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The eponymous opening story of George Saunders’ new collection, Liberation Day, introduces us to Jeremy, a man who has been hung on a wall in a grand house beside two other Speakers, programmed to recite stories for his owner’s guests.As Jeremy hangs there, he narrates how very much in love with the lady of the house he is, or thinks he is; he cannot know any better as his mind has been wiped and so bringing her illicit pleasure in the darkness feels like it really could be love. Jeremy seems almost happy at first but as he runs through different versions of Custer’s Last Stand, he finally begins to awaken to the cruelty and violence in the American story, and his own life. I wonder if Saunders is suggesting that through the telling of tales we will finally come back to ourselves and find some hope. I should have known better. As Jeremy muses on the valley of the little Bighorn he wonders:
“Why? Why must this be? Is there not abundance enough and beauty to support all in peace, were that the general intention?
But peace is not the general intention.”
So it goes here, and the remaining question seems to be: so how do we deal with that?
“Liberation Day” brings to mind a similar story in Saunders’ break-out 2012 collection, Tenth of December whereby a man diarises his desire for self-improvement, culminating in the purchase of a new kind of garden ornament made of people who hang in various shapes; decorative human semaphores. The narrator’s concern for betterment juxtaposed with his callous disregard for basic humanity really stayed with me, the image of the “ornaments” appearing any time I came across any normalised cruelty. “Liberation Day” stands in its own right but can also be read as a kind of sequel to that tale, one where we experience the more complex world of the abused performers; the dynamics between oppression and performance going on to inform the entire collection.
The way in which the stories often play with received American history, particularly in the opening story, also brings to mind Saunders’ first and only novel, the award-winning Lincoln in the Bardo. In fact, the collection often returns to previous themes or worlds in new ways, adding a satisfying layer for anyone who is familiar with George Saunders’ work. He has previously introduced us to various nightmarish American theme-parks, where people are forced to perform phoney historical roles in horrible situations that can be nonetheless amusing. In “Ghoul” we return to that kind of realm, but this time the characters become definitively conscious of their entrapment in the underground park with no visitors, the futility of their endeavours. The scene is definitively American, and the detail very satisfyingly so, but the dynamics of power that drive the tale are universal. The characters are whiling away their lives in a cruel game where telling the truth about the hopelessness of the situation will get you killed. Whilst oppressors here can turn into the oppressed and vice versa, it’s never clear who created the system or why, but the suggestion that this could be someone’s idea of the least-worst life available for those working there, reads as distinctly plausible.
In “Ghoul,” as in all the stories, how words are put to use really matters. Words are political, they can be misused, but they are also the only way to express our core reality to others and to ourselves. Any hope in the opening story comes and goes with violence and as the collection moves on it exposes again and again how the stories we tell ourselves or others are often self-serving or forced upon us in abusive situations. How love is too often subservient to power. Saunders is not judgemental about this and as his characters attempt to liberate themselves from their various traps he notes just how difficult it can be to escape, especially when you’re trying to do the right thing.
That is not to say that the collection is in any way depressing or hopeless, it is never that. There are affecting moments of love and hope in the stories “Sparrow,” “Love Letter” and “Elliot Spencer” but it is also the overall style and scope of Saunders’ storytelling that lifts us. Saunders has made a name for himself as both a writers’ writer and a readers’ writer after all, and this collection is full of everything you’d expect from this author: a vivid imagination that can leap through space and time; a variously pithy, poetic and colloquial way with words; a pleasing ability to get into all kinds of characters’ heads and to swap between consciousnesses seamlessly.
Saunders’ narrative style can often seem effortless and chatty but this is yet another illusion. According to the author himself, he doesn’t write effortlessly at all; each word has to earn its place and on closer inspection of this collection, this shows. It’s important, this building of trust, this attention to detail, as the thing with George Saunders is that he rarely sets the scene. You’re dropped into a consciousness and a body forms around it; like being born afresh in every story. Unsure where you are, what the world’s rules are, much like the characters themselves. Tricks in the nature of reality abound.This being the case, you have to trust that the story will reveal what is going on in its own sweet time, it’s not that you’ve missed something. Have you? No, no, all is revealed in carefully controlled sequence, as long as you keep going and pay attention rather than assuming that this is an easy read.
This is especially true with “Elliot Spencer,” a story that I struggled to engage with at first, but that turned out to be one of my favourites. Elliot’s mind has been wiped, just like Jeremy’s in “Liberation Day” but instead of losing himself completely, Elliot fights hard to get his memories back. Words are connected to memories and sensations in new ways, creating a poetic world that lingers in the mind:
‘They cross yard open door lightshape runs out.
Lightshape runs back in.
Am alone in yard.
Smear of stars widest, lowest yet Aspens sway Storage
shed makes frog noise with each breeze.’
Elliot Spencer’s emotional and verbal world informs the story’s style and structure, which is something I’ve come to expect from this author. He has said that he never initially intended Lincoln in the Bardo to become a novel, but that the charge in the story required a longer form to fulfil it. This is why I trust George Saunders; no matter how experimental or bizarre his stories are, he places the emotional charge of the story at the heart of his writing, and it shows. He also places his trust in the story, allows it to lead, to create the structure, and I think time has shown that this works too.
As far as this collection goes, it lived up to my high expectations, delivering wit, insight, thoughtfulness, inventiveness and emotional punch. It also felt like it was drawing together a number of themes from the past in a way that felt satisfying, and even a little novelistic. In terms of how we deal with our human “general intention,” as the collection moves on, some hope is increasingly offered through the realm beyond ego, beyond time, even. The way out for the damaged and damaging widow, Alma, in “Mother’s Day” is found in the afterlife, through the death of all the ties that bind her to herself; something that is obviously not possible in our day to day existence. Yet, on we go, nevertheless, trying to find a way, and observing how we struggle with this through George Saunders’ fiction has been fascinating. Final words to the obsessed, jealous and finally repentant narrator of the final story, “My House”:
“The surge of pride and life and self is still too strong in me.
But I will get there. I will. I will write it yet.
Only I must not wait too long.”
By George Saunders
Bloomsbury, 256 pages
As a graduate of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Katy Carr went on to work in the literature sector for over fifteen years, writing many articles about writers and writing in that time. Her novel, Under, was completed in 2018 and was long-listed for the Daniel Goldsmith First Novel Prize. She graduated from the Masters in Creative Writing by Distance Learning at Lancaster University with an Outstanding Distinction in October 2020, with a prize for the highest overall mark for a student taking a creative writing course. In January 2021 she was awarded an Arts Council DYCP grant towards developing her novel-in-progress, Back to the River.