Book review: Liberation Day, by George Saunders

George Saunders is an affecting and sensitive writer, but his latest book turns out to be a rather thin work, writes Stuart Kelly

After winning the Booker Prize for Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders wrote an intriguing book, A Swim In A Pond In The Rain. It was an analysis of Russian short stories, and was often very precise about how these stories did what they do. But reading Saunders on Chekhov, Turgenev and Tolstoy made me think “But your own stories don’t work like that”. I make an exception for his piece on Nikolai Gogol.

I have a great fondness for Saunders’s previous collections, Civil War Land In Bad Decline, Pastoralia and The Brief And Frightening Reign Of Phil. Finishing this book, I wondered about which writer Saunders is like, and having discounted Twain, Bierce and Cheever finally thought: HH Munro, aka Saki.

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There is a similar nastiness to them. The arc never ends in a catch, but a kick in the particulars. Saunders is not a realist, even when he is writing about reality. The title story exemplifies his amplified reality. It challenges the reader to decode what is going on.

George Saunders PIC: Chris Jackson / POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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The opening is “It is the third day of Interim”, and the first page throws up “When will we be next asked to Speak? Of what, in what flavor?”, and sinister references to Penalty and being unPinioned. Later there are Personal Feed Tubes and Fahey cups.

Whoever these addled and unfortunate people are, they are coerced into performing a drama, in this case about General Custer.

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This chimes with Lincoln In The Bardo – an iconic event in American history but delivered in an eerie, dream-like manner.

The story’s conclusion, and the revelation that the narrator has no memories of his previous life, links it to ‘Elliot Spencer’ towards the end of the book, with another character undergoing ‘Explain Time’ and realising he was once someone else.

Liberation Day, by George Saunders

It is the most ambitious of the stories, integrating gaps into the text, lacunae that reflect the fragmented mind of the narrator.

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There is a certain morbidity throughout this book. A seemingly simple story, about a house purchase, ends with haunting lines: “Nothing lasts, not pride, not affection, not walls, not barns, nothing, nothing, nothing” – a sort of echo of King Lear.

But it also has a trademark Saunders technique. The narrator says “I am trying my best not to be terrified. And yet I am, sometimes, in the night”.

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That elision of saying something and then contradicting it typified the stories.

It is, I grant you, effective; but is a bit like a magic trick. Once you have figured out how the trick is done, the magic evaporates.

In another story, “Ghoul”, we have another iteration of people being forced into narratives. In some ways it seems like a thin remix of The Truman Show but there is a more horrible revelation.

The fact that it nods at the work of Dante (or at least the first third of the Divine Comedy) might be a wink too far.

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But the strangest thing is that when Saunders is not determined to demonstrate how many rabbits he can pull out of a hat, he is a very affecting and sensitive writer. My favourite in this collection is “Mother’s Day”, which is really only about a glance between two women.

Neither are particularly likeable – one a prude, the other a flirt, to use a euphemism. But the moment of human connection feels real, even if the characters will diverge away, knowing and not knowing what has happened.

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There is another tic in the writing which this story shows; a kind of staccato, haiku like interruption. It is not easy to convey in a newspaper review, but take the / as a line break – “Don’t. / Do not. / Do not defend that one there. / I merely pose the query, he said.” (That might have been the title of the book, “I merely pose”).

In a book which is replete with fake narratives and false memories, this insistence seems necessary. But, again, one quickly catches on to the game.

“The Mom Of Bold Action” again has an emotional tug despite its tricks. There is a metafictional opening, when the female narrator thinks about “The Trusty Little Opener.” The story is braided with stories she is always about to be writing such as “The Son Who Failed To Reply” and “The Tree Who Longed To Come Inside.” But the crux is the reader’s ambivalence towards the narrator.

Is she pitiable? Is she actually cruel? Is she just plain unfortunate? The clipped diction is here too. “Derek came down. / Why is Dad crying? he said. / His aunt died, she said. / Which aunt? Derek said. / One you don’t know, she said”. This case of domestic disappointment put me in mind of Pamela Zoline’s wonderful story, “The Heat Death Of The Universe”, but where Zoline is agog, Saunders, sorry, smirks.

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There is a lot here to admire, and even to unpick and put back together, and there is a humaneness that we all require. It seems, nevertheless, a rather thin work, and with too much about storytelling around the stories.

Liberation Day, by George Saunders, Bloomsbury, £18.99