George Saunders, Alice Munro, and the Opposite Poles of New Yorker Fiction

Man standing in a dry field with envelopes floating around him.The New Yorker has published more than fifty short stories by Alice Munro and more than twenty by George Saunders. Munro first made the cut in 1977. Saunders began publishing short fiction in the magazine in 1992. In the early 2000s, when I was trying to figure out what contemporary fiction was and also what kind of fiction I wanted to write, I often turned to the New Yorker. Both writers regularly appeared in its pages by then. I thought it would be difficult to find two writers who were more different. They existed at the magazine’s extreme stylistic poles. Munro was a traditional realist, writing mostly about the lives of women in the past. Saunders, who I’d just caught on to, was edgy, satirical, over-the-top, wildly inventive, and twenty-seven years younger than Munro. I loved reading them both.

Jon,” a Saunders story that appeared in the New Yorker in 2003 (and then in his collection, In Persuasion Nation), is about a group of teenagers who live in comfortable captivity doing market research. They’re not allowed access to the outside world and have devices implanted in their brains that play advertisements almost constantly. The advertisements are their only reference points.

The plot involves teen romance and pregnancy, and the crisis comes when Jon’s pregnant girlfriend wants to leave the compound and the program, which means the devices would be removed from their brains. Jon can’t imagine life without the device.

Plus furthermore (and I said this to Carolyn) what will it be like for us when all has been taken from us? Of what will we speak of? I do not want to only speak of my love in grunts! If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor! If I want to say like, Carolyn, remember that RE/MAX one where as the redhead kid falls asleep holding that Teddy bear rescued from the trash, the bear comes alive and winks, and the announcer goes, Home is the place where you find yourself suddenly no longer longing for home (LI 34451)—if I want to say to Carolyn, Carolyn, LI 34451, check it out, that is how I feel about you—well then, I want to say it!

The voice is expressive and energetic but the diction is unnatural—an exhausting mix of high and low language that reflects the narrator’s upbringing. The story is rife with references to recognizable brand names, because Jon has been raised and conditioned to know and care only about brands. Saunders launches into the middle of the story, leaving clues, so the reader only understands all the logistics of Jon’s situation toward the end of the story. People who leave the compound, or “Exit,” don’t always recover from the removal of their devices. Many of them speak nonsensically, have gaping holes in their necks where their devices used to be, and exhibit other signs of brain damage. Most importantly, they may not be able to formulate original thoughts.

Munro’s story, “Post and Beam,” appeared in the New Yorker in 2000 (and then in her collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage). The protagonist is Lorna, an uneducated young mother in an unsatisfying marriage with an older, domineering professor. She has a secretive friendship with Lionel, a former student of her husband’s who is closer to her age. The delicate balance of her life is upset when her provincial cousin Polly comes to visit.

Polly was five years older than Lorna and had worked, ever since she graduated from high school, in the local bank. She had saved up almost enough money for this trip once before, but decided to spend it on a sump pump instead. Now, however, she was on her way across the country by bus. To her it seemed the most natural and appropriate thing to do—to visit her cousin and her cousin’s husband and her cousin’s family. To Brendan it would seem almost certainly an intrusion, something nobody had any business doing unless invited.

The voice is an almost transparent third person. The diction is simple and unpretentious. The passage begins as a reporting of the situation, but the detail that Polly once spent her saved money on a sump pump instead of a bus ticket tells the reader volumes about Polly’s life. Lorna’s anxiety about Polly’s misunderstanding of the etiquette of the visit is classic Munro. This is a subtle class problem. Lorna can grasp it because she’s inhabited both Polly’s world and Brendan’s world, and because she’s an astute observer.

In a New Yorker reminiscence about his writing education, Saunders writes:

What we’re doing in writing is not all that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms.

Saunders knows his charms, and Munro knows hers. I realize now that these different charms have to do largely with voice. Both stories are character driven, and the authors use similar techniques to build their main characters and their worlds, and to bring them both to crisis points.

Both Lorna and Jon are motherless, a fact that shapes them. Lorna shares her only memory of her mother with Lionel. Polly has acted as a surrogate mother. Jon’s only memory of his mother turns out to be another advertisement. His supervisor—the closest thing he’s had to a parent—reveals that his memory is fake, and Jon finds out that his real mother sold him to the market research firm.

The two stories have the same question at their centers, a common question in fiction: Will the protagonists change their lives, or will their lives stay the same? Both characters realize, by the end of their stories, the extreme limitations of the lives they’re living. Both stand to lose a great deal if they try to make a meaningful change. Saunders sets up Jon’s choice and conflict clearly—stay in the compound alone or leave with his pregnant girlfriend. Although Jon is less observant than Lorna, he has a clear understanding of his choice throughout the story.

Lorna deludes herself about her flirtation with Lionel for most of her story and doesn’t see the choice it presents. Even when she enters his apartment while he’s away and searches it, she doesn’t allow herself to understand why. It’s not until she returns home from her weekend away and sees Lionel becoming friendly with her cousin that she knows what she’d been hoping for.

It was not until now, not until this moment, that she had seen so clearly that she was counting on something happening, something that would change her life. She had accepted her marriage as one big change, but not as the last one.

So, nothing now but what she or anybody could sensibly foresee. That was to be her happiness, that was what she had bargained for. Nothing secret, or strange.

Lorna’s life will stay the same. Jon will change his, despite his fears. At the close of the story, he’s awaiting surgery to remove his device. “I am curious,” he says. “I think I am ready to try.”

In the introduction to her anthology, Selected Stories, Munro describes what she thinks stories are:

A story is not like a road to follow…it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

In a short (and excellent) Atlantic film, George Saunders describes what he thinks stories are:

[A] story is kind of a black box, and you’re going to put the reader in there, she’s going to spend some time in this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s going to have happened to her is something kind of astonishing. It feels like the curtain’s been pulled back and she’d gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.

Leaving aside the question of windows, both Munro and Saunders think of stories as built structures that readers visit and emerge from changed. Their storytelling impulses and tender attention to their characters are similar. The philosophical places I imagined these two great writers inhabiting are more like neighboring towns than opposite poles.

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