CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

Where is the line between style and affectation? Reading Saunders, all in one chunk, I am at first enjoying a story, then I am seeing patterns. The beat-down man, dehumanized by the system, castrated by the women and men around him, staring down death, or something close to it, becomes an affectation almost immediately after first exposure to his plight, and not a substantial source of insight into humanity.

In any collection of short stories, especially ones by an author whose material trends towards similarity, this is a problem that must be considered before either deciding upon an order, or before the decision to go ahead with a collection happens at all. In this case, I am not convinced these stories work as a cohesive whole. I’m also unconvinced by the mechanics of things inside the story, and the way these mechanics never become more than a tool to beat down one narrator.

In more than one story, the ghost of a young boy, wrongfully or accidentally killed, takes form in the story as a ghost and haunts the narrator. There is no deviation, and no illumination of a larger world for the dead child. At first, the matter-of-fact existence of the ghost child is an interesting way of illuminating the guilt carried by the narrator over the unintentional death. The ghosts of the original family, from the Civil War, and their communications with the narrator are most interesting in that they receive gifts. Mrs. McKinnon accepts a rubik’s cube. Her husband accepts playboys and lighters. These ghosts are “real”, yet they are also locked into the moment of death. The very same paragraph where Mrs. McKinnon accepts rubik’s cubes, she complains that her daughter – also a ghost – needs a quilting bee. Yet, when the wife arrives, she doesn’t seem to notice the ghosts at all. When she yells at her husband, the ghost contributes to the noise.

This is, I think, an interesting way of looking at these ghosts: they only seem to exist for the narrator. In these stories of downtrodden males, the initial appearance of a ghost is nifty, as is their pseudo-reality. Then, as the stories continue to unfold, the ghosts seem to merely reinforce the notion that the world is set up against the narrator, with no deviation. The child killed in the swimming pool exists only to torment the narrator.

This is the line between affectation and style: the world elements exist for one purpose. The ghosts only exist to torment the narrator. All these elements in the world exist for the single purpose of grinding the narrator down into either rubble or a blade. One never gets the sense that these other characters could walk away into their own narratives. The woman who torments the 400 pound CEO with a date on a dare does not have the depth of soul necessary to carry a story on her own. Like the ghosts, she exists solely to grind down the narrator. One story like that – satirical – is fine and excellent. A collection of stories like that – where everything in the exists for one purpose – becomes tiresome. The world of Saunders is a narrow lens. I can’t help but imagine what would be different if he took on the POV of one of the ghosts for a story, and showed a depth of purpose to an element outside the boundaries of the put-upon male.

Because I go back to that Rubik’s cube, and those playboys and lighters that were gifts to ghosts. The rules of ghosts are singular: whatever it takes to torment the narrator. I am, however, curious to hear the point of view of the woman who is cursed to relive her terrible moment of death over and over again, whenever she wanders too near to the place where her husband killed her, holding a rubik’s cube in her hand and marvelling at the world that has changed so much since she dropped away from it.

I wish there was only one setting, but a different narrator viewing the same space from multiple POVs, to illuminate a world of sorrow that affects different characters different ways. I wish there was style, not just affectation.

My recommendation? If it’s in your library, take a few minutes to read one of the stories when you visit. Then go check out other books. When you return, read another story. When you get to the novella at the end, make a decision for yourself if you want to take the time or not. You’ve encountered all the themes, and the only new thing is a bit of a shift at the end of the line.

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