A Night With George Saunders

What: The Portland Arts & Lectures Series, Presented by Literary Arts

Who: George Saunders, Oct. 12 / Reza Aslan, Nov. 16 / Jesmyn Ward, Jan. 18 / Claudia Rankine, Feb. 8 / Viet Thanh Nguyen, May 8

Where: The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland

How: Tickets are available at www.literary-arts.org

Why: (see below)

I’ve always thought of George Saunders as delightfully enigmatic. Since the publication of his first collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in 1996, Saunders has managed to navigate—and, indeed, thrive within—novel-obsessed publication culture as (until recently) a writer of short stories. Despite what tends to be, or is publicized as, the youthfulness of contemporary literature, Saunders was 38 when CivilWarLand debuted, having followed a rather circuitous path to publication that began neither with hardscrabble years in New York, nor in a liberal-arts enclave like Reed or Vassar, but instead the wonderfully named Colorado School of Mines. Saunders received his literary education first while living in Sumatran geological-survey camps, and then at Syracuse, where he earned his MFA.

And now, twenty years into a career highlighted by a MacArthur grant and nominations for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize, Saunders might be close to achieving the rarest of literary achievements: adjectivization. We might call the Saundersesque the ability of a story to, subtly and quietly, move through a strange confluence of mysticism and absurdity and arrive at a sort of unconditional empathy. Often darkly wry, set in corpocracies populated with characters harassed by technology and working bleary, sometimes literally objectifying jobs, Saunders’s stories tend to veer upwards or downwards at their conclusions, moving towards the antipodes of classical theater’s tragedy-drama divide. But even his characters who can’t seem to get it right, whose fear or selfishness or anxiety prevent them from doing what they clearly ought to do, which in a Saunders story usually means performing some act, small or large, for another person—even these characters tend to break our hearts, rather than stoking our indignation. Within Saunders’s oeuvre, it’s relatively rare to encounter a proper villain, a malevolent antagonist. We encounter rock-and-a-hard-place middle managers, unsuccessful businessmen whose ambitions have calcified into grudges, fathers for whom a white lie or blind eye might mean making the month’s rent; it’s hard to blame these characters because they are, or they believe they are, without choice.

Don’t get me wrong: Saunders’s characters do very bad things. And so this central ethic of his texts, the opportunity to extend empathy more or less unconditionally, can knot the reader into the sort of quandaries that feel physically uncomfortable to confront: Does this person who, say, failed to save a drowning child, or who committed a double murder in a desperate gambit to save his disabled wife’s medical coverage, really deserve the benefits of my doubt? What about their victims, after all? I mean, we can’t really miss the fact that nearly all of Saunders’s protagonists are white men—usually poor, often with phalanxes of blind spots, assumptions, and prejudices.

These sorts of questions, along with his widely-read essay on attending Donald Trump campaign rallies for the New Yorker, ask us to closely consider Saunders’s enigmatic qualities, as well as his ethics of empathy. Currently, Saunders is fulfilling speaking engagements across the country in support of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (a wild success for being that rare thing: an experimental novel with a vigorous heart). Regardless of his venue on any particular night, Saunders’s audiences are likely self-selecting, which makes questions of rhetorical position pretty low-stakes—particularly in Portland, where I saw him as part of Literary Arts’ Portland Arts and Lectures series. In a place like Portland, home to a lively culture of social activism whose commitment runs marrow-deep, someone like Saunders—who describes himself as “left of Gandhi”—could be formulaic about things: He could read from his novel, crack a few jokes, encourage ongoing political and social resistance, and retire to raucous applause. But, instead, Saunders gave a freewheeling and often hilarious talk that wound through the inspiration for Bardo (a glance of Oak Hill cemetery), his development as a writer (slow and fitful), the dangers of artistic imitation (finding yourself stranded on “Hemingway Mountain”), the proper place of art and literature in the classroom (at the center)—and, yes, the relevance of empathy widely rendered in our political moment (crucial).

