Language Is a Virus: An Interview With George Saunders

America's best short story writer returns with a new collection

Author George Saunders

Author George Saunders

A few weeks back, the author George Saunders, who is blond, with the shaggy beard of someone who has better things to think about than his appearance, was sitting in a Murray Hill hotel with The Observer, playing Jishaku, a Japanese strategy game involving magnets. Several rounds in, he abruptly announced that he would have to stop playing. He was “too competitive,” he said, and couldn’t “concentrate on winning and talking” at the same time.

Putting down his magnets, he launched into an explanation of his parodic use of idiomatic language in his fiction.

The concept had gestated during his years as a geophysical engineer and technical writer for Radian International, an environmental engineering company. There was a lot of on-the-job jargon.

“I got the idea that technical language isn’t necessarily nonpoetic language,” said Mr. Saunders, 54, whose sixth book, the story collection Tenth of December, came out last week from Random House. Eventually, he left Radian to pursue an M.A. in creative writing at Syracuse University. “I’d understand it,” he said of his Radian-speak (though he could have also been telling of his fiction), “but to the outside world it would sound like this nonsense language.”

Nearly every piece of fiction Mr. Saunders has written—in his collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation and the novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil—exists in its own self-contained world. The elements of his dystopic landscapes have aged well. The Verisimilitude Inspector, from CivilWarLand still feels wonderfully original. And the Chill ’n’ Pray cooler—it projects a hologram of saints as it cools your beverage—from the story “The 400-pound CEO” will doubtless endure.

These images tell us about as much about Mr. Saunders’s characters as the characters themselves. With their ICANSPEAK!™ baby masks and carnival-barker lingo, his antiheroes describe their lives in a self-reflexive doublespeak, which turns reading into a game of context-Clue. Then there’s Mr. Saunders’s fondness for manipulating syntax, in which he plays quite dirty indeed. The longest story in the new collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” is narrated through journal entries by a hapless family man, which contain virtually no articles. The style is based on extreme shorthand from Mr. Saunders’s own former journals. Hard to read? Yes, but it’s even more difficult to write.

“You’re taking kind of a gamble with that tactic,” Mr. Saunders said. “If you get it, it brings us that much closer as reader and writer. We are kind of in a simulation of a relationship, and I’m trying to be respectful and intimate. So the more I suggest intuitively, the more you’re going to bond with me, if I do it correctly. I use a lot of omission, a lot of implication.”

That relationship with the reader is paramount. “I don’t care about the thematics, or the characters, the syntax, or the intellectual content. But I have a sense when writing of a reader that is out there, and I really want them to get me. I want them to feel respected. Those other parts are all secondary characteristics to the larger end: to try to get the reader to take notice and feel respected by the writer in some deep way. To feel that we are in a relationship.”

And so Mr. Saunders works slowly. By his count, he writes two stories a year.

Talking about his path from geophysical engineer to MacArthur Fellow, he came across as lucky. Not everyone has had the benefit of growing up in a Chicago suburb as a Reagan-supporting, Ayn Rand-reading Objectivist, or of experiencing a revelation while working in a Sumatra oil field, as he did on an exploration with a geophysics crew.

Most protagonists in a Saunders story are what Regina Marler once described in this paper as “a sad sack with a humiliating job (often involving a costume), a hot-to-trot wife, a sick child and the threat of a pink slip looming.” In Murray Hill, Mr. Saunders described those characters as stand-ins for himself “on a slightly worse day.”

Tenth of December can feel at times like a collection of slightly different drafts of earlier work. In the new story “Escape From Spiderhead,” the protagonist, Jeff, is a teenager kept in a corporate lab/facility where he is perpetually stoned on drips of synthetic drugs like BlissTime™ and Verbalace. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the titular character in “Jon” from the earlier collection In Persuasion Nation (he also appears in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) is a teenager kept in a corporate lab/facility where he is perpetually stoned on a drip of synthetic drugs like Aurabon©.

In contrast, Mr. Saunders’s journalistic work is wide-ranging and invariably out of left field. His essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone, published in 2007, has subjects ranging from Esther Forbes to Huck Finn. Since that book, though, he has more or less given up journalism, which is probably for the best. He doesn’t like the part where you get in trouble or people yell at you. It makes him feel like a bad person.

In a piece included in The Braindead Megaphone, Mr. Saunders writes about a religious leader who had once been a pimp. He had stabbed a man’s eye out, but turned his life around. He was a good guy with a nice wife, kids and a respectable home, and also, now, Jesus. Mr. Saunders thought: what a great story. But when he called the pastor to fact-check, the reformed criminal begged him not to include any gory details.

“He knew he had been on record, but said that he had forgotten, that he had gotten carried away,” Mr. Saunders said. “He was like, ‘You can’t print this, my family will read this, it will ruin my life.’” So Mr. Saunders cut out that part of the history. “I know that I could have included it … that ethically, I should have. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I would have regretted it.”

“I think I can tell my truth much better in fiction,” he added. “There aren’t those moral or ethical issues.”
Morality is a tricky subject in his stories. The defining trait of his protagonists is a total lack of self-awareness. They stumble onto the profound as if it were a banana peel. He pointed to the Chekhov quote, “Art doesn’t solve problems, it only formulates them correctly.”

The notion that art should be truthful rather than corrective became particularly important when, in the late ’90s, Ben Stiller’s film production company bought the rights to CivilWarLand. Mr. Saunders wrote a script—but it never saw light of day. In a recent New Yorker article about Mr. Stiller, Mr. Saunders said, “I would have absolutely sold out to get the movie made—added a car chase, a puppy cluster, whatever—and Ben always insisted on returning to the darkest, oldest version of the story.”

In Murray Hill, he said he had been “being facetious. I would have changed the story, but only to do service to the film’s reality.”

For Mr. Stiller, Mr. Saunders only had the highest praise. “Ben taught me that movies are not about purple or beautiful language,” he said. “It’s about structures.”

Speaking of which, he would like to try his hand at a novel. But the “trying” part is complicated. “I found from bitter experiences that if I decide to do something and do it, the thing doesn’t agree to be done. But if I wait, if I’m patient …”