It is in equal parts darkly funny and deeply troubling
Reviewed in the United States on 19 May 2018
Pastoralia by George Saunders
This book is a riot of language and character and if you read it, you won’t ever forget it. Pastoralia is a collection of six stories: Pastoralia, Winky, Sea Oak, The End of Firpo in the World, The Barber’s Unhappiness, and The Falls. Each has its particular nervous, urgent, pressing voice that takes you into the characters lives, challenges, hopes and fears. It is in equal parts darkly funny and deeply troubling. There are slivers of hope.
Pastoralia made me think of Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South, but on speed. Both focus on specimens of society gone wrong, or simply bumping along the bottom, but with hope still not extinguished. George Saunders’ characters reflect at their sort at 100mph, while Charles Portis’ are more slow-motion car crashes. Both make heroes from the underdog and those (almost) trodden underfoot.
To give you an introduction without spoiling the plot:
Pastoralia is about a man and a woman acting as cavemen/women in a modern zoo, while real world pressures bear down on them from the outside. Imagine that this is your job and your life depended on it;
Winky is a weak little man taking a self-assertion course to deal with a dear challenge in his life;
Sea Oak focuses on a male club stripper trying to drum up funds for his family stuck in misery. Things go wrong, then very very strange;
The End of Firpo in the World is about a boy on a bicycle travelling just as fast in his mind as on his out-of-control bike.
The Barber’s Unhappiness deals with power, love & lust, social perception and critical self-deception, and self-destructive criticism.
The Falls is about watery ends and a little bit of hope, maybe.
These are recounted at super high-speed language, with huge sentences where the reader dances from despair, to hope, to judgement of others, to self-criticism, to self-embellishment, to honour and loyalty, to betrayal, and back. The commas are little stepping stones for readers to jump left, right and on.
So, for writers looking for tools of the craft – look at the voice, the voices of his characters. All of them are so real, they could be alive in grotty parts of your city, fighting to make ends meet, to realise the dreams despite all. Some of the voices might aggress you, render you nervous, but all are worth listening to and learning from.
And, look at George Saunders’ self-asserted freedom of language, allowing himself labyrinthine sentences that sing, grammatical errors that are just right for the voices he shares. When one is a master of language, one can write one’s own rules.
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