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George Saunders talks fiction, Vonnegut, Johnny Tremain and his new essay collection The Braindead Megaphone

If you know George Saunders only from his September spot on Letterman -- his network-TV debut -- you don't know enough about this scathingly satirical, deeply humane and wildly funny writer.

For the past 15 years or so, with such collections as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and last year's In Persuasion Nation, the former field geophysicist has become one of the country's best-known, best-reviewed short-story writers. He's an anthropologist of American culture who issues his findings in terms of crazily inventive fiction.

A typical Saunders protagonist is a guy who's well-meaning but weak and insecure, and he's getting thwacked on the head by a guy who's somewhat worse, all while desperately trying to hold onto his dignity.

It's kind of like The Three Stooges. Actually, it's a lot like The Three Stooges, if Larry did Swiftian political satire and Moe were boning up on his Baudrillard.

"In Persuasion Nation," for instance, depicts a revolt of abused characters from TV snack-food ads against their oppressors; "I Can Speak!TM" comprises a letter from a salesman to a mother dissatisfied with an electronic mask that gives her infant the illusion of intelligent speech. Saunders' 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a Vonnegutesque fantasia set in an alternate universe where humanish characters play out Americans' worst impulses on immigration and the "war on terror."

Saunders' new book, The Braindead Megaphone (Riverhead Books), is a collection of essays and other previously published nonfiction. Included are considerations of literary influences as diverse as Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme and Esther Forbes, who wrote the children's classic Johnny Tremain (which Saunders read in third grade). The title essay, about the mass media, is complemented by pieces about visiting the postmodern city of Dubai; patrolling with Arizona's anti-immigration Minutemen militia; and visiting Nepal's myterious "Buddha boy."

Saunders, 48, teaches at Syracuse University. He spoke with CP by phone from Chicago, where he was on a tour that includes an Oct. 1 reading at the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers series.

How did Esther Forbes influence you?

Forbes was actually huge, so big that I didn't even know it for many years. I was just, "Yeah yeah, yeah, Johnny Tremain." And then one day I just thought, "That's actually when my whole relationship to language started, with that book."

You write that it made you understand how writing about something affects your perception of it.

It's a two-way street. I found that on those travel pieces [in The Braindead Megaphone]. You live through something, come down from that, write it down, it's not quite right. And as you refine it, you go, you get closer to what [the experience] was like.

Which also implies that if you had to compose a letter telling your wife and your kid what they mean to you -- that's a huge job. If you had only seven words at your disposal -- if you had "cat," "frog," "plant," "bike," "man" -- and three minutes, then good luck, you can't do it. But as you get more words and more time, to revise and refine, it becomes closer [to hitting] the target. With literature you're putting language into your head, you're putting that construction into your head, you're putting a certain ambient level of complexity into your head, and then when you go look at the world -- surprise, your observations come out on a higher or lower level, depending on what you've been putting in.

That's where it ties into that first essay ["The Braindead Megaphone"]. If it's a culture of always putting crap into ourselves, when the moment of crisis comes, we've only got those five words, or six words to deal with, say the invasion of the Iraq.

Why do so many of your characters talk in commercial speech or technical jargon?

It's interesting -- even those five words that I gave you, you can overflow 'em with emotion. You can say, "Bike, bike, BIKE , BIKE!" Even at a really limited kind of shrunken diciton, you can still communicate a lot. In my fiction, I'll have a person who's not that articulate, but feeling the full range of things that they would feel. It can be very moving, the idea of someone who's not well eductaed, or even who's propaganda-educated, trying to break out, into that bigger space of langauge.

Like Vonnegut, you trained in engineering and worked in corporate America. How does that affect your writing?

For better or worse, it makes you come into the party at a different angle than someone who studied literature. You've got that scientific thing which basically says, "Look at the data, coldly and objectively, and then make your theory." If an unhappy data point arrives, you don't get to just ignore it. You have to take it on.

For a number of years, the language I was speaking was very typical -- and very weird. The language of field geophysics is like a different language, not to mention that there's math involved, which is a different language. Then to sort of see language as something pragmatic, useful and constructuve. Even language that isn't conventionally poetic can be poetic if you concentrate on it enough. When you get a couple engineers going back and forth, that could be like an opera.

And Slaughterhouse Five suggested writing needn't rely on detailed physical descriptions?

I always thought that the purpose of writing was that so you would feel exactly what I felt in some past situation. Which is doubly or triply absurd, because I don't even know what I felt. I had a big -- not a writer's block, but a writer's shitfest, when I was younger, because I kept trying to think I have to make Bill, in Pittsburgh, feel what I felt -- it was unworkable. Finally I thought, "I'm just going to have a party. I'm just gonna make up fun things and put them in good sentences. I really don't care about the relation to reality. I just want to make it really electrifying." As soon as I gave up on that idea of direct verisimilitude, it was liberating.

How did writing nonfiction for GQ, for example, affect your writing?

You write fiction, and something that's almost scary is your conceptual view of the world can get so familiar to yourself, and you just re-enact it. I think this [nonfiction] is a great chance to go out and say, "OK, wait a minute. What are some of the overtones I'm missing?" What I picked up in Dubai, for example, is that sometimes the person [a low-paid immigrant] being quote-unquote oppressed is actually celebrating being not as oppressed as they were before. The other thing is, you can't forget that when wealth exerts itself, as it does in Dubai and those hotels, it's kind of exciting. Vegas is kind of beautiful, you know?

You're a practicing Buddhist?

My wife kinda led the way around eight or nine years ago. I think I probably was one before I knew what it was. Because writing -- the way I approach it -- it's deeply Buddhist. It's quickly trying to get unattached from whatever you've written, so you don't have any loyalty to it, so you can come back to it [and evaluate it].

How was it winning a $500,000 MacArthur "genius grant" last year?

It's nice. I suddenly could program the VCR, because I was a genius. It's basically less financial pressure. Sometimes you think about doing a certain thing in your work, and you feel the consoling hand of the MacArthur thing: Yeah, you can do that, you're good.

Plus I bought like 27 jet skis, so that's cool.

George Saunders at the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series 8:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 1. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Oakland. Free. 412-624-6506

click to enlarge "Bike, bike, BIKE , BIKE!": George Saunders. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Saunders.
  • "Bike, bike, BIKE , BIKE!": George Saunders. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Saunders.

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