We loved Joel Lovell’s profile of George Saunders in yesterday’s Times Magazine. Lovell quotes generously from Saunders’s preface to the new edition of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. By special arrangement with the publisher, we bring you the preface in full.
This book was written in the Rochester, New York, offices of Radian Corporation between 1989 and 1996, at a computer strategically located to maximize the number of steps a curious person (a boss, for example) would have to take to see that what was on the screen was not a technical report about groundwater contamination but a short story.
I had graduated from the Syracuse MFA program in 1988 and had been writing stories that owed everything to Ernest Hemingway and suffered for that. They were stern and minimal and tragic and had nothing to do whatsoever with the life I was living or, for that matter, any life I had ever lived.
We billed our hours, and I would respond to any disrespect toward my person by declaring (in my mind, always only in my mind): “Thanks, a-hole, your project has just funded a Saunders grant for the arts.” And, for an edit that could have been done in an hour, I would bill that program manager’s project an hour and a half, then use the liberated half hour to work on my book.
“Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body,” wrote Terry Eagleton, and that was certainly true of my body at that time. It was being plundered of its sensuality every day. I had an engineering degree but was working as a tech writer. I had earned a reputation as the go-to guy where document covers were concerned. I was good at taping figures into place on frame sheets. I spent a lot of time at the photocopier, producing copies of the reports I had just edited, so we could send them to Kodak or the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, who, we suspected, often filed them without having read them. I was gaining weight, losing energy, had grown a consolation ponytail, would go home sore in my ankles and knees from walking what felt like miles on the thin carpeting that ran over our concrete floors.
There was a lot going on at home during those years, too. My wife, Paula, and I had gotten engaged after dating for three weeks. She became pregnant on the honeymoon, then went into labor at four months. She was put on total bed rest and required to take a drug (since outlawed by the FDA) to suppress her contractions. This happened again during her second pregnancy. So, while I was writing this book, we had two baby daughters at home, each made doubly precious by how close we’d come to losing her. We didn’t have any money and were into our thirties and were (maybe, just a little) wondering how it was that we’d missed the boat in terms of this thing called upward mobility.
At one point our second car broke and we couldn’t afford to replace it, so I started riding my bike the seven miles to and from work, along the Erie Canal. As winter approached, Paula put together an ad hoc winterproofing ensemble for me: a set of lab goggles, a rain poncho, some high rubber boots that, as I remember, had little spacemen on them. Biking along the canal I’d be composing in my head, and might arrive at work with a sentence or two all worked out. Then I’d dash through the atrium, into the men’s room, and try to get myself cleaned up, while not forgetting those sentences. Ah, those were the days.
But seriously: those were the days.
Biking back into town after dark, past the cozy colonial houses orange with firelight, I’d think: I have a home. I have people waiting for me, who love me. This is it. This is my life. These are the best years of my life.
We managed to buy a house. It was small but sweet, and the four of us lived there, happily. What a thing it was, to suddenly have a real life happening to us, to be in over our heads but glad about it. The gratitude I was feeling nudged me to the edge of a thought precipice: Had others, loving this much, had it go wrong? Did that ever happen?
And I knew the answer was yes, of course, all the time, every day.
Which raised a second question, one that I now see as being at the heart of this book: Why is the world so harsh to those who are losing? Sensing how close we were to the edge financially (we lived check to check, were running up huge credit card debt), feeling ourselves bringing up the back of the pack in terms of what kind of life we were making for our daughters relative to the lives of their peers, I realized for the first time, in my gut, how harsh life could be and how little it cared if someone failed.
Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t the Gulag. But I was puzzled by how difficult it was proving for me (a nice guy, an educated guy, a guy who loved his wife and kids) to put together a middle-class, or even lower-middle-class, livelihood for our family, and what it was costing me in terms of personal grace.
The realization that failure was possible, even for me, had the effect of increasing my empathy. If life could be this harsh/grueling/boring for someone who’d had all the advantages, what must it be like for someone who hadn’t? A thread of connection went out between me and everyone else. They, too, wanted to be happy. They, too, wanted to succeed. Maybe they had people they loved at home. They, too, were doing some weird uninteresting job in order to ensure the security and happiness of those beloved people of theirs, and yet …
And yet there were people sleeping on benches and muttering to themselves and getting fired, and there were nasty divorces and men slamming their fists into the sides of their cars when they thought no one was around.
