‘Pastoralia’ by George Saunders


Pastoralia by George Saunders, 2000

The magic trick:

Presenting an array of authority/power dynamics to consider

We did a couple weeks on Tenth of December in 2015, and we’re back again with another week of George Saunders, this time highlighting stories from his Pastoralia collection. There was nothing that floored me quite like “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” but the stories are pretty much uniformly great. It’ll be a fun week.

Let’s start with the title track. Like many Saunders, it throws the reader immediately into its story universe without explanation. Many things recall the banal everyday of our world. But some things aren’t quite normal. Why, for instance in this story, do the employees of this amusement park world live 24/7 where they work? Is this the future? Some kind of sick, twisted parallel universe? Saunders has a genius for creating these in-between nether regions as setttings.

But that’s not even today’s magic trick. This story is about authority relationships, and we get plenty of duos to consider. Let’s see, we have:

* Narrator and Janet

* Narrator and Greg the boss

* Janet and Greg the boss

* Janet and her son

* Marty and his son

* Marty’s son and his schoolmates

Some are humorous, some are sad, some are infuriating, some are perplexing.

My favorite, though, is the anecdote involving the narrator’s father and a former co-worker. The narrator’s father, we are told, often did this man’s work and covered for him. The co-worker sent the narrator’s father a check as thanks when he died.

Here is a situation that gives us a window into how the narrator learned to handle responsibility, friendship and authority by viewing his father’s model. It also, tellingly, demonstrates the father seeing some (albeit small) reward for his loyalty.

And really that is only one theme in the story. There is so much here to tap into and consider. It’s the stuff of a modern classic. And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.

The selection:

Back in the cave Janet’s made a nice fire.

“So what did numbnuts want?” she says. “Are you fired?”

I shake my head no.

“Is he in love with you?” she says.. “Does he want to go out with you?”

I shake my head no.

“Is he in love with me?” she says. “Does he want to go out with me? Am I fired?”

I do not shake my head no.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, go back,” she says. “I’m fired?”

I shake my head no.

“But I’m in the shit?” she says. “I’m somewhat in the shit?”

I shrug.

“Will you freaking talk to me?” she says. “This is important. Don’t be a dick for once.”

I do not consider myself a dick and I do not appreciate being called a dick, in the cave, in English, and the truth is, if she would try a little harder not to talk in the cave, she would not be so much in the shit.

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