8.02.2005

"CommComm" by George Saunders

New Yorker fiction -- August 1, 2005 issue

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Following is a reconstructed version of the original post. Comments may reflect the fact that the post disappeared for a while. Many thanks to Antoine Wilson for dredging this up from Bloglines.

When I flipped to the contents page of this week's New Yorker and saw George Saunders's name, I literally rubbed my hands with glee. I may have even said, "Mwa-ha-ha." And he did not disappoint -- although I have to admit on first read I put it down for a while without finishing the first page, put off by his addiction to creating acronyms. We get three in the first paragraph and a half. But a few hours later, after two Advil, I forgave him and thoroughly enjoyed the piece.

Mr. Saunders has picked up the wild-assed comic surrealism mantle from Donald Barthelme. And both Barthelme and Saunders mastered the prevalent colloquial language to the point where you just have to admire the sheer flow of economic authenticity. They must be consummate eavesdroppers. Even a throwaway sentence like "Which I know is dumb, but still" in this story has to be admired. It seems effortless, but it must be the result of extreme dedication to listening.

Saunders's worlds are funky dystopian places about thirteen degrees to the left of ours. "CommComm" (Community Communications) presents a perfect Saunders canvas on which to paint his weird visions: A military PR unit. It's the narrator's job to explain military base happenings to the media and the public, through the never spelled out "PIDS" -- which I came to think of as Public Information/Disinformation Sessions.

A hallmark of his unique writing is that Saunders can't stop himself from creating outlandish and apparently irrelevant details, such as "frozen ministeaks called SmallCows."
You microwave them or pull out their ThermoTab. When you pull the ThermoTab, something chemical happens and the SmallCows heat up. I microwave. Unfortunately, the ThermoTab erupts and when I take the SmallCows out they're coated with a green, fibrous liquid. So I make ramen.
What is the tone of that? Comic, certainly, for the reader. And of course it's a comment on out-of-control consumerism. But how does the narrator feel about this? I guess he's just in it, reporting to the reader. It's a fine line Saunders walks with stuff like this, a kind of incidental deadpan trivial creativity that I wouldn't have the patience for with too many writers. He went crazy with this kind of thing back in March, in the "Brad Carrigan, American" story in Harper's. That story didn't work for me. Here, he keeps these to a minimum, to great effect. It's a spice, not a main course.

Another thing is if he's going to invent zany acronyms, I think he should stick with them, fill them out. In this story we get DST -- Designated Substitute Thoughtstream (alternative thought patterns one is supposed to invoke when confonted with "sadness-inducing events"). We are told this in column 2, but then it never comes back in the rest of the story, and not for lack of sadness-inducing events. Like I said, he walks a fine line, and this example is one of his few missteps here. In fairness, he does keep it up with the self-help tapes the narrator often consults.

But the story: the narrator has a home story and a work story going on that merge in the end. The home story is his parents and "the night of the Latvians." The work story involves the closing of the base, a dorky religious coworker named Giff, and a cynical guy named Rimney, whose wife has had a stroke. We spend more time on the work story, in which a foul smell is detected in the office, and it turns out Rimney has unearthed a couple of corpses and put them in the closet while he figures out what to do. If corpses are found, it would threaten the Dirksen Center for Terror, "the town's great hope," which is currently in the excavation stage. People on this base that is closing want to get jobs at Dirksen. And Rimney bribes the narrator to help him hide the bodies by promising a job at Dirksen.
I do an Actual Harm Analysis. Who would a reburial hurt? The mummy guys? They're past hurt. Who would it help? Rimney, Val Rimney, all future Dirksen employees. Me. Mom, Dad.
Of course, Giff catches on, and this fuels Rimneys rage. I don't want to give away the ending, in case you haven't read it yet, because there are a few elements of surprise in store that make the story more than worthwhile.

What is up with Saunders and old corpses? See "Brad Carrigan." And the paleofascination of "Pastoralia." There is an anthropological bent to his stuff, a pointing out of the Old Ways. I can only speculate that it is related to his devastating critique of current culture. Like he's saying, "We are way more ridiculous than you even fear we are, but we weren't always, and contrasting them serves my point."

Making fun of a religious loony is one of the easiest things to do in writing -- Saunders jujitsus his way out of that most admirably in the end. The ending in fact is superwacky. Too superwacky? I don't think so. Impossible as it seems with something so self-consciously soaking in irony and gallows humor, I was touched by the ending. It's unexpected, out there, and well executed, in this reviewer's opinion. A broad and triumphant redemption is about the last thing I was looking for amid all the hypercynicism. Makes for a nice combo.

The story is no "Jon," as Gillymonster pointed out on his and T-Bone's bitchin' porch this weekend, but it puts Saunders back on the odd pedestal I have reserved for him.

7 comments:

kclou said...

Grendel, I read your original review, and it was very fine.

bihari said...

Oh! My sympathies! This happened to me recently too. I had just gotten down a whole lot of complicated sentiments into a Pulitzer-Prize-winning blog entry and whoosh, they vanished into the demon maw of cyberspace.

To whom should we be burning incense to prevent this sort of thing?

Grendel said...

Thanks, kclou. I wrote that at the Sanctuary, having noticed their sign promising free wireless. I sat by the candle fireplace, with a big beer, the place to myself. So I got more pleasure out of that one than the others, anyway.

bihari, I'm so sorry you have shared in this type of tragedy. I suppose, though, you get what you pay for -- in these cases, Blogger costing nothing, we actually for once got our money's worth.

