When George Saunders’s first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a “brilliant new satirist” with a voice “astoundingly tuned.” Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and The New Yorker named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. In fact, that prominent periodical was so impressed by Saunders that it originally published all six of the stories in his new collection, Pastoralia. If that were not encouragement enough, three stories in Pastoralia won O. Henry Awards prizes: “The Falls” in 1997 (which won second prize), “Winky” in 1998, and “Sea Oak” in 1999.
The reviewers of Saunders’s two collections have called him variously “a cool satirist,” “a savage satirist,” and a “searing satirist.” Typical of the satirist’s need for an object of attack, Saunders says he always starts off earnestly toward a target; however, he self-deprecatingly notes, “like the hunting dog who trots out to get the pheasant,” he usually comes back with “the lower half of a Barbie doll.” Comparing Saunders to Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, critics praised his demented black comic view of modern culture.
A primary way Saunders creates this view is to zero in on American pop culture entertainments. Whereas the focus of the title story of Saunders’s first collection is a virtual reality theme park that simulates the United States during the Civil War era, the locale of the title story of the new collection is a museum in which two people pretend to be a caveman and woman for the entertainment and edification of the public. The protagonist caveman is paired up with a woman who does not perform her job with sufficient commitment; she often speaks English instead of inarticulate grunts, and she quarrels with her son who visits her on the job. Although the protagonist, who must fax reports to management about his fellow worker, tries to protect her, he is soon discovered and she is forced to leave. A new woman assigned to the cave is more scrupulous than he; the story ends with the reader suspicious that it will not be long before she has him replaced.
When asked in an interview why theme parks are often featured in his stories, Saunders said that they create a sort of cartoon-like mood that keeps him from becoming too earnest and serious, reminding him that he is not writing realist fiction and giving him permission to “goof off.” However, Saunders is not just “fooling around” in the story; as usual, he has a target, in this case the world of modern work in which bosses are distant anonymous entities with whom workers communicate by fax machines and who insist that they perform in accordance with the boss’s view of artificial reality. The couple in Saunders’s story, controlled by sophisticated technology, must make their living by pretending to be dumb and inarticulate—a metaphor, Saunders suggests, of how most Americans consider the role they play in the world of work.
However, the central image in Pastoralia is not the theme park, as it was in Saunders’s first collection; rather, the obsessive image here is the American male “loser” who cannot succeed in the real world and who must create a fantasy compensatory reality. The American loser’s creation of his own reality begins in childhood, suggests Saunders, with the shortest, and in many ways, the most heartrending story in the collection, “The End of FIRPO in the World,” in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermoses and plugging their water hoses to make them explode. FIRPO is the word Cody’s mother and her boyfriend use to refer to anything he does that they think is bad or dorky. During a bike ride, Cody imagines that his ultimate revenge will occur when he is famous for his splendid ideas, such as plugging up water hoses. The story ends with irony and pathos when he is hit by a car and the only person who has ever told him that he is “beautiful and loved” is the man who has hit him. The story succeeds by initially making the reader scorn Cody for the mean-spirited, vengeful acts he commits and the childish compensation fantasies he entertains, only to make the reader feel sorry for the boy when, with resignation, he accepts that he is the FIRPO his mother and her boyfriend say he is, even as the man who hit him futilely insists that God loves him and that he is...