We sped south on Cicero Avenue. Through Oak Lawn, Alsip, Crestwood, a flat, aging strip-malled landscape of crumbling pizza joints and ancient tanning parlors, fast-food chains, tile-supply stores and —
"Wow!" I shouted, "Look! The Brazen Head!"
George Saunders, the best short story writer in America, sat in the passenger seat.
"Whoa!" he said, craning his head around as I passed what appeared to be a restaurant, "What the hell is a Brazen Head?" He picked up my recorder: "The Brazen Head — be sure to use The Brazen Head." It was the kind of vaguely satiric, improbable (though not impossible) name that might appear in a George Saunders story, accompanied by a (faux) trademark symbol, perhaps. His story "Escape from Spiderhead," for instance, in his wildly acclaimed (and lavishly hyped) new story collection "Tenth of December," is about a teenager forced to test drugs that chemically instill feelings of love; the story includes such fictional products as BlissTyme™ and Darkenfloxx™, neither of which sound that improbable. Particularly alongside "Skype" in a sentence.
"George has always had a talent for that kind of language," said writer Tobias Wolff, best known for "This Boy's Life," who taught Saunders in the creative writing program at Syracuse University in the mid-1980s. "Corporate language, aspirational rhetoric, military jargon, names. He has this knack for hearing and appropriating the way the world sounds."
Saunders and I continued down Cicero, toward Oak Forest, where he grew up. He returns now and then to visit relatives, he explained. I pointed out a sign: "Illinois Bus Company." Its motto: "A bus for every occasion." He smiled. "Now, I don't think that's literally true! A bus for a frontal lobotomy?" he said. "I just doubt that."
We drove on.
He had not returned to this area for many years, he said, maybe a half-dozen. He watched intersections, lampposts and apartment complexes flip by, and delivered a kind of impromptu memoir/essay on place:
"Now, that spot on the right, that budget motel there, that was The Pink Cloud, one of those sleazy rendezvous places. I love that name. The river near here? The channel? The Cal-Sag. As in Calumet-Saganashkee. I love that too." He said it again: "Cal-Sag." Then he continued, gesturing ahead: "This used to be Howell Airport, but they cashed in at some point. I remember from here you could see Piper Cubs in a long line on the runway. My first date was at a mall that was here.
"Wow, there is a lot of signage, huh? Do people still call this ' Chicagoland'? Sitting in the back of the car on the way to my grandmother's, I loved how it was all Chicagoland, so continuous. You watched Chicagoland scrawl by. That had a huge impact, but, look, if you're Faulkner returning to Oxford, Miss., the same people are always hanging around the same places. And this is all just different stuff. Nostalgia is, 'Hey, remember the other mall that used to be there?'"
The story of George Saunders is two stories.
The first and best-known begins with "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," his first book of stories, published in 1996, two weeks before David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." It was heralded, along with Wallace's classic, as the arrival of a new satiric, absurdist, semi-futuristic contemporary fiction that captured the Way We Live Now, no less than the missing links between the postmodernism of Donald Barthelme and the pseudo-sci-fi of Kurt Vonnegut. Plus, both Wallace and Saunders came out of Illinois. Asked now if he saw more than coincidence there, Saunders said he's not sure, but "we felt comfortable with each other, possibly out of some shared Midwestern sense that any intellectual ambition should be cloaked in some outer modesty."
They were friends, and Wallace once sent Saunders' daughter, then the only female on a boys baseball team, a box of baseballs with instructions such as "To be hit out of the park." They mingled at Syracuse University, where Wallace lived and Saunders has taught since the mid-'90s. But Wallace was the superstar.
A couple of decades, four short-story collections, a book of essays, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, several late-night talk show appearances (Letterman, Colbert) and a blurb from the elusive Thomas Pynchon later, those comparisons with Wallace (who killed himself in 2008, and with whom Saunders said there was no rivalry) seem shortsighted, as do descriptions of Saunders as a satirist.
"George is no realist, as many writers from Chicago are," said Chicago writer Stuart Dybek, whose work Saunders credits with introducing him to contemporary fiction. "But there's a tragic humor to his work that is not satiric. Rather, it's so familiar and Midwestern, you get the sense this guy lived in the real world and survived on imagination and comedy."
In a Saunders story, orphans get sold off to marketing firms and male strippers are haunted. In the title story of "Tenth of December," a man dying of cancer goes to a park, removes his clothes and decides to freeze to death, to save his family the ordeal of a long sickness; then he meets a sad young man who forces him to re-evaluate. And in the title story of "Pastoralia," his 2000 collection, a couple portray cave people in a human zoo, managing their lives during 15-minute smoke breaks.
Writer Ben Marcus, with whom Saunders has been friends for decades, said: "In the past 20 years, the division between writers who write what it's like to live our lives and postmodern writers who make up weird imaginative stuff — that divide has grown wider. But George, he's like a natural synthesizer of diverging spaces. I think that's his achievement, and not a small one: He writes about dreamlike places while staying committed to what it feels like to be a person in this world, right now."
Which is partly why Andy Ward, executive editor at Random House, when asked about the rapturous response to "Tenth of December" — The New York Times proclaimed it "the best book you'll read this year" the first week of January, Saunders' public appearances (including at Lincoln Hall last month) sold out quickly, and the book debuted at No. 3 on Amazon.com's best-seller list — said he sees "George poised to push way past what had been a dedicated, somewhat confined group of admirers and famous writers." The world looks like Cicero Avenue.
Indeed, the America in Saunders' stories is a surreal, familiar horizon of gaudy signs, dehumanizing office parks and theme restaurants punctuated by a stray pond or patch of woods. It's not hard to imagine CivilWarLand, the theme park in "CivilWarLand," as a part of Chicagoland, off Cicero, in lonesome disarray. Ward, a former GQ editor, said he once asked Saunders to write a piece on Dubai because "a manufactured microworld in a desert where hotels pipe in fragrances and tunnels lead to indoor ski slopes sounds almost like George in real life." His situations are surreal, the writing often implacable, influenced by his brief time as a technical writer for a Rochester, N.Y., engineering company — Saunders said its daily corporate speak was "bleeding into my writing until it felt poetic." And his settings appear to be nowhere and everywhere.
When I said to Deborah Treisman, Saunders' longtime editor at The New Yorker, which has steadily published his work since the early '90s, that his stories seem to take place nowhere, she said: "No, it is somewhere. It's not our universe, but a parallel one where things happen in slightly different ways. I call it GeorgeLand."