Desk Bird

Surreal and Satirical Fiction with Heart

Posted in Book Reviews by PJ on 2013/08/11

Although George Saunders has been publishing stories for almost twenty years he never really got his due until this January when The New York Times ran a piece titled “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year”, which profiled Saunders and his new story collection Tenth of December. Suddenly, he was everywhere—reviewed on Fresh Air, interviewed on The Colbert Report and the PBS NewsHour—and there was actually a waitlist of holds for Tenth of December at the library, an accomplishment none of his previous books ever achieved, I’m pretty sure. On the surface, Saunders seems to write funny, cutting, kind of surreal satire, which is true, but he also has the gift of a big, uncynical heart, which seems to come through even in his darkest stories.

Tenth of December is a great showcase of his unique talents and perspective, and if it was your first exposure to his work or that style of fiction, you might be hungry to find other authors who are able to write comedy and satire that is both dark, strange, and humane. Saunders is not a “Southern” writer, but a lot of comparable authors tend to be Southerners, as you’ll see below.

You can go back to a classic like A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which is about Ignatius, a 30-year-old slob who lives with his mother in New Orleans and gets himself into trouble with his big mouth. Toole’s book is laugh-out-loud funny, but he also draws incredible, strange characters that can’t be stereotyped, which makes the humor very specific and oddly touching at times.

You can even go back a little further to another Southern writer, like Flannery O’Connor, considered one of the best American short story writers ever. O’Connor is able to create characters that, for all intents and purposes, we should despise but that exhibit such vulnerability and human frailty that you can’t help empathizing with them, or at least trying to understand them. All of her short fiction can be read in  The Complete Stories.

Fast forward to our century and try another Southern author like Karen Russell. Russell wrote the popular Swamplandia!, but her first collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, should not be missed. She writes weird, askew tales, mostly about children and young adults, but she never sacrifices honest emotion for a literary gag or a plot twist. Even when she’s writing about girl werewolves struggling to walk the straight and narrow, her characters feel real and grounded.

Jack Pendarvis also writes about young people living in a surreal world (which also happens to be set in the South) in his second collection of stories, Your Body Is Changing. Although he has a more outrageous sense of surreal comedy than the other authors mentioned here, Pendarvis never lets go of that thread of humanity that we all share. In the title story, a Bible-quoting teenage boy is developing a breast and has been told by Jesus in a dream to go to New York and make out with a girl in a coma to heal her, and we feel for this outcast and his trials despite the outlandish world he inhabits.

I find this kind of fiction invigorating because these authors manage to keep so many plates in the air at once. Their works are simultaneously hilarious, tragic, sharp-edged, and full of empathy. Thankfully they (and many others) have written (and continue to write) enough to satisfy us readers for a good long while.