George Saunders is definitely the same writer who visited Pittsburgh in 2007, trailing widespread critical acclaim, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur "genius grant."
The stories in his latest collection, The Tenth of December, teem with the same sort of struggling, morally compromised characters, inhabiting the same cruelly tweaked satirical world of rampant consumerism and corporatized language, as did 2006's In Persuasion Nation. And the stories, which often employ science fiction or fantasy, are still deeply compassionate, still funny as hell.
But in 2013, Saunders' profile has soared. That's what happens when, in January, the New York Times Magazine runs a feature article headlined "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year."
It didn't hurt that in September, the book was named a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction — alongside works by Thomas Pynchon and Jhumpa Lahiri. Or that The Wall Street Journal recently said, "George Saunders helped change the trajectory of American fiction." Or that he's been on The Colbert Report, and has fans including Pynchon, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith.
Saunders, reached recently by phone in his "writing shack" in rural Oneida, N.Y., addresses all the attention with his usual wry self-effacement.
"I thought I was getting out there pretty good before," he says, "but it turns out I was a loser all these years."
He adds that being named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World "was probably a clerical error."
But why the sudden fame? Saunders has yet to write a novel or a memoir, the usual paths to literary stardom. And the touchstone story in Tenth of December would fit comfortably in any of his previous three collections (also including Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline). "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" is narrated by a financially pressed suburban dad whose desire for social status for his daughters leads him to purchase the latest must-have: a brace of young girls from impoverished countries, decoratively strung in the backyard with a special line through their heads.
It's dark, not terribly commercial stuff — even if Saunders's skill is such that you somehow sympathize with the comically inarticulate narrator who's doing this horrible thing. But Saunders says he's selling "orders of magnitude more books this time."
Asked whether he's writing any differently than before, Saunders, 55, says it's possible.
"I've reached my 180th birthday. I'm feeling more inclined to reach out to a reader more directly than maybe I was in the past," says Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University. "When you're a young writer, sometimes your main fear is that you might be considered sentimental or not edgy enough. And as I'm getting older, that's kind of falling away and my fear is that I just wouldn't be sufficiently communicative, that I'll die before I get a chance to express the way I feel about things really straightforwardly."
Such an approach recalls the new collection's title story, which sets a collision course between a socially outcast boy and a suicidal man, and conjures wrenching emotions.
But if The Tenth of December is less dark than Saunders' earlier work, it's only by a little — as he was recently reminded when asked to read at a small-town book club near his home. He recalls frantically thumbing through the volume and thinking, "What can I read that isn't perverse? There isn't anything!"