George Saunders Makes Me Brave

I read Saunders’ new story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” in The New Yorker over holiday break. I don’t subscribe to TNY, not because of the allegations of misogyny, but because I don’t always enjoy the fiction they choose. I also never get the cartoons. I don’t care what anyone says, they just aren’t funny. Luckily, you can read this story online for free and you don’t have to see any cartoons if you don’t want to.

Saunders floors me every time because he’s so good at writing the “idiot hero.” Jeff, the hero in this story, is not very smart. Same with Jon in “Jon,” who can barely put a coherent sentence together. And perhaps lowest on the IQ scale is one of the protagonists in “In Persuasion Nation,” a piece of wrapper from a “Slap-of-Wack bar.” But despite the limitations of his point of view characters, Saunders manipulates even the simplest language to produce intensely heart-breaking results.

Exhibit A from “Jon”:

And she said, Oh, Jon, you break my heart, that night when you came to my Tarp you were like a lion taking what he wanted but now you are like some bunny wiffling his nose in fright.

And I was pissed and sad, because no dude likes to think of himself as a rabbit, because once your girl thinks of you as a rabbit, how will she ever again think of you as a lion? And all of the sudden I felt very much like starting over with someone who would always think of me as a lion and never as a rabbit, and who really got it about how lucky we were.

“Escape from Spiderhead” is very similar to “Jon.” In both stories, a confused, not-so-bright kid is being taken advantage of by “the man” in a social-sci-fi world. And in both, he manages to figure out more than he should and ultimately do the right thing. Sounds formulaic but, man, these stories make my heart hurt.

Saunders is the writer that made me realize that while you should hear everything that gets said in a workshop, you can only implement about 12% of it, at most. While I was reading “Escape from Spiderhead,” I couldn’t help thinking what the likely response would be in a workshop. This opening alienates me, it should start on page five, the beginning is too repetitive, I need to hear more about how these machines work, give us the backstory earlier—and I can only imagine what the manuscript notes would look like.

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