George Saunders is one of my favorite short-story writers—not necessarily because I always like his stories, for satire is not my favorite form, but because he is so damned smart about the nature of short stories, which means, of course, that he agrees with me on such matters. I have written several blog posts on Saunders' stories and his view of the short story form, which you can find by searching his name in the "Search this blog" slot just to the right.
I also like Saunders' ideas on kindness and sympathetic identification with others. If you have not already read it, search for his 2013 graduation speech at Syracuse University. The only reason to buy the book (64 pages for $9.99 on Amazon) is to give it to a graduate as a gift. It is not that much more than the price of a graduation card and a helluva lot better than Hallmark. However, if you have not read Saunders' stories, you would be better to pay $9.99 for a copy of his collection Tenth of December.
Saunders' most recent story, "Mother's Day," just appeared in the winter two-week issue of The New Yorker. It's the first Saunders story I have read since he hit it big three years ago with Tenth of December, which won lots of awards and, lo and behold! had lots of folks in the media actually talking about the short story, as if they the form had just been invented.
In his interview on "Mother's Day" with Deborah Treisman for The New Yorker on Feb. 1, Saunders said that his process of coming up with a story is never to think about taking on an issue or an idea or writing about a certain thing, but rather to find a voice that "is fun to do and in which I can feel some sort of power."
And voice is indeed the key to reading "Mother's Day." The first voice you "hear" is that of an elderly woman named Alma, the "mother" of the title. But you don't know that at first, so it takes a few paragraphs to "hear" the voice of a grumpy old woman. Saunders' decision to put the point of view in the third person adds to the initial reader disorientation. As a result, the first few paragraphs are confusing. For example, since you don't know right away it is the mother speaking you don't know who Pammy and Paulie are. Furthermore, although it certainly seems it is Alma speaking when we hear, "Just like Pammy to take her mother to lunch in a sweatshirt with a crossed-out picture of a machine gun on it," it is not clear it is Alma who provides the voice of herself in third person speaking to Pammy, e.g. ""We're going home," she said. "You can drive me out to the grave."
You can hear the voice more clearly if you click on the audio button on the New Yorker web site and listen to George Saunders read the story. He does not try to mimic the voices of Alma, and later, the character Debi, but he obviously knows the intonations he wants you to hear. I have listened to the reading twice and can now hear both Alma and Debi clearly when I read the story.
Saunders has obviously worked on "Mother's Day" off and on for some time, having sent an earlier version of it to The New Yorker a few years ago, a version which Treisman had reservations about and sent back for editing. He talks at some length in the interview about how "Mother's Day" has changed over the years from a focus solely on the character Alma to a duet of Alma and the woman Debi—both of whom once loved Alma's late husband Paul ,Sr.
Saunders says that Debi probably turned up in the story because when he was touring and being interviewed about the graduation speech he gave on kindness, he began to notice what he called a "certain ego-based New Age stance" in which people, while not realizing what they were doing, claimed a virtue while actually living out its exact opposite. And when you read Alma's justification of her neglect of her children and Debi's self-justifications and defenses about her own sexual behavior, you can hear this "New Age stance." However, Saunders said that Debi was a way to make the reader see where all of Alma's bitterness came from.
Then Saunders says something quite academic and not completely clear--the kind of statement that had he made it in front of a class, some kid in the back row would have raised his/her hand and asked, "Say what?" Here is what Saunders says, without providing any explanation to the kid in the back row, i.e. me:
"I've sometimes thought that what a story seeks to do is destabilize itself--disallow a too-easy reading of its internal moral dynamics."
Always an academic myself, I like that statement, for it rings true to my own experience with good short stories—stories that refuse to allow the reader to make an "easy" judgment about what inner demons motivate a character, for example, that Melville's Bartleby "prefers not to" because he is lazy, or crazy, or represents Marx's downtrodden worker, etc.
In the Treisman interview, Saunders says that although he knows that his stories are going to be "about" something, if he starts out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting. And by "interesting" I think he means "interesting," as opposed to being simple, to him. Instead, he says, as he concentrates on the technical aspects of a story, a certain set of meanings begins to come forward. And by "technical aspects," I think he means all those decisions or intuitions a writer has about "how" to structure the story, how to give it a certain syntactical rhythm or voice, what language to use, etc.
Saunders says he tries to be only "dimly aware" of those meanings, lest the story gets reduced to those meanings. By "dimly aware," I think he means what all authors, at least all good short story writers, know--that meaning emerges from those very technical decisions/intuitions the author makes as he is in the "process" of writing the story. It is only when the story is done, Saunders says, that he finds he can really think about what themes it might embody, for then "weirdly, the "thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself. The story is about something…but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset." I like the humility of the word "weirdly" here, for it suggests that "ah ha" experience authors have when they "read" their own work not as a writer but as a reader and see how the language has worked a kind of magic of coming together to "mean" something.
