Tuesday, May 08, 2012

In praise of the writerly surprise

I've been dipping into George Saunders's essays in The Braindead Megaphone. I've always admired Saunders as a writer of the kind of surreal, hilarious, and deeply sad fiction I wish I could come up with myself. But man, can he rock an essay.

I suppose that what makes his fiction great is something he also does--less often, and therefore perhaps more strikingly--in his nonfiction: He surprises us. I don't mean that his work is startlingly good, or shockingly original, though that's true. I'm talking about these little explosive surprises that he drops in, mid-sentence or mid-paragraph, that make you stop and go, Wow.

Case in point, from "Thank you, Esther Forbes." This is a celebration of Saunders's childhood discovery of Johnny Tremain, and with it, the fact that fiction did not have to be awful:

Before Johnny Tremain, writers and writing gave me the creeps. In our English book, which had one of those 1970s titles that connoted nothing (Issues and Perspectives, maybe, or Amalgam 109), the sentences ("Larry, aged ten, a tow-headed heavyset boy with a happy smile for all, meandered down to the ballfield, hoping against hope he would at last be invited to join some good-spirited game instigated by the other lads of summer") repulsed me the way a certain kind of moccasin-style house slipper then in vogue among my father's friends repulsed me.

Who on earth would think of comparing the mediocre prose in a 70s children's fiction anthology to a moccasin? But the thing is, I think we all make leaps like this. Only for must of us, these leaps remain in our subconscious. We'd never articulate them to ourselves or others, because it feels ridiculous that we get the same feeling--the creeps--from reading a stupid story as from looking at someone's slippers. Neither of these things should give us the creeps in the first place, right? The fact that both do is beyond wrong, even a little shameful. Yet it's true. I instantly recognized this feeling of getting the creeps from an apparently, indeed strenuously innocuous story. It's the insistence on innocuousness that causes the creeps to descend.

Later in the same essay Saunders drops a much more shocking bomb, quoting the bureaucratic prose of an SS officer on how it's better to leave the lights on in the gas chamber before turning on the jets, to keep "the load" from screaming and pushing against the door. Good God. Is it really a straight line from the story of the tow-headed boy, through the slippers, to this grotesque evasion of responsibility for mass murder? Well, Saunders suggests, kind of. An inauthentic relationship to language is no small matter. It means you can distance yourself from what you say, and what you think you mean. Using language well--giving it its full due--means taking responsibility.

Much better, then, to be honest about how a bad story reminds us of a house slipper, in that both made us feel deeply weird. That kind of honesty is a small salvo in the fight against the bureaucratization of the soul. Plus, when you say it out loud, it turns out to be so right, it's hilarious.

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