‘Love Letter’ by George Saunders

Love Letter by George Saunders, 2020

The magic trick:

Successfully – poignantly and powerfully – writing about current events in fiction

This rather momentous (to say the least) Election Day, let’s focus on what I would consider to be the most important short story of the year, “Love Letter” by George Saunders.

I’m skeptical of stories that address contemporaneous events. It so rarely lands well.

Frequent reactions include:

“Preachy.”

“Way too on the nose.”

“Maybe that should’ve been an essay.”

I think perhaps it takes time for current events to not be so current anymore before they can serve to inspire good art.

I also suspect that nearly any art that is blatantly inspired by a particular current event will always struggle to achieve enough of a disguise to truly feel like art.

So with all that in mind, let me call “Love Letters” a rare marvel. It poignantly captures the Trump moment in the moment without falling prey to the aforementioned problems.

The magic of course starts with the fact that Saunders is an all-timer, probably working at his career apex right now at least in terms of his ability to deliver earnest emotional gut punches. His empathy always has been 99th percentile, but now he’s dispensing with (most of) the jokes and weirdness, so that those human feelings shine through unabated. (I like the jokes and the weirdness, don’t misread me; his more recent writing just feels more mature).

But to get more specific, he uses several devices here to distance this story from its source material.

One, it’s epistolary, a letter from an old man to his grandson. You can imagine this being his twist on the “How will you explain how you acted in these times to your grandkids someday?” question.

Two, it never mentions Trump or even the United States, even as the comparisons and references are clear.

Three, it appears to be set a generation or two from now, though again it never explicitly says so. Different details suggest it is a kind of dystopian near future that began with Trump.

I guess that’s my entire list.

Ultimately, it’s the kind of story that defies this website’s template. Its magic trick can’t really be analyzed and revealed; it just is. (Go vote!)

And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.

The selection:

Because this destruction was emanating from such an inept source, who seemed (at that time) merely comically thuggish, who seemed to know so little about what he was disrupting, and because life was going on, and because every day he/they burst through some new gate of propriety, we soon found that no genuine outrage was available to us anymore. If you’ll allow me a crude metaphor (as I’m sure you, the King of las Bromas de Fartos, will): a guy comes into a dinner party, takes a dump on the rug in the living room. The guests get all excited, yell in protest. He takes a second dump. The guests feel, Well, yelling didn’t help. (While some of them applaud his audacity.) He takes a third dump, on the table, and still no one throws him out. At that point, the sky has become the limit in terms of future dumps.

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