Robert Boswell talks about this "dimly aware" idea at some length in his book on writing fiction, the Half-Known World. Boswell says:
I have grown to understand narrative as a form of contemplation, a complex and seemingly incongruous way of thinking. I come to know my stories by writing my way into them…. For as long as I can, I remain purposefully blind to the machinery of the story and only partially cognizant of the world the story creates. I work from a kind of half-knowledge."
To do this, Boswell says, the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension." Flannery O'Connor talks a great deal about this sense of "mystery" in the essays in her collection Mystery and Manners.
Saunders says he thinks stories "give pleasure more in the how they say than…what they are saying." But it is the "how" that "Mother's Day" says what it says that has been causing some readers problems, for example om the bog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor Berrett, who operates the blog, says he is glad to see a new story by Saunders, but after reading only the first third had to lay it down in frustration, for he says he "didn't know what to make of" what he was reading. Another reader at Mookse and Gripes thought the story was "terrible," that he/she was not sure what to make of what Saunders hoped to accomplish with those "ghoulish harridans" or what point he was trying to make.
Another reader found the story "a bit simple and didactic"; however, suggesting that the story was "about" parents who have kids that are their "worldview-ic opposites" may reflect it is the reading that is too simplistic, not the story. Someone named Joe says the story is full of lazy observations, nonsensical digressions, POV shifts. "I mean this really was a total stinker and a slog and an absolute unmitigated disaster on so many levels, concluding, "Wowzers. I'm stunned." Someone else named JohnnyHenry agrees with Joe, saying the story took too much of an effort to follow, for it has too much unnecessary shifting within the narrative even on the sentence level.
However, the confusion is not really there if you listen to Saunders read the story. The rhythm of the voices is quite distinct and clear. These objections on Mookse and the Gripes are like those my students used to make about James Joyce's Ulysses, when I tried to teach them to read the book. However, when I got students to practice reading a page or two of the book aloud, they understood Joyce's purposeful prose without any problem. Some stories you have to make your lips move when you read them. And the fact that Saunders sets up the inner voice of Alma and Debi in the third person is a technique that may be quite necessary to discover the basic theme of the story.
The "how" of "Mother's Day" centers on Saunders' first setting up that cranky old woman Alma, full of phlegm and fierceness, and then juxtaposing against her the voice of Debi, that infuriating self-congratulator who is somehow responsible for Alma's present state. Saunders believes the basic theme of "Mother's Day" is that "in this life, we do get hit with things that deform us, and we sometimes can't simply will ourselves out of that state of deformity." But this is something he discovered as he engaged in the process of writing the story, not something he set out to "prove" from the beginning.
Much of the meaning of "Mother's Day" depends on the unlikability of Alma. And coincidentally, unlikability of fictional characters was recently discussed by Heidi Pitlor in the Foreword to Best American Short Stories: 2015, about which I blogged last month. Pitlor quotes Claire Messud's often repeated tirade response to a Publisher's Weekly interviewer who said she would not like to be friends with the protagonist of Claire Messud's novel The Woman Upstairs, adding "would you?" To which Messud replied with some vigor:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in ? Any of the characters in ? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
However, Messud does not deal with the related problem of unlikability: if a character is reprehensible, how can the reader identify with that character sufficiently even to read the story? And if the reader cannot identify with the character, how can he or she make a moral judgment on the character's behavior? Donald Antrim, whom Pitlor also quotes (from a symposium on the subject of character unlikability by The New Yorker) may provide the beginnings of an answer to this question:
When we accept the suspension of disbelief, we agree to a logic—the story’s premise and its extension as, and eventually into, a created world; and we need empathy to make our experience in the reading. But empathy is not appreciation, infatuation, or the feeling that an author and her characters are decent people.
Empathy with fictional characters has been the subject of quite a bit of critical discussion in recent years, as discourse researchers and theorists study what has been called Theory of Mind, that, is, the human ability to empathize with someone else, and how reading fiction can increase this ability. I have written about this in previous blogs, which you can also search, if you are of a mind. Most recently, researchers are trying to determine if there is something about so-called "literary" works that stimulate Theory of Mind more than popular narrative texts. In short, researchers are trying to discover if Saunders is right when he, like many other writers, suggests that stories may be more important in "how" they say what they say than in "what" they say.
One of the best discussions I have ever read on this problem of sympathy and judgment of unlikable characters is in a book on the dramatic monologue entitled The Poetry of Experience, by Robert Langbaum. Using Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" as an example, Langbaum says the poem "carries to the limit an effect peculiarly the genius of the dramatic monologue—I mean the effect created by the tension between sympathy and moral judgment…most successful dramatic monologues deal with speakers who are in some way reprehensible." Langbaum says the dramatic monologue requires sympathy for the speaker as a condition of reading it, concluding: "Sympathy adapts the dramatic monologue for making the 'impossible' case and for dealing with the forbidden region of the emotions, because we must suspend moral judgment, we must sympathize in order to read the poem."
Please forgive the following brief summary of the different sections of the story, as I try to make sense of Saunder's technique of using a third person/first person perspective and how this shifting pov relates to the problem of sympathizing with an unlikable character.
