In a now-famous short documentary, “On Story” (2017), produced by Ken Burns, the virtuoso George Saunders lifted the veil from his process, revealing how, cell by cell, he grows a declarative sentence — Frank is a jerk, for instance — by tacking on a phrase here, a clause there, arriving at “Frank snapped at the barista because she reminded him of his dead wife, whom he dearly loved.” Behold: the birth of a narrative, ripe with conflict and character, an emotional tug. It’s that equilibrium of groundbreaking craft and bone-deep compassion — plus his rangy, tilt-a-whirl voice — that raises Saunders above other masters of the form.
“Liberation Day,” his first collection since 2013′s “Tenth of December,” brazenly piles on his trademark techniques: fantastical carnivals, snappy marketing slogans, heart-weary characters, and an unerring ear for prose rhythms. Like the Coen Brothers, Saunders is infatuated with the quirks and cadences of American speech; there are echoes of “Pastoralia”‘s title novella, motifs borrowed from “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” and “Escape from Spiderhead,” both in “Tenth of December.” But he’s got a lot on his mind: “Liberation Day” is less jaunty, more dispirited, as Saunders broods over these disunited states. While lurking along the margins of the public square, he yearns for something, anything, beyond the schisms of red and blue, but fears he’s peering into a dark void in which all colors fade to black.
Consider Tina, the protagonist of the inventive “The Mom of Bold Action,” a writer whose sense of herself — decent, right-thinking, a follower of rules — implodes when a homeless man assaults her 12-year-old son. Her flitting ideas for stories merge with her frustrations, a Gordian knot of aspirational angst that only Saunders could untangle. Consumer brands morph into a hall of mirrors, twisting reality. Tina imagines a dog treat come to life: “She grabbed another peanut-butter thingie from the box. ‘The Peanut-Butter Thingie Who Sacrificed Himself So The Other Peanut-Butter Thingies in the Box Could Live.’ Jim the Peanut-Butter Thingie pushed his peanut-shaped body higher and higher, toward the questing human hand. Jake and Polly watched, amazed. Was Jim trying to get eaten? ‘Go on, live your dreams, you two!’ Jim shouted as a thumb and a finger grasped him.” Tina’s dreams, needless to say, are also doomed.
We’re right back in Saunders’s milieu of blue-collar and middle-class folks, beset by absurdist forces, too stressed to do the right thing. He makes no excuses for his characters’ poor behavior and judgment, but summons a tenderness familiar to readers. In “Ghoul,” an underground, hell-inspired amusement park is unable to attract visitors, leaving its costumed employees to wonder whether there’s no exit. “Elliott Spencer” showcases Saunders’s experimental prowess — fractured sentences, fractured lives. And in “Sparrow,” a cipherlike woman pursues a romance despite the odds. Human frailties have always been the grist for his mill.
The collection’s tour de force may be the title piece, staged in a theater where Jeremy, the drugged-up, brain-wiped narrator, and two captive colleagues perform a repertory of dramas for friends of their caretaker. The play’s the thing: during a re-enactment of Little Big Horn the performance turns bloody, as Saunders riffs on the brutality at the heart of our nation’s history. This melding of past and present ranks high among his innovations, exposing collective rot and shame while sieving out private pains that often mold us into better people.
Politics have never been absent from Saunders’s fiction, but in “Liberation Day” he mulls explicitly. Tina envisions a can-opener as a Trumpian provocateur: “Gerard the Can Opener was a dreamer. He wanted to open BIG things. BIGGER things. The BIGGEST things!” In “Love Letter,” set in a dystopian near-future when authoritarian forces have seized control, an elderly man writes to his young-adult grandson, warning him away from protests while lamenting his own lack of courage. He’d failed to recognize the threat of our previous president: “It did not seem … that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, something that had been with us literally every day of our lives. We had taken, in other words, a profound gift for granted. Did not know the gift was a fluke, a chimera, a wonderful accident of consensus and mutual understanding.”
How far down the hole are we? “Liberation Day” is an MRI of our body politic, with Saunders scrupulously analyzing the films, seeking an optimistic prognosis amid a crush of tumors. He’s hopeful because he’s Saunders. And yet the evidence points, grimly, in the opposite direction; we’ve lost the ability to empathize, if we ever had it. As the narrator of “Liberation Day” opines: “It was always falling down around you, everything has always been falling down around us. Only we were too alive to notice. Nothing lasts, not pride, not affection, not walls, not barns. … I feel this, in my body now, the falling apart, as a kind of holy truth. I am trying my best not to be terrified.”
LIBERATION DAY: Stories
By George Saunders
Random House, 256 pages, $28
Hamilton Cain is Contributing Books Editor at Oprah Daily and the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing.”