George Saunders’ & Sam Lipsyte’s Disrespected Worlds of Fantasy

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My spring break pleasure reading, partly on a round-trip plane ride, consisted of two new collections of stories by authors I’ve read for a while, George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts. It was interesting to read them in succession; you could construct a Venn Diagram in which they both overlap with parts of Donald Barthelme, Mark Leyner (although I admit I only thought of him because I just read Lipsyte’s admiring interview with him in the new Paris Review), Louis C.K. and/or other standup comics, Saunders’ one-time Syracuse colleague David Foster Wallace and maybe Kurt Vonnegut. What may be most distinctive about them, at least considered together, is the fundamental role of humor in their fiction — they almost continually crack jokes even in pretty serious and/or grim narratives, in a way that feels kind of post-David Letterman and contemporary to me.

It’s a slightly unfair comparison to Lipsyte because Tenth of December is probably the best book of an artist for whom the short story is his central and basically only art form, whereas Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts is more of an occasional collection and doesn’t, IMO, show him at his strongest compared to, for example, his last full-length novel The Ask which I believe I wrote about here a few years ago… Yes, I began that posting by observing that it will “probably long remain the funniest and best novel filed under this Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data: 1.  College administrators– Fiction.  2.  College benefactors — Fiction.  3.  Education fund raising — Fiction.”

Saunders’ book is fantastic. I guess my favorite is the amazing “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” which he discusses on the New Yorker fiction blog here. Saunders in his winningly unpretentious way comments that ‘If the only thing the story did was say, ‘Hey, it’s really wrong to hang up living women in your backyards, you capitalist-pig oppressors,’ that wasn’t going to be enough. We kind of know that already. It had to be about that plus something else.” This story would work really well on a syllabus in a course focused on depictions of immigrant labor or related topics.

Lipsyte is a master of that contemporary mode of cringing-embarrassment-and-shame, with a focus on the grotesque and abject body, that’s most familiar from t.v. shows like Louie C.K., Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Girls. And Maria Bamford’s stand-up comedy and her show. He’s hilarious and brilliant, but I found the stories a bit brutal and cudgeling when read all in a row.  They contain some pretty disgusting and/or emotionally lacerating moments, e.g. the story with the dad who taunts his son to goad him to take a swing at him: “Don’t be such a damn pansy!  I’m leaving your dying hag of a mother!” Maybe my favorite was the one about early-teenage Dungeons & Dragons players, which stood out for me as having more of a Saunders-like sympathy and emotional depth than some of the others.

That story’s D&D theme also reminded me of the final story in Saunders’s collection, “Tenth of December” itself, which starts in the consciousness of an odd kid who seems to have developed his own cosmology involving creatures called Nethers that vaguely bring to mind some of the creatures in A Wrinkle in Time:

They were Netherworlders.  Or Nethers.  They had a strange bond with him.  Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds.  Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled.  Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.

That’s a characteristic Saunders thought, that this weird kid spends days, in his fantasy life, nursing the wounds of aggressive invented creatures whom he also humiliatingly injures for laughs, and with whom he has a “strange bond.”

It makes sense that both Saunders and Lipsyte would be interested in eccentric, childish, disrespected realms of fantasy and role-playing. Both authors return repeatedly to self-contained invented worlds and subcultures, lacking good aesthetics or high-cultural credibility, that provide opportunities for grandiose self-dramatizing on the part of losers and marginal types of all kinds. Amusement and theme parks seem often to serve this role for Saunders. This preoccupation seems fitting for an era in which literary fiction has vastly less cultural influence than, say, console or smartphone video games. There’s a resigned albeit slightly embarrassed sense on the part of both authors that they are working in a genre that has lost status in a major way and that cannot really even compete with the cheesiest of non-literate games. And of course part of their success is that they fully recognize this in the way a lot of authors trying to plug away at realist fiction do not.  (Maybe Jennifer Egan’s work has some of this too.)

I point this out as a former somewhat-dedicated D&D player circa 6th-7th grade…

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