Part I: Told from the third person perspective of an older woman named Alma, whose daughter Pammy has taken her to lunch for Mother's Day. We learn that Alma's son Paulie has flown in to visit, but has slept late. He doesn't appear in the story. The Alma perspective recalls the childhood of Pammy and Paulie, who, she thinks, have not turned out well; they have poor jobs and have never married, but she insists it is not her fault.
Alma recalls having sex with her husband Paul, Sr. when they were young and having that sexuality curtailed by the birth of the children, who cried and complained and pooped at idiotic random times and would step on glass and wake from their naps. She justifies her feelings by saying the craziness of her and Paul's sex life was all part of their grand love. She recalls playing mean tricks on the children, punishing them, and now thinks how stupid Pammy is for taking out on this walk. Then she sees Debi Hather sweeping in front of her small house.
Part II: The story shifts to the pov of Debi, who sees Alma and wonders when such a mean old woman will die. Debi recalls all the men she has had sex with, but has no regrets; she thinks she has "really lived," for she feels she has always accepted people the way they were. She also recalls her daughter Vicky, who had been a bookworm, a subservient, insecure, uptight girl; Debi feels she had got stuck with the wrong kid. She recalls Vicky running off in her senior year with two boys, who left her in Phoenix for being a bitch. Debi is proud of her daughter for being independent.
Debi watches Alma and asks why she was always so mean and why she squandered her "precious life force," trying to control everyone. She has a fantasy about she and Alma being in heaven and Alma finally seeing that she has always lived in a state of self-imposed blindness. She recalls the times that she had sex with Alma's husband Paul, and she recalls how she had loved who she was at that time because she was authentic and spontaneous. She also feels it was unfair that although she had loved Paul and he had loved her, she had never got to live with him. Ultimately, Debi feels that she is happy now and that she was happy then with Paul; she only regrets that he died and left her.
Part III: Back to Alma's pov again, but the focus now is primarily on a hail storm that hits them, injuring Pammy and causing her collapse.
Part IV: Back to Debi, who offers Alma and Pammy an umbrella, which Alma refuses.
Part V: Back to Alma, who has collapsed and feels a tightness in her chest. She has hallucinations of little beings which condense into a boy and a girl baby. The rest of the story becomes an hallucinatory confrontation with the baby figures who Alma tries to hold on to, but her hands are burning. A stump appears, and she sits on it, feeling that all this seems to mean she has been wrong about who to blame for her anger, but thinking if she was wrong about who was to blame, then "there was no right." She fakes admitting she was wrong, and the stump rises, after which hyena-like creatures scramble toward her across a wide plain. Fearing for the babies, she tries to grab them, but her burning hands sear their arms. As long as she blames Paul for all her unhappiness, her arms get hotter and hotter.
She thinks she does not want to be angry, that she wants to be her young non-mad self, but realizes that would not do, because she would still be Alma who would meet Paul, who would always be Paul. Her arms and hands become cool only when she realizes it would all be fixed only when she stopped being Alma. This is when the baby girl whispers in her ear, "Who do you want to be?" But on the verge of death, Alma cannot answer that. She only knows she must no longer be Alma. As she cries, "this cannot possibly…" and dies, the story ends with an abrupt shift to a paramedic who says, "Nobody even close to home in there." The other medic thinks this is rude, but realizes it is fine, for the daughter is out of earshot, "sobbing against a tree."
The end of the story is very much like the famous ending of Flannery O'Connor's story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," when the grandmother, who is also unlikable because she wants everything her own way and has inadvertently caused the death of her son, his wife, and their two children. After the Misfit shoots the grandmother three times in the chest when she reaches out for him, saying "You're one of my own children," he says, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Indeed, Alma would have been a good woman if she could have been another woman—something she realizes only on the verge of death.
So, what is the story about? What meaning does Saunders arrive at in the process of creating this particular story?
First of all, we need to think of the significance of "Mother's Day," a particularly twentieth-century creation meant to honor mothers. It is often said it is the day of the year with the highest telephone traffic, as everyone calls their mother on that day. It is synonymous with what is good and nurturing and unquestionably wholesome and desirable, even though history is full of "Mommie Dearest" type bad mothers.
In this story, we have two mothers—Alma and Debi—neither of whom are good mothers. Both neglect their children primarily to focus on self-satisfying sex, which children obviously just get in the way of. Most people have no sympathy with abusive mothers, neglectful mothers, selfish mothers, bad mothers. Consequently, the challenge of Saunders' story is how to make the reader sympathize with the two mothers at least to the extent that the reader can read the story before being able to make a moral judgment on the mothers.
There are two reasons that some readers may have trouble with this story: one is the sympathy/judgment issue about the two mothers who are bad mothers, and the other is the mixed point of view in which we hear the voices of the women at the same time that we hear the voice of a third person narrator—a mixed pov necessary to provide the tension between sympathy and judgment. So the problem the story raises is how to empathize with two unlikable characters and how to maneuver ourselves through a story in which both sympathy and judgment are continually juxtaposed.