Reviews of Recent Fiction and Nonfiction
Pastoralia: Storiesby George Saunders
Riverhead Books, 224 pp., $22.95
A Dr. Robert Provine published a study on laughter in the January 1996 American Scientist that threw important light on the enigmas of risibology (the science of what is risible). For one thing, he tracked down the essence of laughter. A laugh, he usefully defined, "is characterized by a series of short vowel-like notes (syllables), each about 75 milliseconds long, that are repeated at regular intervals about 210 milliseconds apart." Once he got that straightened out, he went right to the tough question of why we laugh. He came to some important conclusions: "Contrary to our expectations we found that most conversational laughter is not a response to structured attempts at humor, such as jokes or stories. Less than 20 percent of the laughter in our sample was a response to anything resembling a formal effort at humor. Most of the laughter seemed to follow rather banal remarks, such as 'Look, it's Andre,' 'Are you sure?' and 'It was nice meeting you too.' Even our 'greatest hits,' the funniest of the 1,200 pre-laugh comments, were not necessarily howlers: 'You don't have to drink, just buy us drinks,' 'She's got a sex disorder -- she doesn't like sex,' and 'Do you date within your species?'"
I wonder what the good doctor would say about George Saunders' Pastoralia. Like Flannery O'Connor and Nathanael West, Saunders knows that you can mine the banal for humor. The darkest and most deviant (and, let's face it, most pathetic) plots of the greedy human heart are hatched on the "Look, it's Andre" level, which is where they are also usually crossed. Perhaps this is where the good doctor went wrong -- it isn't the structured attempt at humor that is funny, it is the destruction of the attempt at structure of almost any kind, which is funny.
So, here, from Saunders' "The Barber's Unhappiness." The barber in question is in his late 40s, single, and lives with his mother. On the night his mother has her friends over, he decides to go out drinking with some friends:
As he came in they began asking Ma where he had been, why was he out so late, why hadn't he been here to help, wasn't he normally a fairly good son? And Ma said yes, he was normally a fairly good son, except he hadn't given her any grandkids yet and often wasted water by bathing twice a day.
"My son had that problem," said one of the blue crones. "His wife once pulled me aside."
"Has his wife ever pulled you aside?" the pink crone said to Ma.
"He's not married," said Ma.
"Maybe the not-married is related to the bathing-too-often," said the lime crone.
"Maybe he holds himself aloof from others," said the blue crone. "My son held himself aloof from others."
Alas, risibology is not yet advanced to the point where it can explain why, in particular, the lime crone's remark operates as the catalyst which, by picking up the absurd conjunction between babies and bathing in Ma's remarks, transforms this passage from funny to very funny. It also doesn't tell us why the quasi-indirect speech in the first paragraph, muddily mixing voices, brings into relief the attributed quotations in the succeeding dialogue, in much the same way the darkness in the background of a Caravaggio painting makes the golden shaft of light that floods its selected foreground scene (those beheadings, crucifixions, and annunciations) somehow sacred, as though this was God's perspective on the scene.
There are six stories in this collection. Four of them are very good, and the other two are at least good -- a success average that is highly unusual for a short-story collection. If, like your humble reviewer, you had to regularly review short-story collections, you would soon discover that they almost always suck -- tinseling suburban dullness with some distant derivative of the Joycean epiphany until you want to scream: Basta! That Saunders stories are on such a high level is close to miraculous.
"Winky" is an anecdote about the disastrous cohabitation of a weak-willed brother and his balding, half-deranged sister which seems like it was extracted from some apocryphal letter to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. "The Barber's Unhappiness" shows Saunders' sense for Walter Mitty-like male fantasy -- except that Saunders is much more clearheaded about the price women have to pay in a relationship for the compensatory fantasies of declining men. "Pastoralia" is an utterly wonderful story, set in a re-enactment theme park. From the very beginning, the narrator has completely absorbed the passive/aggressive babble of therapy: He is "thinking positive/saying positive." His partner, Janet, is definitely not thinking positive/saying positive. She keeps violating the rules. The question is whether the narrator, who has to fax in answers to headquarters on his Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form, will rat her out. "Sea Oak" is narrated by Troy, who strips for tipsy parties of secretaries at Joysticks, a rip-off of Chippendales. The rule there is you can't show your penis. He and his Aunt Bernice, who works as a greeter at "Drugtown," support his sister Min, cousin Jade, and their two kids in their rent-subsidized apartment complex. Then Bernice dies. A household intruder gives her a heart attack. She's buried. And then, horribly enough, she comes back, a reeking corpse sitting in a chair, plotting out a successful afterlife as she loses various body parts.
But enough of the plot recaps! -- let's just say, using Doctor Provine's terminology, that the harmonic structure of my sonic response to this book would be imaged, by the sound spectrogram, as an evenly spaced stack of short horizontal lines, with a fundamental frequency of about 260 hertz. In other words, I laughed my ass off.