Sea Oak by George Saunders, 1998
The magic trick:
A narrator who is simultaneously the central figure in the action and totally isolated from it
I love the way George Saunders writes about poverty. He’s one of the few writers I know of who can really capture the kind of “middle class but stressed and struggling paycheck to paycheck” lifestyle that I’ve known most of my life. In “Sea Oak” his characters aren’t on the brink; they’ve gone over it in to poverty that threatens their lives. He does this credibly too, even as the story has a surrealist quality to it at the same time that takes some of the pressure off in terms of having to really represent a truth.
Mechanically, the magic trick lies in the narrator. In many ways, he is the main character of the story. He is the only family member who works. His job is the key part of Aunt Bernie’s bizarre plan to save the family. His point of view seems closest to something the reader can recognize as normal. So he plugs us into the story. But – and this is kind of crazy when you think about it – he speaks directly to his family only once the entire story. Maybe I missed a stray quote somewhere in there, but by and large he only describes the scenes involving his family – those scenes being the bulk of the story, by the way. It’s almost as if he isn’t really there taking part.
It’s an amazing effect. We have a narrator that is crucial to the story but also apart from it at the same time. And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.
“She was a excellent lady,” says Freddie.
“I already miss her so bad,” says Ma.
“I’d like to kill that fuck that killed her,” says Min.
“How about let’s don’t say fuck at lunch,” says Ma.
“It’s just a word, Ma, right?” says Min. “Like pluck is just a word? You don’t mind if I say pluck? Pluck pluck pluck?”
“Well, shit’s just a word too,” says Freddie. “But we don’t say it att lunch.”
“Same with puke,” says Ma.
“Shit puke, shit puke,” says Min.
The waiter clears his throat. Ma glares at Min.
“I love you girls’ manners,” Ma says.
“Especially at a funeral,” says Freddie.
“This ain’t a funeral,” says Min.
“The question in my mind is what you kids are gonna do now” says Freddie. “Because I consider this whole thing a wake-up call, meaning it’s time for you to pull yourselfs up by the bootstraps like I done and get out of that dangerous craphole you’re living at.”
“Mr. Phone Poll speaks,” says Min.
“Anyways it ain’t that dangerous,” says Jade.
“A woman gets killed and it ain’t that dangerous?” says Freddie.
“All’s we need is a dead bolt and a eyehole,” says Min.
“What’s a bootstrap,” says Jade.
“It’s like a strap on a boot, you doof,” says Min.
“Plus where we gonna go?” says Min. “Can we move in with you guys?”
“I personally would love that and you know that,” says Freddie. “But who would not love that is our landlord.”
“I think what Freddie’s saying is it’s time for you girls to get jobs,” says Ma.
“Yeah right, Ma,” says Min. “After what happened last time?”
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.