Rebecca Curtis Delves into “Sea Oak”

In the first of three “Selling Shorts” essays we’ll be running this week, Rebecca Curtis takes a look at one of the best American short stories of the last decade, probably the last half-century really: George Saunders’ “Sea Oak.” As she reveals in the essay, Curtis has a special connection with this story, as Saunders was one of her teachers at Syrcause. Her debut short story collection, Twenty Grand, has just been published by HarperPerennial; she’ll be reading from it at the season opener of New York’s Happy Ending Reading Series in mid-September.

rebecca-curtis.jpgLast week on the subway, I overheard the man next to me tell the man next to him about a story he’d read. Both men wore well-cut suits of fine material. Both had short dark hair, were in their thirties, and held briefcases between their calves. “I don’t remember what it was called,” the man said. “It was published about six years ago… in The New Yorker, I think. It had a male stripper in it, and the guy was a waiter in some kind of restaurant, and there was a zombie in the story… and things got really bad for the waiter, and the zombie made him start showing his cock.”

The man’s conversation partner appeared nonplussed.

“Seems like a weird story,” he said.

“It was weird,” the first man said, “but it was hilarious.”

The second man checked his watch. The train whined in the dark tunnel, then yanked us round some curve, and all the passengers leaned. We were under the water, the long stretch between the Clark Street and Wall Street stations, headed into the city on an August morning.

The first man bent his head and rubbed the leather wallet on his lap. “I wish I could remember what the story was called,” he said. “It’s going to kill me.”

Some years ago, the actor Ben Stiller was reading fiction—a collection a friend had recommended—and started laughing out loud. He kept reading, and kept cracking up. That night he made his assistant call the author’s agent, to see if his film company could buy the rights to the stories. Then he asked the assistant to get the guy’s phone number, so they could talk in person. But he felt nervous, because he’d never read anything like what he’d just read. The book was Civilwarland in Bad Decline, and the author was George Saunders.

Eight months ago, I wrote a letter to David Foster Wallace, on the thin premise that he teaches at my alma mater, in an attempt to get him to blurb my book. I was desperate. My publishers had hinted that if I didn’t get a blurb soon, I was cooked. They’d sent me a list of writers, all of whose work I loathed, and urged me to contact them, praise them, and beg for blurbs. I felt I must keep my dignity. So I deleted the email with the list, and told my publishers I’d sent long letters to the writers but they never wrote back. Wallace (whose fiction is fabulous) is notoriously reclusive, and does not respond to missives. I wrote and swore to never demean him by going on about how much I like his work. Instead, I said that George Saunders, who’d been my teacher in the MFA program at Syracuse, is a fan. I said George teaches his stories, and mentioned a few remarks George makes when teaching them. Wallace answered that week (no blurb). He said, “I am 47,000,000 times a bigger fan of Saunders than he of me—trust me on this.”

George Saunders is the best American writer alive today, and “Sea Oak” is his finest story. Poets such as (fill in the blank) and novelists such as (fill in the blank) are dwarfs or plaster saints in comparison to him. I’m paraphrasing Nabokov here, but that’s fine.

Born in 1958, George Saunders grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago. He didn’t “always want to be a writer” because he never thought he could support himself as one, and if he’d uttered the word ‘writer’ in relation to himself his relatives would have made fun of him. He wasn’t expected to necessarily go to college, but a couple teachers encouraged him to go to the Colorado School of Mines, so he did. Before, during and post-college he worked various jobs—in a meatpacking factory, as a roofer, and as an environmental engineer. He did want to write.

Eventually, he took a risk and applied to the Masters in English program at Syracuse University. He finished the program, married and had two daughters. He loved them all and wanted to support them well. He continued to work for many years as an engineer and technical writer. Late at night, he wrote mediocre realistic stories in the vein of Hemingway. He published a couple in journals, but few people read them, and the stories weren’t as good as Hemingway’s. George felt frustrated. The environmental firm wasn’t really environmental. It mostly helped big companies find ways to drill oil in nature reserves. The salary was also low. The firm sent daily memos to the engineers telling them to be cheerful and that they might be fired. At some point, while sitting at his desk, George snuck out a pen and blank pad. His superior, who’d recently reprimanded him, wasn’t looking. So he wrote an absurd story. It was set in a future world where violence, a depressed economy, pollution, chemical contamination and a get-ahead culture all cause people to act desperately.