It’s a fraught rhetorical position to inhabit. Consider what it might mean for Saunders—a white, wealthy, heterosexual man—to stand in front of an audience and reiterate the necessity for empathy, for the suspension of judgment, for the generous consideration of someone else’s position, when the people with whom we’re encouraged to empathize seem to be doing pretty okay for themselves at the expense of many other people, and don’t seem particularly eager to perform empathy themselves. Instead, we’d like to say, we should be angry. We should resist. Why expend time and energy on generosity for the oppressors, or those who have aligned themselves with the oppressors, when the oppressed could certainly use our help and attention? How can we “identify” and “hold respectful conversation” with people whose opinions, we believe, are not just misguided but are actually and actively contributing to the suffering of other people?

In Lincoln in the Bardo, Honest Abe himself is stuck in a similar bind. What does it mean, he asks himself, to solve the inhumanity and violence of slavery with the inhumanity and violence of war? Can he really make the utilitarian choice to commit what are, in any other context, unethical acts (murder, the plotting of murder, affixing labels like “victory” to murder perpetrated en masse) in order to achieve an ethical, a necessary, goal? Can freedom from slavery, itself a death, be won with more death? Ultimately, decides Lincoln, the question is undecidable—and yet there must be an answer. And so Lincoln executes the war without a sense of honor, of righteousness. Instead, the affect of the war, Lincoln determines, will be shame—it will be the reckoning of a country’s great sin, not a triumph of things, which never should have been set wrong, put right.

Towards the end of the night, Saunders posed the question to us, which I’ve paraphrased here:

People ask me whether we should reach out to, attempt to understand the complex contexts of, people whose positions anger or frighten us, or get mad and stay mad and dig in and resist—and I say, yes.

The both/and is rarely a restful position to occupy, and there always looms above it the possibility of insincerity, of self-service. After all, resistance is scary, difficult, and exhausting. The commitment to resistance strains relationships and twists conversations into awkward, clenched places. Much easier, it seems, is this opportunity to “empathize” by resisting quietly—that is, by hiding our own convictions, dodging danger, and making life easier for ourselves. These dangers of insincerity are endemic. But I think that, in fact, Saunders’s empathy enacted sincerely might be the most stringent, demanding position, forcing us to direct critical eyes not across the aisle, but upwards, towards systems, ceilings, influences. We’re asked to look harder, to examine more closely. Like Kafka, Saunders designs his fiction to present these formations of power as the real antagonists, these alchemical powers that can transform hearts and minds, affix monstrous masks to human faces.

Because, Saunders’s stories remind us, oppression is real and urgent, and manifests in the suffering of real, complex people. And he posits that, unlike wealth, oppression—and indifference, its catalyst—does, in fact, trickle down. No one, his argument goes, whose actions, words, and affiliations perform prejudice and bigotry is born prejudiced and bigoted. Such people are not only capable of love, but they in all likelihood enact love—and fear, and worry, and other affects, all in complex assemblages. To realize this doesn’t relieve responsibility, but it intimates that we ought to redirect our ire, our desire to protect the victims of oppression, towards the systems that perpetuate oppression and disseminate concomitant attitudes of intolerance and xenophobia—and some of our empathy towards those slowly seduced into these systems and attitudes. And in doing so, we acknowledge that we, too, are susceptible to the influence of these systems. This is an unsettling admission because it suggests that we are less free than we believe—that we, like Saunders’s characters, are enmeshed in familiar and treacherous worlds whose insidiousness is not hidden but rendered in Technicolor and funded by advertisements.

So what, exactly, are we to do, and how do we work the trap we’re in? The last question Saunders took at the end of the night was from a student from James Madison High School, which Saunders had visited that morning. It was a fitting conclusion, because Saunders posited education—or, better, the less clinical-sounding learning—and particularly an engagement with arts and literature, as something like a way out, serving a double function: revealing to us the problems, and reminding us why we care.