George Saunders: "You Can Talk About Sex or Religion But [Money] Makes People Uncomfortable"
George Saunders has never been to Miami. But when he arrives on Thursday to discuss his latest book, he will likely immediately recognize it. That's because Miami is almost identical to the creepy, dystopian, sci-fi landscape conjured up in his short stories.
"I'm very class anxious and have been my entire life," he tells New Times ahead of his Thursday appearance at Books & Books. "When I've written stories that have worked for me, they were always exaggerations of that interior landscape. That matches exactly what you just described about Miami: the extremes of wealth and the extremes of poverty."
"I think that's a kind of American story that I don't see very often in fiction: that naked anxiety about money," Saunders says. "Somehow you can talk about sex or religion but when you start talking about money, especially scarcity of money, it starts to make people uncomfortable."
Saunders is widely considered one of the best American short story writers alive. His latest collection, Tenth of December, puts ten tightly drawn vignettes together like cartridges in an ammo clip: each one packs a killer blow. (Spoiler alert!)
The book begins at a sprint and rarely slows down. In the first story, "Victory Lap," a teenage track star must decide how far he'll go to save a neighbor from a brutal rapist. In the last one, a man's carefully plotted suicide unravels when a young boy stumbles upon him in the woods.
In these two stories, Saunders' prose is pure electricity, propelling the reader from page to page. Each story revolves around a terrible possible outcome. And yet, they are about much more than terror.
"A lot of people think a story is dark because something bad happens," Saunders says. "But my feeling is... it's invigorating or it isn't. You listen to Shostakovich's string quartets written during the purges and they are all brooding and minor key. But they are so beautifully done that you go away kind of buzzed."
"It's an interesting thing. In America there is often a simplistic idea about darkness which is that if there is any negative truth stated, that's dark. And it's pessimistic. But to me, just telling the truth and getting the energy going is a real positive thing. That's what art is supposed to do: get the energy going. It doesn't really matter if it's got a happy ending. Who gives a shit? Read Flannery O'Conner. Or the Bible. That's not exactly a peppy document!"
"You're trying to take the reader on a wild ride" in fiction, he says. "Like when you go to the amusement park and you go on some kickass roller coaster that did things you didn't know roller coasters could do, that feeling when you come off it, it's not dark or light. It's just rrrrrraaaahhhh! Invigorating is a great word. And then you can put aside all the questions of politics and light and dark."