Saunders has that rare gift: an incredible sense of humor. He’s one of the few writers I’ve come across that is just continuously funny, not hit or miss from page to page or story to story. In Pastoralia he uses that skill to mass effect. With a joke he casts a line, and with sarcasm and satire lures you in, and finally his stories get weird, serious, or both, but you’re already caught so you hold on and hope the fisherman is a catch-and-release sort of guy.
The title novella and first story of the collection, Pastoralia, was hands down the best novella I’ve ever read. The story which centers around a worker, in a failing theme-park/museum, who must pretend to be a caveman in a sort of live-action museum diorama, fires on all cylinders. It is satirical and hilarious, has an intriguing premise that kept me interested, and every character feels unique (I quite liked the child museum-goer that acts well above his age and disparages his parents—”I want to stab you daddy”). When I finished it I thought there was no way to top it but after I finished the book I thought it was one of the weaker stories in the collection.
I can’t tell you how long it’s been since the last time I laughed out loud at a book and Saunders managed to accomplish that every few pages. There are two characters who stole the show: Tom Rodgers, Seminar founder in the second story Winky—who reminded me of Tom Cruise’s character from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—and Bernie, the undead Aunt from Sea Oak, who finally has a rebellious streak. Together they cemented in my mind the notions of Saunders’ hysterical majesty.
The story The End of FIRPO in the World ranks among the most devastating I’ve ever read and is one I doubt I’ll ever forget. By the time I got to this story I’d happily read 127 pages of satire and light-hearted jokes. As in all good satires the preceding stories were poignant and thought provoking but they didn’t make me want to put the book down and sit in silence. I’m at a loss of what else to say here other than: its only ten pages, go read it.
By the middle of the fifth story, The Barber’s Unhappiness, I started to piece together a picture of Saunders as an author and what he’s concerned with in this collection. This is by no means a complete thought, merely an initial impression, but it seems to me Saunders is concerned, in a grand sense with the ‘American Dream’.
The ‘American Dream’. You know, that outlandish thing that’s become so embedded in our mythos, our story of what it means to be American, that it seems normal? The thing that tells us that being an American means you’ll be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams. That’s the story. You come to America, the land of opportunity, start your own business, and succeed.
But that expectation doesn’t match up with reality. It’s not easy to succeed but we all think we’re one small step away. If only I could do this one thing, get rid of this one thing that’s holding me back… Like the protagonist of Winky who knows without his sister living with him and dragging him down he’d be killing it even though his sole source of income is soldering computer parts for a whopping forty-seven cents a pop. Life unfortunately isn’t that simple.
Pastoralia isn’t great because it’s funny. Its great because Saunders can take the above idea that’s chock full of cynicism, and is kind of a downer, and turn it into something uplifting. His stories give me hope for mankind and his character arcs have meaningful conclusions that showcase the goodness of the human spirit.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Gold Hat’s
Currently reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy and American Gods by Neil Gaiman
On deck: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid