George Saunders is a little embarrassed by the shot of self-assurance that winning the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the “Genius Grant”) provided.
“It gave me some percentage more confidence in my basic instincts,” he says. “It’s sad that it should happen that way, but when the world says, ‘Hey, you’re doing pretty well!’ in my case, it gave me a little bit of a self-esteem boost. When I’m at a crossroads, thinking, ‘Should I do the harder, braver thing?’ I think, ‘Of course! The world likes you. These people believed in you.’ ”
That was in 2006, and Saunders, already well known for the bleakly comic existential novellas and short story collections Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, went on to write another called Tenth of December, which was almost unanimously praised in 2013. His work is full of people who live in depressing apartments on streets like Self-Storage Parkway, working low-wage jobs as characters in life-sized dioramas in seldom-visited historical parks, and dealing
It resonates with readers in a spiritually impoverished cultural landscape, and the unnervingly disarming Saunders has seen his career rise almost continuously. He might be considered a master craftsman, but his beginnings were as humble as his characters: The MacArthur prize, along with the Guggenheim Fellowship he won the same year, are a far cry from the odd jobs he worked earlier in his career, including “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse.”
In a widely shared commencement address Saunders delivered to Syracuse University in 2013, he instructed the graduates not to ask what that is, so naturally SF Weekly had to know. As skinned cow legs would come to his station, he says, he and his coworkers would wait in line, taking turns to make “six or seven very specific cuts.” It was a physically demanding task, and he always knew a break was coming because the line would start to speed up.
“You had to put a hook in there and drop your whole weight on it, and then this part would pop out. That was the knuckle. You stepped back and took it off, and kind of heaved it under this conveyor belt and, having successfully done that, went back to the line again,” he says, adding. “I don’t know what that piece of meat was. It was gross.”
But that was decades ago. This spring, he’ll bring out his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and on Monday, Feb. 13, Saunders appears at the JCC in conversation with novelist Dana Spiotta and a theatrical reading of the book by the Word for Word Performing Arts Company.
After 20 years of published work, it wasn’t as if the 58-year-old Buddhist had deliberately set out to change forms, like a literary slaughterhouse switching from pork to beef. Quite the opposite, really.
“The composition process for this, if you will, was me saying to the book, ‘Oh no, you don’t become a novel, because we don’t do that around here,’ ” he says. “Mainly because I have, in the past, when I’ve gotten into that hopeful space of ‘This could be a novel,’ I kind of get a little case of the bloats. I start thinking like I think a novelist thinks, which is to write 15 pages on somebody’s shoe or something, and that’s not my strength. I really work better from a place of brevity and precision. So one of my kind of defensive stances in the book was always keep looking askance. You know: ‘Don’t be a novel unless you have to be.’ The book, by the end, was kind of cowering: ‘OK, all right, all right, I won’t.’ “
Referring to it as a series of “attributed monologues,” Lincoln in the Bardo has an unusual format “that makes it a tough read” on the stage, Saunders says. It’s essentially a tale about the 16th president, grief-stricken over the 1862 death of his son Willie and spending a single night in the boy’s crypt, alone with the body. (Bardo refers to the Tibetan concept of the purgatory-like limbo souls inhabit after death but before rebirth.) The use of ghosts as a Greek chorus of sorts is obviously magical realism, but the crux of it is rooted in fact: Lincoln had displayed a penchant for dramatic mourning earlier in his life, when he would sit at the gravesite of his childhood sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, unwilling to leave her alone in the elements.
“For me, the whole thing was to take this historical seed that was beautiful and emotionally really compelling — it kind of stuck with me for over 20 years — and find a way to tell it that didn’t sort of reduce it by straightforwardness,” he says. “I tried a couple things where I was doing a sort of standard third-person narration, and it didn’t really have much energy so it’s as much aha kind of a formal experiment as it was anything else.”
“I’m not sure if that’s helping you,” he adds. “This isn’t exactly the Reading Rainbow version.”
Although Lincoln’s behavior seems unusual, conspicuous forms of grief weren’t that unusual in the mid-1800s, Saunders notes, when death was all around. People routinely picnicked at cemeteries and engaged in casual activities that would struck early-21st-century Americans as morbid.
“When I first head the idea, I went, ‘Oh, how freaky,’ ” he says. “But when you learn about that period, it was more of an indication of being overcome with grief than it was some oddity in Lincoln. It was a step beyond what people might do.”
Connecting Lincoln to his earlier work, Saunders returns to the other effect the MacArthur grant had on his career: It attached his writing to the positive side of things.
“I don’t know why this should be, but the last two books were a little more, I don’t know, happier,” he says. “There’s a little more possibility that this isn’t just a big clusterfuck, this life, and that there are actually things that can save us and sustain us — and those are just as real as the things that want to destroy us. I always felt that way as a person, but in the early books, the emphasis was on the things that could destroy us. Now, maybe with more skill, maybe with age, and maybe with a little more confidence, you can get at those things. But happiness is actually hard to represent in a compelling way.”
“I also bought about eight Maseratis,” Saunders adds, “so that was pretty cool.”
George Saunders, in conversation with Dana Spiotta, Monday, Feb. 13, 7:30 p.m., $48-$60, at the Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., jccsf.org.