It was as if I’d been driving along a highway littered with broken-down cars, blithely unconcerned, then heard a clunk from under my own hood.
What? I’d begun to think. Me, too, possibly?
All of this made its way slantwise into this book, although I’m not sure how aware of it I was at the time.
It was a weird world I found myself living in then, a world I’d been trying to avoid all my life: a world of paper shuffling and cubicles and a cheap little tie I would wear whenever “the client” was coming in, a world through which a burned-coffee smell would emanate late in the afternoons; a world of long white hallways and generic/minimal furniture (no art on the walls, no flowers in vases), a world of five-hundred-page reports with titles like “Long-Term Study of Possible Effects of Alleged Benzene Spill on Indoor Air Quality on Riley Street,” which I would write and/or edit in the small one-computer room I shared with my officemate, Dawn Wendt (and God bless you, Dawn, for all the times you sensed an edgy marital phone conversation coming on and left the office, and God bless me, for all the times I did the same for you).
Then, at the end of the day: the long bike or bus ride home, a precious hour or two with Paula and the girls.
I remember sitting in that office in my sad khakis, watching a storm approach—the darkening sky over the Rustic Village Apartments, the way the crap in the parking lot would start skittering around. A tree in a planter in the indoor atrium would drop a few leaves now and then that would stay there on the tile, proof that the tree was real. We’d note the sapling on “our” berm (i.e., the berm just outside our window) turning gold in October: it was like a mini-autumn, and all of the usual fall associations would rise up in me, filling me with longing, and there I was, a former big American dreamer, reading and rereading a report in which I could summon up zero interest, except that most basic one: the interest that came of the knowledge that if I didn’t read that bastard again and again and fix all the mistakes I’d made, I was going to look bad, and if I looked bad enough times, I’d be gone.
Still, it was sweet work, being for the benefit of our family.
As you approached our office, which was in a place called Corporate Woods, you passed a T.G.I. Friday’s and a highway, and beside the highway was a swamp, and in the swamp reeds were usually a few snagged fast-food bags, and outside our tinted front door was one of those sand-filled ashtrays, around which the same two or three people from the mysterious company upstairs would stand smoking, always talking of someone named Sheila, who was making a huge miscalculation.
Our building looked something like a spaceship, a black glass spaceship, and out front of it—the one nod to aesthetics—was a sculpture, which we referred to as The Snot, because that’s what it looked like, a giant gray snot, a snot that, vaguely man-shaped, greeted us at the beginning and end of every working day.
Some days, coming in, I’d find myself mumbling, “Hi, Snot.”
In retrospect I was lucky—lucky to have my lame, black-and-white, museumish idea of literature, in which it was always 1931, denied me. This sent me in search (in spite of myself) of a prose style that wasn’t full of shit given the life I was leading, a style that felt truly American— that took into account the Hemingway-Copland-Steinbeck-Ives America I loved (red, white, and blue bunting draped above a white-painted porch, a marching band playing in the distance) but also this new America in which I was just becoming a full participant: a place where paucity reduced a person, fear of failure produced neuroses, where everyone became a freak via material obsession, where there were no artifacts of previous cultures, no ancient ruins, just expedience-formed vistas (the old mill was now a Starbucks, and when the Starbucks kids went out for a smoke, they did so leaning against the fence of the pioneer graveyard, the shadow of a tall stone angel slicing across the parking stripes), a style as angular, comic, dorky, and heartfelt as the Rochesterians I saw falling asleep on the bus, or living up near Kodak Park in the shadow of the methylene chloride pipes, or plunking around in their snowy yards wielding roof rakes as I sped by on the canal path in my goggles and spaceman boots.
I’d always loved Hemingway and all through grad school had been doing some version of a Hemingway imitation. If I got tired of that, I did a Carver imitation, then a Babel imitation. Sometimes I did Babel, if Babel had lived in Texas. Sometimes I did Carver, if Carver had worked (as I had) in the oil fields of Sumatra. Sometimes I did Hemingway, if Hemingway had lived in Syracuse, which always ended up sounding, to me, like Carver.
