Quo Vadimus

Monday, March 15, 2004


Max and the Cross Old Man.

In the new issue of The Believer, Ben Marcus does a mildly long interview with George Saunders. Here is Marcus's introduction:

He was born George Saunders and has kept the same name his entire life. Sometimes he moves through the streets beneath a great coat designed to keep himself from being killed. Otherwise he is fearless, naked in the evenings, a family man. There has been a moustache, a beard, a bald face. The area locale where he has chosen to live is brutal and cold and produces a large share of lonely people. He sleeps and eats and functions as any person might. But there the similarities end.

For part of each day, Saunders is a hero. He would never agree to this designation. But his modesty, his generosity, his expansive imagination, and his fully developed tenderness-generating technique are a large part of his heroism. His heroism is fitted with a blind spot that keeps Mr. Saunders from knowing about, or being able to acknowledge, the ways that he has beautifully scoured and remade—through artisan-quality writing—the people in many countries. His writing appears in books and magazines and quickly subsumes them, explaining the appearance of horizon fires in the far Northeast. The books of fiction are called
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and Pastoralia. The Suits call his writing "stories", but they are really soft bodies to war for a larger experience of life, hollowcore person-shapes that one can slip on in order to attain amazement. Saunders writes bodies, and his readers wear them. Some of these readers are probably in your house. If they are glowing or trembling, now you know why.

The following conversation took place on an old Toshiba calculator.

The interview is fantastic and should be read in full. Here is an excerpt in which Saunders discusses film writing:

BEN MARCUS: You have a film project underway. Can you tell me about it?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Back in 1997, Ben Stiller optioned CivilWarLand and so for the last year or so I've been working with him on a script. It's been interesting in that film writing is so much about structure and so little about language. You can just say, "Tens of thousands of chimps emerge from mobile phone booths, speaking French," and that's it. There are chimps. In other words, you don't have to do what we usually do, which is convince with language. You can just make these little structural units, which will be de facto "convincing" because the viewer will be seeing them. So it changes the nature of the challenge, writing-wise. It forced me to use a different part of my brain; the part that says, if I put A, then B, then C—trusting that each of these will be done well—then I've made resulting Meaning D. Which is not how I think when I'm writing fiction—then, I tend to concentrate on the individual line, trusting that some worthwhile effect will come out in the end, but I don't necessarily know what it is. It's also been interesting anthropologically—getting some idea of how movies get made, how the larger mass culture might get accessed, how finances play into the whole thing, etc. So much of our storytelling now takes place within this quasicorporate framework, and so it's interesting to see if there is a sort of de facto editing effect working, and if so, what the flavor of it is. Also it's been interesting for me to think about broad appeal—is it possible/desirable for somebody like me? What is the difference between "literary" and "popular"? I've been especially interested to see, in myself, a sort of knee-jerk tendency toward the dark, the negative, the nihilistic—somehow, film writing made this tendency more noticeable. When I do this knee-jerk thing, it's more apparent, feels more like flinching. In film, it seems like because there are actual people up there, somehow my urge to credit the noble, the good, the simply decent is more easily managed than in stories. I'm not sure what to think of all that, but I've noticed it, and am sort of mulling it over. It goes back to something we talked about earlier: how much of the brooding cyclical nature of our art-fiction is meaningful (i.e., is telling a deep truth) and how much of it is just limited technical ability and/or sloth? I think there are deep truths about our time that are dark and scary—but I also think that not every dark/scary move that is accomplishable via fiction necessarily has a real-life corollary. Sometimes they're just easier—as Tolstoy said: "Happiness writes white."

posted by Linus | 7:18 AM