Pastoralia by George Saunders

★★★★★ (5/5)

Terrifically insane, wildly amusing, profoundly beautiful. What an array of short stories this one is. My third book by the maestro George Saunders just proves the ingenuity and brilliance of his maddening brain. Where else can one find consumerism echoed in primitive caves? And severed human connections and human strife intertwined with zombies? And loneliness which cuts through one’s existence perennially? And that one decisive moment which either ends in life or death?

In all its brittle, brutal glory, Saunders gives a voice to those who live on the fringes of humanity, beings who pass in and out of worldly moments. As readers we end up with empathy, with contempt, with disgust and love for the characters as they trudge down the path. As one critic put it correctly: Pastoralia is ‘like a literary take on American Beauty’.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Pastoralia

★★★★ (4/5)

  • And also, and yet, I thank you guys, who were my precursors, right? Is that the spirit? Is that your point? You weren’t ignorant on purpose? You were doing the best you could? Just like I am?
  • Who puts the cash in your hand to buy that food in your face? We do. What do we want of you? We want you to tell the truth. That’s it. That is all.
  • And why? Is it greed? Don’t make us laugh. It is not. If we make money, we can grow, if we can grow, we can expand, if we can expand, we can continue to employ you, but if we shrink, if we shrink or stay the same, woe to you, we would not be vital. And so help us help you, by not whining about your Disposal Debit, and if you don’t like how much it costs, try eating less
  • Truth is that thing which makes what we want to happen happen.
  • Truth is that thing which empowers us to do even better than we are already doing, which by the way is fine, we are doing fine, truth is the wind in our sails that blows only for us

Winky

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • “Hey, You, come on over!” shouted a girl across the stage, labeled “Inner Peace.” “I bet you’ve been looking for me your whole life!”
  • Vicki had a face that looked as if it had been smashed against a steering wheel in a crash and then carefully reworked until it somewhat resembled her previous face. Several parallel curved indentations ran from temple to chin
  • The world was a story Christ was telling her
  • The hood said what he said because one look at Dad told him he could. Dad, with his hunched shoulders and his constant blinking, just took Ma’s arm and mumbled to the hood that a comment like that did more damage to the insulter than to the insulted, etc. etc. blah blah blah. Then the hood made a sound like a cow, at Ma, and Neil, who was nine, tried to break away and take a swing at the hood but Ma had his hand and wouldn’t turn him loose and secretly he was glad, because he was scared, and then was ashamed at the relief he felt on entering the dark church
  • and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage

Sea Oak

★★★★★ (5/5)

  • What a stressful workplace. The minute your Cute Rating drops you’re a goner. Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker
  • She never got married, because Grandpa needed her to keep house after Grandma died. Then he died and left all his money to a woman none of us had ever heard of, and Aunt Bernie started in at DrugTown. But she’s not bitter. Sometimes she’s so nonbitter it gets on my nerves
  • He does phone polls. This month he’s asking divorced women how often they backslide and sleep with their exes. He gets ten bucks for every completed poll
  • I step over and take a closer look. There are staples where Aunt Bernie’s spine would be. Down at the foot there’s some writing about Folding Tab A into Slot B. “No freaking way,” says Jade. “Work your whole life and end up in a Mayflower box? I doubt it.”
  • Anybody can do anything. But first they gotta try
  • and we watch The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could
  • Grief is good, grief is fine, but too much grief, as we all know, is excessive

The End of Firpo in the World

★★★★ (4/5)

  • and ha ha ha that had been a laugh, that had been so funny he had almost gone around one two three four and smashed their cranial cavities with his off-brand gym shoes
  • And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special
  • and as the white car struck him the boy and the bike flew together in a high comic arc across the street and struck the oak on the opposite side with such violence that the bike wrapped around the tree and the boy flew back into the street.

The Barber’s Unhappiness

★★★★★ (5/5)

  • He nearly got tears in his eyes thinking of how she’d get tears in her eyes as he went down on one knee to pop the question
  • “They decided to speed is what you did,” said the instructor sadly, with pity for both the armless child and the otherwise good people who on that fateful day had decided to speed, and now sat before him, lives ruined.
  • and the slightly shamed look on her face made him forgive her completely for the disgusting thing she’d been about to do out of her deep deep love for him
  • Facially she was very possibly the prettiest girl here. Was she?
  • As he looked at Sylvia standing in that bright sunlit meadow in the picture, her head thrown back, joyfully laughing, her crow’s-feet so very pronounced, a spontaneous image had sprung into his mind of her coming wide-hipped toward him while holding a baby, and suddenly he’d been deeply disappointed in himself for doing it with someone so unusual looking, and to ensure that he didn’t make matters worse by inadvertently doing it with her a second time, he’d sort of never called her again, and had even switched banks
  • and she’d said she thought she loved him, which was nice, except wow she was tall. You could only hold hands with her for so long before your back started to hurt. He remembered his back sort of hurting in the mist
  • Did she notice how neat the shop was? How professional? Or did she notice that four of the chairs were of one type and the fifth was totally different?

The Falls

★★★★ (4/5)

  • So humility was the thing, he thought, arranging his face into what he thought would pass for the expression of a man thinking fondly of his own youth, a face devoid of wackiness or perversion, humility was the thing.
  • Cummings bobbed past the restored gristmill, pleased at having so decisively snubbed Morse, a smug member of the power elite in this conspiratorial Village, one of the league of oppressive oppressors who wouldn’t know the lot of the struggling artist if the lot of the struggling artist came up with great and beleaguered dignity and bit him on the polyester ass
  • Time made wastrels of us all, did it not, with its gaunt cheeks and its tombly reverberations and its admonishing glances with bony fingers
  • Boy oh boy, could life be a torture. Could life ever force a fellow into a strange, dark place from which he found himself doing graceless, unforgivable things like casting aspersions on his beloved firstborn
  • This was certainly not positive thinking. This was certainly an example of predestining failure via negativity
  • He was bad, that was for sure. There wasn’t an earnest bone in his body. Other people were simpler and looked at the world with clearer eyes, but he was self-absorbed and insincere and mucked everything up, and he hoped this wasn’t one more thing he was destined to muck up

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