No art can be great without being funny. Consider Mona Lisa’s smile; Shakespeare’s plays; the leaning Tower of Pisa. They are built on formal beauty and symmetry, but upset their patterns’ expectations; they turn from elegantly serious to ludicrous with a flick of the hand, or with a shimmer. Art happens when something is “off.” The reason that no art can be great without being funny is that no art can be at all sad without being funny, and in order to be truly great, art must contain an element of sadness. This isn’t really refutable, so if you think I’m wrong, you’re wrong. Saunders is possibly all alone in being truly funny, and alone in being truly great.

The model for his stories is this: A decent man, who wants to be kind and fair, lives in a world where the people with power are cruel and backbiting, and the failures would be cruel if they could, if there were anyone below them to mistreat. The decent man tries to succeed by being decent, but cannot, because he is trapped in a nightmare-verse whose rules flux according to an almost indecipherable system. He is alone—the only one with high intelligence and moral sense. He cannot believe it, but it is true. This is also Kafka’s model (especially in “The Castle” and “The Trial”).

There are lots of novels where a good protagonist enters a world where bad people are in charge and he must fight them. These novels can be stellar: The Lord of the Rings, for example. Blindness, by Jose Saramago, is a more “canonical” example (and a masterpiece). When a plague of blindness sweeps through a city, the infected are quarantined in a mental hospital. Abandoned inside the building, the greedy blind men form a gang that beats, rapes and steals food from the good blind men. One woman, who can still see and is accidentally quarantined with the rest, must help the good blind fight the greedy, and guide them toward escape. Another example is Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases: When an evil dictatorship takes over a country, innocent students are “disappeared.” The family of one such kidnapped son must try to find him, despite their lack of resources and the fact that other (also basically decent) citizens are too afraid of being “disappeared” themselves to help much. In all three of these excellent novels, the world within the novel is essentially good, and the hero basically honorable, but bad people are in charge, thus we have a crisis. This can make for a great read, but it’s also pretty simple: the answer is, get rid of the dark lord. Once that’s done, everything is copasetic, and the worst fallout is that Elves have to leave town.

Nabokov expresses what I’m trying to say better, when he explains, in his Essays on Literature, the qualitative difference between a story like “The Metamorphosis” and “The Overcoat,” and one like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:”

“In Gogol and Kafka the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans—and dies in despair. In [Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde] the central figure belongs to a brand of unreality different from that of the world around him. He is a Gothic character in a Dickensian setting, and when he struggles and dies, his fate possesses only conventional pathos. I do not at all mean that [Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde] is a failure. No, it is a minor masterpiece in its own conventional terms, but it has only two dimensions, whereas the Gogol-Kafka stories have five or six.”

My point is slightly different from Nabokov’s, but as he suggests, a key factor of Kafka’s and Gogol’s stories (and Saunders’) is that it is the world itself which is off-kilter, so there is no escape or easy fix. The lone human-type figure, who says, ‘this cannot be right, this cannot be the real world, let me out,’ is doomed. This is dark and absurd, of course.

The idea of money itself is absurd, because it requires a collective hallucination. Imagine a place in which people pay $5,000 for a piece of tinfoil. In the house next door to these people, normal people, (everybody wants tinfoil) a man lies on the floor starving to death, and even though $5 would buy the food to save his life, the neighbors don’t give it to him, because they really want to get the tin foil and wear it on their finger. (In this world tin foil is very pretty, and indestructible).

Clearly there’s not enough of Saunders in this essay, because it’s not funny.

