his affection for that horrible America we live in. And thanks for the delightful write-up.

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