Quirky Narrators and Occasional Irrealism in George Saunders’ Tenth of December

[posted by Alice]

At the Café Irreal we often receive stories which the author considers to be irreal because they feature a strange or unexpected narrative style. Sometimes the narrator of these stories uses unusual language or the narrator may have a psychiatric problem or is delusional because of illness. But the story itself depicts events that can actually be explained by the narrator’s mental or physical state (or unusual manner of speaking). To us these stories, though they might be entertaining and well written, are not irreal at all — we want to see reality itself, not an individual’s consciousness, being undermined in some way.

As I read George Saunders’ most recent short story collection, Tenth of December, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every story in the collection features a first person or third person subjective narrative style. In most cases the narrator also uses odd colloquial language and may also be mentally or physically impaired. Many writers in the United States — from Mark Twain onward — have shown a strong preference for quirky and colloquial narration. Examples would include Alice Walker in The Color Purple and J. D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye. Like both Walker and Salinger, Saunders crafts memorable narrators and often makes serious points about the nature of our society, how it is going awry, and how social problems affect the lives of ordinary people. But even when he is writing stories that could clearly be called science fiction, Saunders’ stories are not particularly irreal.

Tenth of December gives us quite a range of quirky narrators, and Saunders uses their narrative quirks to show us, in the space of a short story, what their lives are like and how they relate to others. In “Puppy” we feel a sense of revulsion toward both the woman taking her children to look at a puppy and the woman whose puppy is at the center of the story. We see into these women’s lives, know their thoughts, and are given their rationalizations even as they do ugly things. This is not always pleasant, but despite an odd incident in the puppy owner’s yard, the story is not irreal. In the science-fiction-inspired “Escape from the Spiderhead” we come to see the narrator from a more sympathetic point of view, despite what we know to be true about him. This story takes Stanley Milgram’s experiments to a new level, as managers psyche themselves and others up to do unspeakable things. (Milgram’s 1965 study on obedient behavior saw “teachers” giving electrical shocks to “learners” despite the pain the learners seemed to endure.) But though the setting of this story is near future and the narrator’s language and explanations are constantly altered by the administration of drugs, the story is sadly plausible and again is not irreal.

In my opinion the only story in the collection that has a truly irreal aspect is “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” This is not because of the narrative style, which reminds me of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books, nor because of the near future or alternative universe setting in which most things are very much like our own world. It is instead because of the existence of an irreal phenomenon that is never fully explained, in much the same way that Kafka never tells us why Gregor Samsa turns into a very large insect. In this story the narrator is a father trying to keep a daily diary for benefit of future readers (a nice device that lets the reader know why he explains things so completely) and worrying that his family is not able to enjoy a high enough standard of living. He describes his life in a frequently annoying yet likeable way and says, for example, that he doesn’t like rich people because they make poor people feel “dopey and inadequate,” but he also wants what rich people have. We know that he is not well off — his bumper falls off at the beginning of the story, he says that people at work only ever see him wearing a a blue shirt or a yellow shirt, and his credit cards are nearly maxed out. When he comes into a small windfall in the form of a $10,000 “Scratch-Off win,” he consults with his wife and they decide to upgrade their landscaping so their daughter can have a birthday party at home and feel comfortable inviting her better-off friends to her house. The investment works well, the party is a success, but one of the upgrades the family has made — the installation of four SGs — upsets the family’s other daughter, a sensitive girl who worries about the pain and suffering SGs might experience.

We don’t learn very much about these SGs (Semplica Girls), but we are told that they are women from economically and politically challenged societies. They are brought to people’s homes by a landscaping company that also sees to their physical needs while they are engaged in the service they are being paid to perform. This involves dressing in white smocks and being hoisted into the air, attached to each other by “microfilament” that joins them brain-to-brain, so that they float above people’s backyards. And because of interviews done by one of the daughters, we even learn some “fun facts” about the narrator’s SGs, including their names and that they hail from the Philippines, Somalia, Moldava, and Laos. But I think that this odd notion of the SGs, which is at the heart of an otherwise only slightly nonrealistic story, has more depth and resonance than the illustration at the New Yorker site implies when it shows the white skirt hems of four brown-skinned women float-flying above a koi pond. Nor do I think it is accurate to describe them as “third-world women strung up as bourgeois lawn ornaments” as Gregory Cowles did in his February 1, 2013 review of Tenth of December in the New York Times. I think that the SGs are truly an irreal notion, every bit as much as Gregor Samsa waking up to find he’s been turned into a very large insect. The idea that young, mostly dark-skinned and dark-haired women would be hung so thoughtlessly in people’s backyards calls to mind the wide range of suffering inflicted on dark-skinned people, such as lynching and the mistreatment of undocumented workers. The surgeries they must undergo also call to mind the surgeries women endure to participate in the sex trade (breast enhancement, etc.). SGs wear white, float above the ground and are often described as singing, bringing to mind an image of angels; yet, several times in the story we see a tethered dog suffer at the end of its chain so we can also see SGs in terms of the sad life of a yard dog. In many ways the SGs point to an unknown meaning, even as they also more obviously show us the irrational spending that fads can induce and the suffering of deprived and impoverished humans in our world. And finally, as the diary ends abruptly, we are also left feeling that the fate of the SGs will affect the lives of the narrator’s family who are running the race to the bottom themselves, their two daughters perhaps more vulnerable than they know. The irreal plight of the SGs is inexplicable yet surprisingly meaningful.