Following my Hemingway/Babel/Carver years, I embarked on a few James Joyce years, and then a Malcolm Lowry half year, during which I wrote a book called “La Boda de Eduardo.” The title—which I believe translates roughly as “Ed’s Wedding”—will give the reader some idea of the literary power of the work itself. It is the story of a wedding—Ed’s wedding, to be exact—that takes place in Mexico. Lots of people come to the wedding and are described in Joycean/Lowryesque prose, which, in my hands, meant: as few verbs as possible, so as to ensure that nothing appeared to be happening, and if something inadvertently did happen, it didn’t happen with any clarity. To make up for the scarcity of verbs, I utilized lots of compound words. There was no drama at the wedding except that my friend got married, and the novel reflects this. The novel was seven hundred pages; I cut it back to a very efficient 250, rendering it even more difficult to understand. Then I gave it to my wife to read. All of these months I’d been assuring her that our long familial time in the desert was nearly over. She was “sitting on a gold mine.” I gave her the manuscript, then promised to be gone all afternoon. Minutes later I peeked in, as any writer might have done. She would have been on about page 10 by then. Was she rapt, were tears of joy running down her face? No. She wasn’t even reading anymore. She was just sitting at the table, head in hands, in a posture of total defeat that seemed to be saying: All of those hours, for this? Honey, where are the verbs? Are they in a separate document or what? And what’s with all of these compound words, this wordbanter, this disclarifying clapplemuddle?
A bad couple of days followed.
But I knew she was right. I hadn’t loved that book either. It was surprisingly easy to put “La Boda de Eduardo” in a desk drawer, where it still resides today, furiously exclaiming that the tortillasmell is rising from the mudhuts, the bridegroom is approaching in his dustsuit, redfaced, loveslumped.
One day not long after the collapse of “La Boda de Eduardo” I was asked to take notes during a Radian conference call. There weren’t many notes to take. With nothing to do, I started writing these Seussian poems, which I would then illustrate. They were despondent and minimal and gross and, for a change, funny. I wrote maybe ten of these and, when I got home, threw them down on the dining room table and went off to mow the lawn. When I came back in, Paula was … laughing. With pleasure. Real pleasure. It was the first positive reaction to my work I’d gotten from anyone in a long time. She wasn’t saying the poems were “interesting,” she didn’t have that workshoppy look on her face, the look we all get when we are trying to think of something nice to say about something that has left us cold. She was happy, she was experiencing pleasure, she even seemed to want to read more.
Suddenly it was as if I’d been getting my ass kicked in an alley somewhere and realized I’d had one arm behind my back. All of my natural abilities, I saw, had been placed, by me, behind a sort of scrim. Among these were: humor, speed, the scatological, irreverence, compression, naughtiness. All I had to do was tear down the scrim and allow those abilities to come to the table.
And writing might be fun again.
That was the day I started this book, essentially.
Many years before, I’d written a story called “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room,” which was set in one of those highway “Mystery Spots.” I sold the story to the Northwest Review and used it to get into Syracuse—and then put it aside as an aberration. It wasn’t “real,” it was silly, Hemingway would have hated it, etc., etc. Somewhere around the time of the conference room revelation, my friend Pat Pacino came to town and, in a burst of candor, told me that this story was still the best thing I’d ever written, all those grad school stories notwithstanding.
That hurt. But it also rang true.
So I dusted that story off and resolved to do a stone-cold plagiarism of it—or, let’s say, a reworking of it—with the same basic plot but set in a different theme park. The resulting story, “The Wavemaker Falters,” was the first one I wrote for this book. Working on it was fun: for the first time in years, I knew what to do. I had no idea what it was “about” or what it was teaching or espousing or anything like that. I just, at every turn, had some feelings about how I might make it better. As goofy as the story was, as far-fetched as its premise seemed, I could feel and see the people in it as real people, and I cared about them. What a relief that was: to work with certainty, toward fun, just for the hell of it.
I set foot in my first theme park in 1969. It was Six Flags over Texas, outside Dallas. I loved it so thoroughly that, all the way back to Chicago in the car, I conspired with my sister to build a scale model of it.
Well, that never happened. But I still remember the baffled joy I felt on leaving the place, thinking: Wow, someone did this, someone made all this, some grown-up sat down and designed the little Mexican back alleys and cowboy boardwalks, the fake bird sounds.
In a sense, these stories were that scale model, much delayed.
