Liberation Day by George Saunders (2022)
As a young reader I liked short stories: Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” London’s “To Build a Fire,” B. Traven’s “Assembly Line,” Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Steinbeck’s “Johnny Bear,” they all moved me. Later I widened my horizons, the endless posthumous stories of Roberto Bolaño, Gabriela Alemán’s Family Album, Borge’s labrynthine tales, Phil Klay’s collection in Redeployment, Walter Mosley’s Awkward Black Man, Stephen King’s story “Premium Harmony.” Last month I read George Saunders’ Liberation Day, a new collection of his stories. I first learned about Saunders from his phantasmagoric Lincoln in the Bardo. Wow! What a weird and wonderful book, an imaginary purgatorial novel, disturbing, deeply empathetic and human, with ghosts seeking peace and grieving souls letting go. Saunders -in terms of his reach and empathy and insistence on granting the marginal and the desperate their full share of dignity- reminded me of Richard Price, Russell Banks, Javier Cercas, Claire Keegan, and Marilyn Robinson.
Saunders’ nine stories are sinuous, surreal puzzle-tales. Reading his stories is like getting on a bus with blindfold on. You can hear voices, conversations, sense thoughts, detect movements, but have no idea what was said before you got on the bus. Your sense of smell works, you can hear, but you can’t see. Slowly a conversation begins to make sense, slowly your vision is clarified, and you can discern the speakers’ bodies, gestures but the bodies are elastic, supple, bound, perhaps defying gravity, perhaps in cages. If you trust the narrator you’ll begin to understand distinct actors, words, actions, and a coherent story line. And I trust Saunders even if his stories emerge as sensorial puzzles. Only towards the end do they cohere, become clear, lucid, and revealing.
There are nine discrete stories in Liberation Day, with different staging, characters, resolutions. But the themes all involve power, submission, exploitation, resistance, and ultimately resilience, even redemption; occasionally vengeance served cold. The stories are surreal and take place in warehouses, caves, mansions, theaters, dining rooms, and secret places. Voices emerge, conflict roils, alliances are made, liberatory actions occur, plots are hatched, and often the tales have graphic constructions like very clever animation artists [think Guillermo del Toro]. But they leave much to your own graphic imagination. Myth, enthusiasm, parables, wit, cold rage are there as well as joy and pleasure. They evoke Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”:
You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you
Saunders’ stories embody the voice of recognition which is to be found in great works of literature.
In the coming spring I will read more of his stories: Pastoralia (2000), and Tenth of December (2013), and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2022) in which Saunders dedicates the volume to his students in Syracuse. The Oprah Daily says A Swim in a Pond is a “worship song to writers and readers.”
For more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u63hwoqOVVs
By Louis Segal. Louis was born in Oakland, raised his family in Oakland, dropped out of school in 1968, worked many jobs over the decades, dropped back into school in the 80s, got a Ph.D. in history, taught as an adjunct professor from 1993 to 2015. Retired but not withdrawn.