Lovell’s Quiet Portrait of George Saunders

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George Saunders (Photo:Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Joel Lovell has written the cover article for the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the writer George Saunders. Much more than just a portrait of Saunders—which is reason enough, certainly—Lovell’s article is full of interstitial wisdom, a handfull of small but meaningful vignettes, and a respectful generosity of spirit in bringing the personal to bear.

Lovell seems to have a singular gift for connecting with a particular kind of artist/writer. Best exemplified by the iconic work of David Foster Wallace, these are creatives who do their work while carrying a fully loaded viewfinder of how life is being lived in this complex, paradoxical, unjust and baffling world. To create while holding that burdensome reality is taxing and exhausting. It is also at the opposite end of the spectrum from the intentional isolation I seek in my studio. But I have great respect (and frankly, awe) for anyone who can hold that position. It produces work with a deep moral center that has the gravitational weight to hold the heavy, harsher truths as well as those fleeting bosons of redemption.

Saunders is such a writer, and so is Kenny Lonergan who Lovell also wrote about here in the Times Magazine a few months ago. Lovell has an unselfconscious ease with these kinds of people. That Saunders is a practicing Buddhist is mentioned in passing, but Saunders’ Buddhist detachment—deep caring about the world but not attached—is respectfully represented in this portrait.

Here are a few passages from the piece on Saunders that capture some of that quality.

Saunders shares his experience of being on a commercial flight when a serious malfunction had everyone on board sure that a crash was inevitable.

“For three or four days after that,” [Saunders] said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”

You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace — the George Saunders Experiment. It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

This is an elegiac yet painful description of real life:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

And lastly, this metaphor for art making which I found so memorable:

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

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6 comments

  1. Di Johnson’s avatar

    “It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.” This is a sobering reality that for me can only be counterbalanced with a faith in doing the next right thing, living in the expansiveness of loving kindness, that reconstitutes the graceless state of desperation. A portrait of mindful living.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thank you for your rectifying wisdom Di. The waters run deep my friend.

  2. Maureen’s avatar

    It’s a wonderful piece of writing, affirming again why I’m so glad we have a subscription to NYT.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      I agree. And I loved his piece on Lonergan as well. Thanks Maureen.

  3. Altoon’s avatar

    This sounds really wonderful. I knew nothing of this writer, but will now get one of his books.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      A meanginful writer in the hands of a thoughtful journalist. It’s a rare combination.

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