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An Irrealist Perspective on God Help the Child

[posted by Alice]

Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, was published in April of this year. Though Morrison has chosen an uncharacteristically modern setting for the work, God Help the Child treats themes familiar to readers of her other novels. In particular it focuses on the notion that, “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” These are the words of Sweetness, mother of Bride, the beautiful young woman at the novel’s core. And though the book is about a mother’s failures in the care of her children, it is also about the failures of our society to provide children and their families the support they need – and the ways that racism worsens those failures.

John Gardner said that in all of the forms of non-realistic literature authors tend to translate “details of psychological reality into physical reality,” as happens in our dreams. And though Toni Morrison creates realistic stories with believable characters as she depicts African-American life in the United States, she sometimes brings one or more nonrealistic elements to bear as the story unfolds.

In God Help the Child a nonrealistic trend develops after Bride’s lover Booker misunderstands something she plans to do and walks out on her, saying “You not the woman…” This half-uttered statement, unclear in its implications, not only sets in motion Bride’s journey to the small town of Whiskey in search of Booker, it also seems to trigger her transformation from an exceptionally beautiful mature woman to a prepubescent child. Booker impugns Bride’s womanhood and leaves her without another word of explanation, after which she begins to lose her most womanly attributes, thereby becoming more like the child who experienced the events Booker fails to understand in the first place. And what Bride hasn’t told him is that, in order to win her mother’s approval, when she was a little girl she testified in court that a teacher had sexually molested other children, something she knew to be false.

Earlier in the novel Bride’s mother Sweetness describes her young daughter as “so black she scared me” and herself as “light-skinned, with good hair.” Bride’s dark skin was taken as a sign of Sweetness’ infidelity by Bride’s biological father, who left the family shortly after she was born. Sweetness also says, “Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.” Sweetness’ negative view of Bride leads her to be a cold and demanding mother who only gives her daughter affection and approval after Bride testifies in court according to Sweetness’ expectations and sends an innocent woman to jail.

To her mother’s surprise, Bride grows up to become a successful businesswoman (with her own cosmetics line, YOU, GIRL), and she is able to use her striking looks to her advantage. But when the woman she falsely accused is released from prison, Bride tries to make amends and is beaten up for her trouble. When Booker, confused about why she would try to make up with a child molester, reacts in the way that he does, Bride begins to experience physical regression to childhood. Her pubic hair disappears, the piercings in her ears close up, she loses her womanly curves, and Bride’s panic and despair as her physical allure is undermined provides at least some of the energy that helps her to come to terms with her past.

Of all Morrison’s novels, God Help the Child reminds me most of Sula, which takes place in an earlier era, mostly prior to World War II. Sula also deals with the hurtful ways parents fail their children, and it contains a scattering of events that seem to represent psychological realities translated into physical ones. As a result the novel shifts between realistic depictions of people’s lives and irreal events that undermine reality. These less realistic aspects include the scene in which Sula slings a child into the lake and leaves him to drown, as well as the presence of a trio of motherless boys named dewey who, despite their differences in appearance and family origin, all answer to the same name and become indistinguishable from one another. A major way in which Sula differs from God Help the Child, however, is in its treatment of community. In Sula the people who live in the African-American section of Medallion, known as the Bottom, are able to function as a community, albeit a sometimes claustrophobic one, whereas God Help the Child implies that our narcissistic individualized contemporary world tends to undermine all human relationships.

Shortly after God Help the Child was released, Toni Morrison gave a reading at the 92nd St. Y in New York. During a discussion about a turn toward the self in the 21st century and how it affects personal development, Morrison says, “And one of the ways you get to be a whole person is you stop thinking about your little self. Am I pretty? Am I not pretty? … And start doing something serious for somebody else.” Though some movement toward community takes place in God Help the Child as Bride tries to understand what happened to her and begins to help others — including another abused child named Rain and Booker’s elderly aunt, Queen — the novel uses the stunting of Bride’s developed womanhood to show how hard developing as a whole human can truly be – especially when family and community fail us.