George Saunders: “My Chivalric Fiasco”

08/19/2011 § 2 Comments

Originally published in Harper’s, September 2011.

What happens when an author runs out of things to say? Stay tuned, readers, for we’re about to find out with this story, which is written in vintage Saunders style, but which lacks the humanistic impact we’ve grown to expect, salvaged from the midst of an unflinching, slightly-futuristic world. The idea here is to figure out what might happen if an ordinary cog in the machine — the sort that keeps his head not only down, but as close to the grinder as it gets (an unwavering janitor at a Medieval Theme Park for six years, grinning and bearing the jokes as “a man of caliber”) — one day took a pill (“KnightLyfe,” to be exact) that bestowed a Capitalized sense of Honor upon him, which didst change his very Person and Tenor. As the title suggests, such medically unchecked behavior in a corporate-run world swiftly leads to fiasco, though the story does not adequately address the nature (as it should) of whether his honorable intervention in an non-consensual affair between his boss and his co-worker is the appropriate thing to do. The motto, as suggested by the story, is no longer “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” but “Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.” (And the road to hell is paved with yada yada yada, you get the drift, nothing new to see here, not really.)

But shouldn’t Saunders’s bleakness lead somewhere? To an actual discovery, something deeper than the downfall of the “Elevated & Confident to a Fault”? He writes that “the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easily Tam’d” and yet, the story is never anything less than blatant in its intentions, and its characters are never more than sketches (and can therefore neither be “tam’d” nor unpredictable). As for the plotting, it’s all over the place: it makes sense for Ted’s boss to promote him, so as to keep him from tattling about what he saw him doing on TorchLightNight. Why then give him KnightLyfe? It’s not like this makes him any better at his job of “entertaining” the Guests with his scripted Tropes; surely they realize how disastrous an injection of morals would be: like a law-firm injecting its trial attorneys with truth serum.

I’ve always appreciated the off-putting yet familiar aspects of corporate America that Saunders so humorously injects into his dark fiction, but it’s never been more half-baked than here. It seems as if the author is just throwing things at us, when he describes Ted’s sister, Beth, as someone who shyly goes around “vacuuming up snow.” (She’ll never appear again; the same can be said for his family, which has been made poor both by injuries from work and by social inabilities to work.) Likewise, there seems little point in adding a paragraph about the various prescriptions everyone’s on (for pain and shyness): this isn’t a story about overmedication. (See “Escape from Spiderhead,” considerably better and more focused by comparison.) I agree that what’s needed is a firmer grip on Ted and the dependents in his life (his family, which depends on him, and his friends, on whom he depends), but if we’re not going to meet MQ or Erin, and will meet Martha’s husband, Nate, only in brief, then we’re not getting enough of a foundation upon which to satire anything. Colbert’s best work comes from his ability to actually demonstrate the ridiculousness of a SuperPAC by forming one, Swift’s comes from taking a modest proposal to its immodest ends, and Durang’s best work comes from a solid base in his own experiences (to name just a few successes).

Saunders, who once seemed like a breath of fresh air, now seems to have sucked all of the air out of the room. His postmodern peers, like Millhauser and Marcus, have outpaced him by widening their scope or adapting their styles to tell the stories they want — without limitation. This particular “fiasco” of a story shows only the work of a trapped author, catering — like Pahlaniuk — to fans who have probably already outgrown him.

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