I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read a bunch of George Saunders. But I am going to pretend that I knew more about him than his occasional New Yorker byline and the sense that he was maybe a bit political for my tastes (I was wrong) before I read Joel Lovell’s delightful cover story in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine. I’ll pretend that I knew he and DFW were peers and that he’s a colleague of Mary Karr’s up at Syracuse, and that his short stories are regularly listed as some of the best of the last decade, or ever. I might even act like I was aware that he’s a fairly religious guy, and I wasn’t actively taken aback by the massive amounts of insight he so casually dropped in the profile. What I will say is that after going through the article twice, and reading his new piece on The Paris Review, I feel like I’ve found a friend, ht SMZ:

628x471I asked [George] about the occasional dramatization in his stories of the moments after death, the way characters’ lives are sometimes suddenly reframed and redeemed. “In terms of dramatic structure, I don’t really buy the humanist verities anymore,” he said. “I mean, I buy them, they’re a subset of what’s true. But they’re not sufficient. They wouldn’t do much for me on my deathbed. Look at it another way. We’re here. We’re nice guys. We’re doing O.K. But we know that in X number of years, we won’t be here, and between now and then something unpleasant is gonna happen, or at least potentially unpleasant and scary. And when we turn to try and understand that, I don’t really think the humanist verities are quite enough. Because that would be crazy if they were. It would be so weird if we knew just as much as we needed to know to answer all the questions of the universe. Wouldn’t that be freaky? Whereas the probability is high that there is a vast reality that we have no way to perceive, that’s actually bearing down on us now and influencing everything. The idea of saying, ‘Well, we can’t see it, therefore we don’t need to see it,’ seems really weird to me.”..

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”…

“I admired him so much,” he said about Wallace. “His on-the-spot capabilities were just incredible. And I thought, Yeah, we’re a lot alike. We’re similar, nervous guys. And then when he died, I thought [of myself], Wait a minute, you’re not like that. You don’t have chronic, killing depression. I’m sad sometimes, but I’m not depressed. And I also have a mawkish, natural enthusiasm for things. I like being alive in a way that’s a little bit cheerleaderish, and I always felt that around Dave. When he died, I saw how unnegotiable it was, that kind of depression. And it led to my being a little more honest about one’s natural disposition. If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it” — which is, in part, what the process of writing allows — “then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”…

250px-Reign_of_Phil_coverThe last time we met, Saunders waited in the cold with me until the bus for New York came along. We were talking about the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities. We said goodbye, and I got on the bus. It was dark now, and you couldn’t really see the other passengers. I had “The Braindead Megaphone” with me, and I turned on my little light and reread a story he did several years ago for GQ, about traveling to Dubai. “In all things,” he wrote, “we are the victims of The Misconception From Afar. . . . The universal human laws — need, love for the beloved, fear, hunger, periodic exaltation, the kindness that rises up naturally in the absence of fear/hunger/pain — are constant, predictable. . . . What a powerful thing to know: that one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers.”