George Saunders Conducts a Cheery Class on Fiction’s Possibilities

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Books of The Times

Jan. 12, 2021, 3:58 p.m. ET
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For all their fondness for pronouncing in public (a dangerous vocation), critics seldom admit to worrying about being wrong — in print, that is. The poetry critic Randall Jarrell was a rare exception. He was tormented by the example of “Moby-Dick.” Imagine being one of the reviewers who overlooked it, or, horrors, panned it. “What’s our own ‘Moby-Dick’?” he wrote. “What’s the book that, a hundred years from now, everybody will look down on us for not having liked? What do we say then?”

The anxiety about a classic can persist through ages. How easy it is to be blind to “Moby-Dick” even today. The novel is barnacled with praise, glory; how can we see it clearly, how do we dodge the twin temptations of dull reverence and crabby contrarianism?

That obscuring fog gathers around the contemporary masters, too. Take George Saunders. In recent years, the writer has become regarded as a secular saint of American literature, with his Buddhist-inflected beliefs in fiction’s moral, purifying mission. He made his name with his antic short stories — fables, really — thronged with suicides, amputations, broken men: “the malformed detritus of capitalism, the necessary cost of doing business.” In 2017, he published his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” set during the Civil War and narrated by a chorus of restless ghosts. They’re stranded in the bardo — Tibetan purgatory — and loafing around a graveyard when they’re interrupted by Abraham Lincoln. He has broken into the tomb of his 11-year-old son, frantic to hold him once more.

The desperate, botched rescue operation is a common feature in Saunders’s work, and his fiction itself has the feeling of a rescue operation — on us, the reader. He’s moved by an evangelical ardor where fiction is concerned, intent on how it can help us “become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional,” as he put it in a viral commencement speech. These particular hopes have never been more precisely, joyfully or worryingly articulated than in his new book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” an analysis of seven classic Russian short stories.

If there are few more treacherous places to turn up than as a character in a George Saunders story — he might have you slapping yourself in the face with your own amputated hand, as he condemns one miserable case — there might be no cushier place than to be a student in his classroom.

The new book emerges from his longtime course on the 19th-century Russian short story — on Chekhov and Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. He dedicates it to his students, “some of the best young writers in America,” he describes them. “They arrive already wonderful.”

“I’m not a critic or a literary historian or an expert on Russian literature or any of that. The focus of my artistic life has been trying to learn to write emotionally moving stories that a reader feels compelled to finish,” Saunders writes. “The aim of this book is mainly diagnostic: If a story drew us in, kept us reading, made us feel respected, how did it do that?”

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Credit...Zach Krahmer

We read Chekhov’s “In the Cart” with him, line by line. He follows each page with his notes, marveling at every effect, tweezing out each piece of punctuation for our inspection, in some cases exploring different translations of the same story. He writes in praise of “the physics of the form”: efficiency, velocity, specificity and, above all, escalation. “That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation,” he explains. “A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.”

I’m making the book sound revoltingly technical. It isn’t. Saunders lives in the synapses — he looks at all the minute and meaningful decisions that produce a sentence, a paragraph, a convincing character. He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read — that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions.

The book might provoke comparisons to Nabokov’s classic lectures on Russian literature, first delivered at Cornell. But where Nabokov is all high-plumed prose and remove, presiding at his lectern, Saunders is at your elbow, ladling praise — “my good-hearted trooper,” he addresses us.

I don’t think I’ve ever been called a trooper before. I’m not sure I like it.

Here’s where I must admit that I can find myself in an occasional bardo of sorts about Saunders, torn between admiration and wariness. The breadth of his belief in fiction is inspiring — and suspiciously flattering to the reader. “There’s a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world,” he writes. “A web of people who’ve put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people.”

Now, I’m as self-interested a champion of fiction as anyone, but such overstatement does the form no favors — at best it feels naïve, at worst, deeply solipsistic. Is the invasion of Iraq best understood as a “literary failure,” as Saunders has written? Can racism be described as an “antiliterary impulse”?

I suspect Saunders is too spiritually advanced to read his reviews. If he did, however, I imagine he might be beaming. “Good little trooper,” he might say.

There’s no charge I’ve made here that Saunders hasn’t made himself. “I’m kind of a knee-jerk Pollyanna-ish person,” he has said. “I like to find hope, sometimes irritatingly: ‘Oh, there’s a nail in my head. It’s great, I’ll hang a coat on it, that’ll be good.’”

And it’s this very sort of ambiguity in thinking that he reifies, and that fiction, he tells us, makes possible.

In the section on Chekhov’s “The Darling,” Saunders writes that the story seems to ask us to sit in judgment of the character, to ask, “Is this trait of hers good or bad?” Chekhov, he tells us, answers: “Yes.”

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