[by Elizabeth Scott]
Seminar Title: “George Saunders: The Long and Short of It”
Guide: Trevor Dodge
Texts by George Saunders:
Lincoln in the Bardo (novel)
Tenth of December (stories)
After introductions, Trevor spent some time talking about George Saunders’ writing process based on an essay he wrote. Saunders views the process of writing as one of discovery, not knowing where his stories will end when he starts.
We spent the first session talking about the first 4 stories in the collection Tenth of December. An initial observation was how efficient prose can be in contrast to another medium, like film. And this is especially true of Saunders who can do so much with so few words. As we discussed the stories, the group identified several consistent themes. A main theme was one the group called “the drip” based on one story in particular. The metaphor of the drip revealed how people are formed by parental control/messaging and how they struggle to free themselves later. Every character in these stories is in some way chained by parental domination and struggling to set themselves free.
Throughout the evening the topic of empathy kept coming up. The group was struck with how Saunders creates flawed, sometimes marginal characters, who we come to know in a way that evokes empathy, even in the face of some despicable actions.
Trevor opened the evening by asking us which story of the collection was our favorite. Three of the stories were mentioned most frequently: “Sticks”, “The Semplica Girls Diary” and “Tenth of December”. We went on the talk about the prevailing themes: the conflicts and struggles of the characters to construct a solid sense of self, issues of class and striving for what one doesn’t have, and the voices/influences that afflict the characters.
Most people felt that Saunders has a deep empathy and love for his characters though there was discussion about whether he takes a superior, condescending position to his characters. While most people feel that Saunders really cares about his characters others wondered if his use of the humor he uses so deftly is mocking them.
We went on to talk about process, particularly in how Saunders constructs his sentences. All were in agreement about his incredible skill as a writer and his very unique style.
Our assignment for this week was to read the first section of Lincoln in the Bardo. Trevor began this session by asking the group what expectations we have of a novel in general; what do we want; what are we disappointed by. People talked about the desire to be transported, to learn something new, to experience a story arc. He then asked us each to name our favorite novel and say one way it relates to Lincoln in the Bardo.
We began our discussion of the novel by talking about the opening pages where the Lincolns were holding a lavish reception while their son, Willy, was gravely ill upstairs. This sets up the tension and predicament that determines the rest of the book. We then talked about Saunders’ use of multiple voices, wondering what his intention was in using this technique. Some experienced a Greek chorus effect. Others thought they provided multiple points of view. For some, they were flawed witnesses, all of whom were stuck and unable to move forward. This, of course, was also the case for Lincoln, in his inability to let go of his son, and for Willy himself, stuck in the bardo until his father could release him.
Finally we talked about which characters from Tenth of December might fit in this cast of characters. It was the consensus that most characters, save for one or two, could be seen as holding on with unresolved issues from the past, stuck and unable to move on.
We began by reading Chapter 33, a short chapter entirely in Willy’s voice. That provoked a lengthy conversation about the concept of the Bardo, and Tibetan Buddhism and how Saunders’ concept is the same and different.
We continued with our discussion about how all the characters are stuck in some way, unable to let go and move on. The group agreed that this is also true of the characters in Tenth of December.
We also discussed the effect of the multiple voices that tell the story. Most people felt that there was a blurriness that made the characters meld together in someway.
There was an interesting comparison to Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.
Finally, we talked about how Lincoln’s grief was so powerfully conveyed.
On our final meeting we began by each sharing our thoughts about Lincoln in the Bardo, what stood out for us, what impressions are we left with, what similarities do we notice between the novel and the book of short stories that we read.
We then had a discussion about Saunders as a novelist vs. as a writer of short stories.
We are all so grateful for the tickets to the PAL event. THANK YOU, Literary Arts.