Liberation Day Book Review by George Saunders


A decade can change a writer’s work without the writer changing at all. The world can catch up to what they’ve always been doing, and something like that is happening with George Saunders. In 2013, when he published his latest collection of stories, “The Tenth of December,” he was a beloved satirical writer, poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of corporate talk, parks, and suburbs. He was the smiling successor to Vonnegut and Barthelemy, a big idea humorist with some postmodern acrobatics.

The settings and themes haven’t changed much in his new collection, “Liberation Day,” but Saunders’ strategies over the course of his career have acquired greater intensity and focus. He has always been a moral person, concerned with our obligations to one another; Now, the ongoing and intense debate about democracy and its threats has exposed this even more. (It’s no coincidence that one of his most powerful stories of good and evil, “Escape From Spiderhead,” got a movie adaptation this year on Netflix.) Although the new group is in many ways archetypal Saunders, it’s also a more direct speaking about our present moment.

Sometimes Saunders gets his message across on an everyday human level. In The Mom of Bold Action, a suburban mom and dad rush to the defense of their young son, who is run into by one of two neighborhood cyclists — but no one is sure which one. This uncertainty leads to atrocities. Saunders suggests that such cruelty is provoked by the stories we tell ourselves. The mother, a failed children’s book writer, is always trying to find fodder in her everyday experience, but what she’s actually doing is trying to push her life into a memorized narrative, even if others dwindle in the process.

George Saunders talks about the astonishing shrinkage of empathy in the Trump era

Likewise, “Something at Work” is a satire of office politics, in which the president is forced to rule in an escalating dispute between two employees accused of various crimes, from petty theft to financing a slander on the company’s dime. “Sometimes you had to be fit,” the manager said to himself as he plotted the intervention—the joke being that “fitness” is hard to define, and efforts to control are doomed to backfire.

These still pieces can easily be read as allegories from the Trump era, and at times Saunders can be squeamish about it. A “love letter” written from the perspective of a survivor from an unnamed but crumbling country is a warning about how we got here: “This devastation was caused by such an incompetent source, which (at the time) seemed to be a mere comic bully, who He seemed to know very little about the thing that was disrupting him,” the story sang.

But Saunders has long tended to approach questions of power, morality, and compassion more indirectly and globally, and with better jokes, too. Liberation Day differs only in that the humor is a little darker, and the fears of our exploitation are more intense. In the title story, the narrator and his group describe being strangely “recruits” and being sent to “work” in an “arrangement”, until it turns out that they are modified and controlled androids. Likewise, the title character of “Elliott Spencer” is a former homeless man whose memory has been erased and reused to circulate in political protests. The story is a dispatch of so-called “actors in crisis,” but it also questions the sincerity of any of our political actions, and how superficial parrots of talking points are.

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Saunders focuses on the ways language can be used to justify and dehumanize. One of his funniest early stories, “I Can Talk!” , parodied the language of legal customer relations, in this case involving a tool allegedly translating children’s speech. But the words have impact and weight even within a monotonous home: The mom in “The Mom of Bold Action” knows her essay on justice, written with the occasional opening of a Facebook post, has real consequences. “No more articles,” she said to herself, restrained. “No more writing at all. She can do more good in the world, like bread.”

See that “like” casually thrown in there? Saunders’ ability to repurpose episodic rhetoric to unusual uses is one of his chief talents; Specifies a phrase or word to indicate that we may be lying to ourselves. Without “admiration”, the mother was expressing a moral certainty – it would be better for her to bake, stop. That “like” is that she’s trying to wiggle off the hook a little bit.

Saunders likes to emulate legal language full of useful commas and capitalized terms, because he understands how these junk works in cross-purposes – it’s strictly accurate but primarily designed to cover things up. Liberation Day contains many stories that have been deliberately covered in language, so that the truth of the predicament becomes clear.

But Saunders doesn’t always do that for the sake of political or moral argument. In the group’s most powerful story, the quietly shattered “Mother’s Day,” an elderly woman for a walk with her daughter takes her lifelong mental walk. It’s clear that her late husband abused her, but the phrases she uses suggest that she buried the truth under a pile of weasel words. He is not an alcoholic, but instead “drank a little with a big twist.” He never cheated, but there was “that time he sarcastically called her Mielle”.

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Words root us, corner us, manipulate us and betray us — now more starkly than a decade ago. Saunders is no longer concerned with accuracy; His most recent book, “Swimming in a Pool in the Rain” last year, is a literal book that delves into a collection of Russian short stories in minute detail. But 2022 has made its accuracy more feasible, and the stakes higher. In “The Ghouls”, a group of tireless workers – who work underground for unexplained reasons – discover that they have been doing their business under false pretenses. They are looking for direction, a reason to do what they do. One character asks about his tribe, as Saunders asks us: “We have to believe in something, right?”

Mark AthitakesHe is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest. “

random house. 256 pages $28

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