“Sea Oak,” is Dickensian in one way—it is “A Christmas Carol,” backwards, and it begins with a strip show. The narrator is a waiter at a restaurant made to look like the inside of an airplane. He and his coworkers must dress like pilots, take jackets and more off throughout the meal, and serve the bored, fat housewives who come in groups to dine, grope them, and order them around. The narrator doesn’t love his job, but he appreciates it; he needs it to support his sister and cousin and their two babies. He also puts up his maiden aunt, a saintly type who never married and works at DrugTown. Our narrator has his dignity: some of the other waiters show their penises to the clientele in a back hall—or even hump them—for extra cash, but he doesn’t. The danger is in the restaurant’s hierarchy: Waiters are ranked by customers on a 1-4 scale, as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker. In the story’s first scene, a waiter named Lloyd, who’s gained weight and has thinning hair, is ranked Stinker and gets fired. He begs to be allowed to keep his job—he has a wife and kids to support—but he’s fired.

So we worry for the narrator, who’s only a Honeypie/Adequate. We also worry because he lives, along with his sister/cousin/their babies/and aunt, in a dangerous area. In the story’s second scene, a neighbor’s kid is killed in gang crossfire in the front yard of their apartment complex. Our narrator realizes he needs more money, in order to move them all to a safe place. He returns to work and disaster strikes. In his absence, the apartment is broken into, and when she sees the intruder, the maiden aunt has a heart attack and dies. The narrator, his sister and cousin must spend all their savings and take out loans to buy a coffin to bury her in.

This is the point at which, when writing the story, George Saunders got stuck. He wasn’t sure what should happen next. He put the story aside. He was living in Syracuse at this time and teaching at the university. Months passed. He was struggling himself; he wanted to send his daughters to good schools, and the only decent ones in the area were private, and fabulously expensive. Many streets in Syracuse are in fact dangerous, lined with crack houses. The single local park is famous for its night-time rapes. As a popular teacher, George was constantly asked to meet with students outside of his office hours, to write letters for them, and to read the extra stories they’d just whipped off, all of which he did. He liked his students and was eager to perform his job well. He had little private time. He couldn’t concentrate. He didn’t exactly earn loads as a professor. Not that he ever complained: He felt grateful for everything he had. One night he went to bed anxious and had a strange dream. The next morning he wrote the rest of “Sea Oak.”

What happens is this: the sweet aunt, who only ever got hand-me-down clothes, never went on dates, and supported her father until he died and left everything he had to some young lady, and who happily worked at DrugTown for minimum wage until she got old and was demoted to greeter… well, she crawls up out of her grave, and shuffles from the cemetery to her apartment. She has the power of death. She can make the microwave door rip itself off the microwave from across the room. She’s very angry— at the narrator for being a lazy fuck, and at how her life was wasted.

The story only gets better from here. The narrator must not only figure out how to get rid of his aunt the evil zombie, but also change his life and lose his dignity. His aunt tells him what will happen if he doesn’t, and she knows, because she’s seen it from beyond the grave.

One myth about Saunders is that he’s a writers’ writer. He’s actually everyone’s writer. His stories are easy to read. Another is that he’s an “experimental” writer. He’s one of the most traditional writers around. Every story he’s written is structurally classic. They follow the most standard of traditional narrative arcs. Every story begins with a problem, often accompanied by a “worst case scenario” and an “at least that hasn’t happened yet.” You can bet on it, in a Saunders story, that the worst case scenario will occur by scene 2. Like Shakespeare’s plays, the stories are often structured in five acts, or three. And if a world of Saunders’ seems to be not quite “ours,” it’s still the case that the world presented has clear rules, made according to the world’s logic, which the story always follows. It’s in part this elegant and formal structure that gives the stories their humor: To break a pattern, one must first establish it. The humor comes from the sudden disruption. Also, Saunders is a master of the turn; lyrical moments are undercut by bawdy ones, bawdy ones by lyrical poignancy. He said once, humbly, to a class, “I think our characters should be at least as smart as we are. I think they should be trying…”

There’s too much to say, and nothing worth saying.

I guess the stories say, “Look, there’s this world, it’s kind of like ours, and it’s absurd, it’s terrifying…”

For that reason, to read a Saunders story is to feel less lonely, temporarily.

15 August 2007 | selling shorts |