Book Review: Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella by George Saunders

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, so I wanted to switch over to some fiction – to get back to my usual pattern, if I could, of alternating fiction and nonfiction in my reading material. I had no specific titles in mind, though, so I conducted an online search for the best short story collections of all time. This title, Pastoralia, came up on several lists.

Compared to another George Saunders collection I read not too long ago, Tenth of December, which as I remember was substantial, Pastoralia is sparse; it comes to less than two hundred pages in this paperback edition with fairly large print. That’s okay; we’ll assess it by its content, not its length.

The first thing that struck me when I picked up the book was the cover. It was completely out of place. It had nothing to do with the contents or themes of the stories. It seemed as if whoever designed it saw the title, and then selected the photo of a deer with forested hills in the background without realizing that “Pastoralia,” the title piece, has nothing to do with pastoral landscapes at all. Rather, it is a dark tale of a society with a dysfunctional economy in which the protagonist has to hire himself out as an actor playing a caveman in an amusement park exhibit in order to support his family. I really wondered about that cover: was someone actually paid to design it, or was it slapped on at the last minute by a person in marketing who had no clue to what the book was about?

Concerning the stories, they’re a mixed batch. “Pastoralia,” the first and longest story in the book, is darkly humorous and because of its absurd premise made me consider that it would not be out of place in a science fiction anthology or magazine. It’s very entertaining, but I thought that Saunders could have made his point even more effectively if he’d trimmed some of the excess and cut it by about a quarter or so of its length.

My favorite story is a dark fantasy, a zombie tale actually, called “Sea Oak.” It’s about a poor extended family living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. After a sweet spinster aunt who’d been living with them dies and is buried, she reappears as a slowly-disintegrating, gross, loud, potty-mouth, pushy zombie who starts ordering them all around. It’s uproariously funny in parts. Another sweet and well-told story is “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” which is about a lonely middle-aged man who can’t help but harshly judge every woman he sees. At a mandatory class for drivers who have received tickets, he meets and finds attractive a woman with a beautiful face but an unshapely body. The barber has to learn to mentally overcome his aversion to her imperfections before he can interact meaningfully with her.

As I mentioned in my review of Tenth of December, Saunders’s strongest stories seem to be those with science fiction or fantasy elements. His recent Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is also a fantasy. And yet somehow he has managed to escape the stigma of being labeled a genre writer. Other writers such as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, even though science fiction and fantasy comprised only a moderate portion of their outputs, never got rid of their genre labels despite their vigorous efforts to do so. I suppose it’s because they started their careers in the pulps, whereas Saunders began in the literary magazines. It’s hard to shake early impressions in the publishing world.

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