Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Fifteen (and 15B): Pastoralia by George Saunders

...and Fear of the Dark by Walter Mosley

The mind, as the saying goes, is a complex place. We have trouble keeping our own thoughts under control let alone knowing what others may be thinking. Even in our most rational moments our mind takes in a wealth of sensory information, makes sense of it, categorizes it, and then makes decisions as to where to focus. From there we get decision making followed by the input of more information.

A challenge for any good writer is to get inside the mind of a character and keep the character's individual voice unique. George Saunders excels at this challenge, bringing the reader into a dizzying swirl of thoughts from a variety of people. From a bullied child to a middle-aged barber living with his mother, Saunders focuses on thoughts in his novella and short story collection, Pastoralia. Infuse this with humor and a kind-spirited sarcasm and you have an outstanding collection of work.

Saunders' opening novella, "Pastoralia," is set in a cave, or better said, a replica of a cave. The narrator is part of the caveman exhibit which is part of a larger theme park which includes the Russian Peasant Farm, Wise Mountain Hermit, Sheep May Safely Graze, and the occasional feature of frontier pioneers caught in a flood. The male narrator and his female co-part have their separate living areas, but keep in touch with their families and supervisors through fax machines. Their real life dilemmas stand starkly against their "role playing," and whiffs of Sartre's idea of role-playing are strong in this piece. Saunders casts a sarcastic eye at our efforts to preserve an ideal which never existed, especially in the midst of own efforts at daily life. The fact that the theme park is struggling and cutting exhibits throughout the story shows us the crumbling edifice of our created ideals.

But the greatest strength in this and the other stories is his entry into the mind. No where is this seen better than in "The End of FIRPO in the World." Firpo is the derogatory nickname given by a stepfather to Cody, his bullied son who is going to end the time of "Firpo" through what he sees as a brilliantly executed revenge against some neighbors who bully him. In a speeding eight pages Saunders gives us the range of Cody's thoughts which bounce from his mother to past humiliation, to future triumphs, and even a place as a scientist in a floating science lab. That Saunders does this without losing the reader is a testament to his writing style.

While all the stories are strong, the other standout is "The Barber's Unhappiness" in which most of the action revolves around the barber's thoughts. His unhappiness is usually self-created when his elaborate plans for the future unravel into unhappiness and he has yet to physically move. This is a person entirely capable of ruining a good opportunity simply by convincing himself that it will go wrong. Of course, we see a person lacking self-esteem, and although Saunders likes to get us laughing at the barber's thinking, it will be hard for any reader to not recognize themselves in the story. Fortunately, in the end Saunders leaves us with the possibility of hope. It is this final trait that saves all these stories from smug, bitter sarcasm. Saunders likes people and he sees the possibility of hope. Which of us could use less of that?

Fear of the Dark by Walter Mosley
I will not spend long on this one, but let it be said that Mosley is not a writer to miss. Outside of my obsession with Sherlock Holmes I'm not much of a mystery reader, but Mosley is the exception. In addition to fast paced writing and story lines, you get a great view of race relations in the 1950s in Los Angeles. Mosley gives us an insight into why African Americans may choose to work "outside the system" to resolve issues both legal and illegal. He sometimes breaks from this genre in books like Futureland, a collection of science fiction stories which is great (and I never read science fiction) and The Man in the Basement, a book which would make my list of essential reads -- a philosophical exploration into humanity.

Reading Challenges

The last few weeks have been easy. I've noticed that my "required" reading is now anxiousness for my reading time -- the reading keeps me balanced as it puts me another world, challenges my thinking, and brings me simple pleasures. Saunders was a welcome presence to return to and I ended up reading way ahead of my mental schedule. In fact, I already finished half of the book I was planning for next week. As for Mosley, well, that is my bedtime book. I take a long time to knock off a book since I may read in bed just once or twice a week at most. I pick books I can quickly jump back into and have chosen another work by Mosley to have sitting next to the bed.

Next Up

Direct Red: A Surgeon's Story by Gabriel Weston. I would not have normally picked this up, but I'm really enjoying it so far. It is a nonfiction account about a doctor's entrance into the surgical world. This is my first "free" book in exchange for reviewing it on Blogcritics, although I have a couple of others already lined up (and the new Bruce Hornsby CD -- I'm branching out).

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