I used to think burning incense was to attract spirits, but my most recent reading claims that it's the ritual that attracts the spirits, because they are vain and crave worship and admiration. The incense is burned because they can't stand the smell of humans and must have it covered up in order to stand our presence for any length of time. Snotty spirits! (Just kidding, heh heh... gulp.)

Antoine said...

I tend to check this blog via bloglines...and the review was still there, archived, I guess. Here it is again, Lazarus-style:

When I flipped to the contents page of this week's New Yorker and saw George Saunders's name, I literally rubbed my hands with glee. I may have even said, "Mwa-ha-ha." And he did not disappoint -- although I have to admit on first read I put it down for a while without finishing the first page, put off by his addiction to creating acronyms. We get three in the first paragraph and a half. But a few hours later, after two Advil, I forgave him and thoroughly enjoyed the piece.

Mr. Saunders has picked up the wild-assed comic surrealism mantle from Donald Barthelme. And both Barthelme and Saunders mastered the prevalent colloquial language to the point where you just have to admire the sheer flow of economic authenticity. They must be consummate eavesdroppers. Even a throwaway sentence like "Which I know is dumb, but still" in this story has to be admired. It seems effortless, but it must be the result of extreme dedication to listening.

Saunders's worlds are funky dystopian places about thirteen degrees to the left of ours. "CommComm" (Community Communications) presents a perfect Saunders canvas on which to paint his weird visions: A military PR unit. It's the narrator's job to explain military base happenings to the media and the public, through the never spelled out "PIDS" -- which I came to think of as Public Information/Disinformation Sessions.

A hallmark of his unique writing is that Saunders can't stop himself from creating outlandish and apparently irrelevant details, such as "frozen ministeaks called SmallCows."
You microwave them or pull out their ThermoTab. When you pull the ThermoTab, something chemical happens and the SmallCows heat up. I microwave. Unfortunately, the ThermoTab erupts and when I take the SmallCows out they're coated with a green, fibrous liquid. So I make ramen.
What is the tone of that? Comic, certainly, for the reader. And of course it's a comment on out-of-control consumerism. But how does the narrator feel about this? I guess he's just in it, reporting to the reader. It's a fine line Saunders walks with stuff like this, a kind of incidental deadpan trivial creativity that I wouldn't have the patience for with too many writers. He went crazy with this kind of thing back in March, in the "Brad Carrigan, American" story in Harper's. That story didn't work for me. Here, he keeps these to a minimum, to great effect. It's a spice, not a main course.

Another thing is if he's going to invent zany acronyms, I think he should stick with them, fill them out. In this story we get DST -- Designated ThoughtStream (alternative thought patterns one is supposed to invoke when confonted with "sadness-inducing events"). We are told this in column 2, but then it never comes back in the rest of the story, and not for lack of sadness-inducing events. Like I said, he walks a fine line, and this example is one of his few missteps here. In fairness, he does keep it up with the self-help tapes the narrator often consults.

But the story: the narrator has a home story and a work story going on that merge in the end. The home story is his parents and "the night of the Latvians." The work story involves the closing of the base, a dorky religious coworker named Giff, and a cynical guy named Rimney, whose wife has had a stroke. We spend more time on the work story, in which a foul smell is detected in the office, and it turns out Rimney has unearthed a couple of corpses and put them in the closet while he figures out what to do. If corpses are found, it would threaten the Dirksen Center for Terror, "the town's great hope," which is currently in the excavation stage. People on this base that is closing want to get jobs at Dirksen. And Rimney bribes the narrator to help him hide the bodies by promising a job at Dirksen.
I do an Actual Harm Analysis. Who would a reburial hurt? The mummy guys? They're past hurt. Who would it help? Rimney, Val Rimney, all future Dirksen emplyees. Me. Mom, Dad.
Of course, Giff catches on, and this fuels Rimneys rage. I don't want to give away the ending, in case you haven't read it yet, because there are a few elements of surprise in store that make the story more than worthwhile.

What is up with Saunders and old corpses? See "Brad Carrigan." And see the paleofascination of "Pastoralia." There is an anthropological bent to his stuff, a pointing out of the Old Ways. I can only speculate that it is related to his devastating critique of current culture. Like he's saying, "We are way more ridiculous than you even fear we are, but we weren't always, and contrasting them serves my point."

Making fun of a religious loony is one of the easiest things to do in writing -- Saunders jujitsus his way out of that most admirably in the end. The ending in fact is superwacky. Too superwacky? I don't think so. Impossible as it seems with something so self-consciously soaking in irony and gallows humor, I was touched by the ending. It's unexpected, out there, and well executed, in this reviewer's opinion. A broad and triumphant redemption is about the last thing I was looking for amid all the hypercynicism. Makes for a nice combo.

The story is no "Jon," as Gillymonster pointed out on his and T-Bone's bitchin' porch this weekend, but it puts Saunders back on the odd pedestal I have reserved for him.

Patry Francis said...

This story reminded me of the unique pleasures I felt when I read Saunders for the first time--and your review touched on all of them.

I'm glad it wasn't lost.

Brando said...

I really enjoyed the story. I thought he was a little hasty -- for instance, I would have liked to have learned more about the Latvians -- but "CommComm" had the conviction, surrealness, and superb comic timing of his better stories. No one today does comic macabre as well as he does, although Kevin Brockmeier comes close.

SER said...

I just read this, and I definitely liked it, but I feel as though what made me really like it was the ending. Up until then, I felt as if it were sort of a rehash of some of Saunders's faves - ghosts reliving their deaths, the acronyms, imperiled jobs, the general narrative tone, etc. - but the ending really did it for me. It was both inventive and touching and I thought it totally worked.