But also, while working on “The Wavemaker Falters,” I noticed something: if I put a theme park in a story, my prose improved, the faux-Hemingway element having been disallowed by the setting. Placing a story in a theme park became a way of ensuring that the story would lurch over into the realm of the comic, which meant I would be able to finish it, and it would not collapse under the conceptual/thematic weight I tended to put on a so-called realist story.
I loved making these places up, and even now will still flash on certain vistas within them, vistas that never existed except in my mind, for a few months, back then, at Radian.
The book formed slowly, one or two stories a year over seven long years. Entire office eras started and ended, managers came and went. Whole rooms at Radian were emptied, repurposed. A corridor got lopped off and reframed and absorbed by our neighboring company, a mob-related outfit that claimed to sell penny stocks and whose president once fired a guy by beating the shit out of him in the vestibule near The Snot. People married, cheated, remarried. World Series were played, communism vanished, somewhere the Internet was invented, our kids worked their way up the grades, learning to read, catch, sing. Who can remember what was actually going on?
Mostly I was using whatever story I happened to have going at the time to get me through the day and give me some minimal sense of control and mastery. They were a secret source of sustenance. If I got a few good lines in the morning, that made the whole rest of the day better.
That much I remember.
When I was in my twenties I had this plan to go to El Salvador and write about the experience. I had no money, didn’t speak Spanish, but this was “my dream.” I stopped by one day to see a friend of mine but found only his father home. I’d never spoken to this man before, not really. He was a truck driver, a father of eight, always went around in a white T-shirt and a pair of Buddy Holly glasses. But this day, we talked. I told him about my El Salvador plan, expecting him to find it indulgent. But instead he said, “You know what? You have to do it.”
“Yes,” I said, with the force of revelation. “I do. I really do.”
“And you know why?” he said. “Because you know who you’re going to blame if you don’t?”
I did know.
“Myself,” I said with a knowing smile.
“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ll blame your wife and kids.”
I often thought of this conversation when I was stealing time from Radian to write this book. If I didn’t, I told myself, I was going to become a bitter old-fart version of myself, blaming Paula and the girls.
So I stole like a mother. I wrote in the bathroom, I printed using the company printer, I turned away from my Kodak report to jot things down, I edited while waiting for an offsite groundwater remediation system to purge, I sometimes blew off a full afternoon when I was feeling ripe, although usually, when that happened, I’d take work home, just to be fair.
In grad school I had grown suspicious of conventional literary beauty, wary of what I thought of as, for example, the literary triple descriptor: “Todd sat at the black table, the ebony plane, the dark-hued bearer of various glasses and plates, whose white, disk-shaped, saucer-like presences mocking his futility, his impotence, his inability to act.”
Christ, I had come to feel, just say it: “Todd sat at the table.”
Or better yet, cut that, too. Why do we need to know that Todd is sitting at a table? Let me know when Todd actually does something. And it better not be “raising a cup to his lips” or “pausing thoughtfully to let Randy’s insight fully inform him.”
I was feeling a little cranky back then, re: prose.
One of the new stories, “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” was accepted by Quarterly West. Paula and I went out for a celebratory dinner that cost us twice what the magazine paid. I sent “The Wavemaker Falters,” over the transom, to The New Yorker, which rejected it with a nice (signed!) letter that I, in a surfeit of enthusiasm, showed around proudly at work, even to one of our more straitlaced managers, who said, “Uh, yeah, Georgeman? We’ve been noticing that you’ve been producing your … literary thingies using corporate resources. And that’s going to need to stop.”
That’s what you think, I thought.
The new stories kept getting accepted. Finally The New Yorker took one of them, “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” I heard the news at a Microtel in Watertown, New York, where we were doing a study of what was called “an historic paint dump.”
Paula went around to several doctors’ and dentists’ office, collecting old New Yorkers, and strung these into a sort of banner, and under the banner the four of us had cake, to celebrate.
I expect that my younger self—the self who wrote this book—would have hated the idea of an author’s note. No explanations necessary, he would have said; all meanings are contained in the stories themselves. Explanation is reductive, reading visceral. The stories are either doing the work or they’re not. Don’t yap it up. And I agree with all of that. And I agree with all of that. But I’m older now and feeling nostalgic and—
I just wrote and deleted this phrase: I really miss those days.
