Thursday, September 28, 2006

I'm Wigging: Why George Saunders Is Stuck in My Head

We’re doing a lot of cleaning at work these days for two reasons. First, there isn’t anything else to do, and we only have so much personal time to burn before some of us have to sell organs. Second, we have some important customers visiting from Denver tomorrow. “Bigwigs,” they’ve been called. They want to see our operation, and it doesn’t seem to matter that there’s not much operation right now.

Anyway, the word “bigwig” dragged George Saunders to the fore of my mind all day. He hasn’t been buried too far, since I just recently read his new novel (novella? It’s very short) The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. It’s worth reading, and funny as hell, but nowhere near as good as his short story collection Pastoralia, which I think is almost perfect. I even used the short story “Pastoralia” in my comp exams.

“Pastoralia” is a satire of the American workplace. The whole collection is amazing, but this short story (which may actually contain more words than Phil, coming in at 66 pages) cracks me up on every page. I’ll share the section that I was reminded of today if you’ll promise to go out immediately and buy all of Mr. Saunders’s work. In this section, Marty, the guy who runs the convenience store, dictates a letter to be sent to his son at boarding school:

Inside the doublewide are Marty and a lady we think is maybe Marty’s wife but then again maybe not.

Marty’s shrieking at the lady, who’s writing down everything he shrieks.

“Just do as they ask!” he shrieks, and she writes it down. "And not only that, do more than that, son, more than they ask! Excel! Why not excel? Be excellent! Is it bad to be good? Now son, I know you don’t think that, because that is not what you were taught, you were taught that it is good to be good, I very clearly remember teaching you that. When we went fishing, son, and when you caught no fish, I frowned, I said bad, bad catching of fish, although I don’t believe I was ever cruel about it. Are you getting this?”

“Every word,” the lady says. “To me they’re like nuggets of gold.”

“Ha ha,” says Marty, and gives her a long loving scratch on the back, and takes a drink of Squirt and starts shrieking again.

“So anyways, do what they ask!” he shrieks. “Don’t you know how much we love you here at home, and want you to succeed? As for them, the big-wigs you wrote me about, freak them big-wigs! Just do what they ask though. In your own private mind, think what you like, only do what they ask, so they like you. And in this way, you will succeed. As for the little-wigs you mentioned, just how little are they? You didn’t mention that. Are they a lot littler wig than you? In that case, freak them, ignore them if they talk to you, and if they don’t talk to you, go up and start talking to them, sort of bossing them around, you know, so they don’t start thinking they’re the boss of you. But if they’re the same wig as you, be careful, son! Don’t piss them off, don’t act like you’re the boss of them, but also don’t bend over for some little shit who’s merely the same wig as you, or else he’ll assume you’re a smaller wig than you really actually are. As for friends, sure, friends are great, go ahead and make friends, they’re a real blessing, only try to avoid making friends with boys who are the same or lesser wig than you. Only make friends with boys who are bigger wigs than you, assuming they’ll have you, which probably they won’t. Because why should they? Who are you? You’re a smaller wig than them. Although then again, they might be slumming, which would be good for you, you could sneak right in there.”

Marty gives me a little wave, then resumes shrieking.

“I don’t want to put the pressure on, son,” he says, “I know you got enough pressure, with school being so hard and all, and you even having to make your own book covers because of our money crunch, so I don’t want to put on any extra pressure by saying that the family honor is at stake, but guess what pal, it is! You’re it, kid! You’re as good as we got. Think of it, me and your mother, and Paw-Paw and Mee-Maw, and Great Paw-Paw, who came over here from wherever he was before, in some kind of boat, and fixed shoes all his life in a shack or whatever? Remember that? Why’d he do that? So you could eventually be born! Think of that! All those years of laundry and stuffing their faces and plodding to the market and making love and pushing out the babies and so on, and what’s the upshot? You, pal, you’re the freaking upshot. And now there you are, in boarding school, what a privilege, the first one of us to do it, so all’s I’m saying is, do your best and don’t take no shit from nobody, unless taking shit from them is part of your master plan to get the best of them by tricking them into being your friend. Just always remember who you are, son, you’re a Kusacki, my only son, and I love you. Ack, I’m getting mushy here.”

Okay, I’d like to go on, but I probably shouldn’t, and you should just go buy it yourself, because the whole story is that kind of crazy. And poignant, too, without being sentimental. I love it. This story is so brilliant I don't even care about all of the comma splices, and that's saying something. Anyway, take care of your wigs. And let me know what you've been reading lately. Or what I should read.

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