George Saunders: “Home”

08/02/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2011. (Read it for free, here.)

The best part of this satiric story is, as usual, the comic dialogue, a hectic blur of well-meaning contradictions and skewered perspectives, such as this overheard exchange between the parents of the narrator’s sister’s husband, Ryan, who “had sonorous/confident voices that seemed to have been fabricated out of previous, less sonorous/confident voices by means of sudden money. They’re discussing the Flemings, who flew over a bunch of harelipped Russian babies for whom they then provided surgery and college tuition:

“A truly visionary pair of folks,” he said.
There was a long admiring pause.
“Although you’d never know it by how harshly he speaks to her,” she said.
“Well, she can be awfully harsh with him as well,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s just him being harsh with her and her being harsh right back,” she said.
“It’s like the chicken or the egg,” he said.
“Only with harshness,” she said.
“Still, you can’t help but love the Flemings,” he said.
“We should be so wonderful,” she said. “When was the last time we rescued a Russian baby?”
“Well, we do all right,” he said. “We can’t afford to fly a bunch of Russian babies over here, but I think, in our own way, we do just fine.”
“We can’t even fly over one Russian,” she said. “Even a Canadian baby with a harelip would be beyond our means.”
“We could probably drive up there and pick one up,” he said. “But then what? We can’t afford the surgery and can’t afford the college. So the baby’s just sitting here, in America instead of Canada, still with the lip issue.”

That is both funny and biting, the societal glance behind the curtain of our “well-intentions.” And yet, this story is hardly about the Flemings; rather, it’s about the return of a tightly-wound discharged soldier, whose “alien” perspective is the device Saunders uses to fracture our views of America. Consequently, the story struggles to remain with any given topic, particularly the issues of class that seem most pertinent. For instance, the central action involves the veteran’s church-going mother being evicted from her home (she hasn’t paid the rent in four months, both the landlord and sheriff are, against type, perfectly respectful in casting her out), coupled with our protagonist’s visits to all the people he once knew, like his ex, who is now raising his kids with her new man, Asshole (i.e., Evan, an old schoolmate of the narrator’s):

One car was a Saab and one an Escalade and the third a newer Saab with two baby seats in it and a stuffed clown I was not familiar with. Three cars for two grownups, I though. What a country. What a couple of selfish dicks my wife and her new husband were. I could see that, over the years, my babies would slowly transform into selfish-dick babies, then selfish-dick toddlers, kids, teen-agers, and adults, with me all that time skulking around like some unclean suspect uncle.

And yet, I find myself ultimately not liking the story, for while Saunders cracks jokes and dispenses wit, he doesn’t seem particularly invested in any of these characters or happenings. Of particular frustration is that there’s no gauge for how our narrator has changed overseas — did he leave because his girlfriend dumped him, or did she take up with a new man because he left? We know that he’s done something at a place called Al-Raz, but it’s unclear as to why he hasn’t adjusted to it in the same way as two clerks who were also over there, and who sell a product called “MiiVOXmax” that is never explained. These unanswered questions distract from the points Saunders is trying to make about readjustment and the brittle concept of “home” (or “family”), just as the military background of the protagonist seems like an entirely different issue to explore, rather than the class distinctions that are the theme.

The ending is abrupt and far from earned: only twice in this longer story do we get a glimpse inside the soldier’s mind, first a non-specific mention of his violent impulses (“Something had been happening to me lately where a plan would start flowing directly down to my hands and feet”) and then a fear that “Having all these people think I was going to hurt the baby made me imagine hurting the baby,” in which he worries that his violence might be triggered by the perceptions others have of him. (We, as always, create the monsters.) So it’s weird when Saunders ends with the “hero” stalking vengefully toward his former friends, lovers, and family, all clustered under one roof, and feeling something inside him crumble: “O.K., O.K., you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.” In other words, what began with social satire ends with a post-traumatic poser, and only heightens the erratic plotting and pace of Saunders’s latest.

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