I will forevermore, I expect, be trying to re-create the purity of that time. Having done nothing, I had nothing to lose. Having made a happy life without having achieved anything at all artistically, I found that any artistic achievement was a bonus. Having finally conceded that I wasn’t a prodigy after all, I had the total artistic freedom that is afforded only to the beginner, the doofus, the aspirant.
After the book finally came out, I got a phone call from an old next-door neighbor in Chicago, whom I’ll call “Mrs. L.”
“I read your book,” she said.
“Ah,” I said.
There was a long silence.
“Did you like it?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It worried me. I’m worried about you. You seem like a very unhappy person. Like the guy who takes out the garbage, late at night, miserable and grumbling.”
I didn’t quite know what to say to this and waited for some sort of softening praise, of the “But still, wow, you published a book” variety.
“I’m worried,” she said. “That book is not like you. You were always such a happy little guy.”
Wait a minute, I thought once she’d hung up: I’m happy. I’m one of the happiest people I know. My book is not unhappy. My book is funny. My book tells, uh, dark truths. I’m a hopeful person. Writing this book was a happy, hopeful act.
And that was true. I’d been plenty hopeful while writing it. I’d been hopeful that I might finish it, and that it would be published, and that its publication might make life happier for the four of us; I’d been hopeful that Paula and I would stay happy and together over the years to come, hopeful that that our kids would grow up to be wonderful adults.
It was, we did, they are.
But what bothered me at the time was that I could feel that this happy ending wasn’t necessarily so, not for me, and not for other people.
“Every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet,” wrote Chekhov, “to remind him, by his constant tapping, that not everyone is happy, and that, sooner or later, life will show him its claws.”
Yes, that’s it, I thought after that phone call. My book is—you know what my book is? My book is the unhappy man in me saying to the happy man: “There but for the grace of God go you.”
That’s a nice idea, but rereading the book, I’m not sure it’s true. The stories are, I think, more cruel, more misshapen then they’d need to be, if that was the book’s simple intention. The stories are mean, in places. They’re occasionally nasty. They are abrupt and telegraphic and odd. Sometimes the author seems to be rooting for the cruel world to go ahead and kick his characters’ asses.
“The writer can chose what he writes about,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.”
I guess that’s what I should have told Mrs. L.
When a young person first decides he wants to write, a number of mountains spring up around him, labeled with the names of his heroes.
Hemingway Mountain, let’s say.
He heads up it, armed with his love for Hemingway.
At some point, he starts to get tired. Tired of imitating. Tired of the low-ceiling feeling of trying to express his reality in someone else’s voice. Tired of the way that, by trying to sound and think like someone else, he is falsifying: selling his own experience of life short, omitting things he knows are true, adding in things he knows aren’t.
If he’s lucky enough to realize this, he trudges back down off Hemingway Mountain and starts over again.
Ah, look: Toni Morrison Mountain. That’s more like it.
Rinse, lather, repeat.
Then one day—maybe age has something to do with it, or something difficult happens that brings him to a boil—he snaps. No more imitation. That’s it. Something breaks. He starts sounding … like himself. Or at least he doesn’t sound like anyone else, exactly. A new mountain has appeared; he can actually see it, his name on it.
But wow, is it ever small.
It’s not even really a mountain. It’s like … it’s like a little dung heap or something.
Okay, okay, he thinks and goes over and stands on it.
The work he does there is not the work of his masters. It is less. It is more modest; it is messier. It is small and minor.
But at least it’s his.
He sent the trained dog that is his talent off in search of a fat glorious pheasant, and it brought back the lower half of a Barbie doll.
So be it.
Better than being stalled out forever.
He’ll make a collection of lower halves of Barbie dolls and call that a book.
And the thing is: it is a book. That’s what a book is: a failed attempt that, its failure notwithstanding, is sincere and hard-worked and expunged of as much falseness as he could manage, given his limited abilities, and has thus been imbued with a sort of purity.
A book doesn’t have to do everything, I remember saying to myself back then, as a form of consolation; it just has to do something.
So, although this book is short and took seven long years to write, and is truncated and halting, and is, yes, dark and maybe even a little sick in places, I remember the years during which it was being written as some of the richest and most magical of my life, full of hope and love and aspiration and the satisfaction of, finally, making something happen.
Excerpted from Civilwarland in Bad Decline, by George Saunders (Random House; November 2012). © 2012 George Saunders.