ARTICLE DREW KREWER
In his short fiction, George Saunders seems always to have a flair for successfully maintaining tension between absurdist satire and the real––the devastatingly human. In this collection, his first in six years, Saunders allows the human to enter into the foreground, making this work a timely and subtle reflection of individuals coping with the uncontrollable forces of an unraveling world.
In “Victory Lap,” Saunders taps into the minds of middle schoolers to detail a harrowing tale of an unexpected visitor. This home-alone scenario, reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates’s famous “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” details what goes through a mind before, during and after an unfathomable occurrence. “Puppy,” a story about a family answering a for-sale ad in the newspaper, examines how class and background can draw the conceptual line between one’s definitions of kindness and cruelty.
“Escape from Spiderhead” ushers us into a world of experimental medical trials that render the institutionalized characters imprisoned in more ways than one. The story is riddled with a laundry list of satirical “trademarked” drugs and easily could have tipped into the realm of Malcolm McDowell eye-hinged torture a la Clockwork Orange. Saunders saves the story from this fate, however, by giving the central character an overwhelming sense of agency, which ultimately calls into question how far we would be willing to go to avoid causing harm to strangers.
Other stories examine an unsuccessful businessman, a newly-returned veteran who discovers he’s potentially on the brink of homelessness, a family who purchases foreign workers as status-symbol yard ornaments, and a father who mourns his empty nest and the death of his wife through an unusual decorative activity.
The characters in this collection have a strong desire for the best––the best for themselves, their families, and the strangers who have wandered into their lives. They are afraid of failing those they love the most in a time and place where failure is common and omnipresent. Stories like these reach beyond the literary fiction mandate to make social commentary and/or to create complex, “likeable” characters. As a protagonist in the title story states, “there could still be many––many drops of goodness.” The work in this collection goes beyond the page, reminding the reader the simple importance of what it means to be a good person in the world, and how our actions and kindness can change the lives of others in the most necessary, if small, ways.