George Saunders’ Debut Novel Is Only Epic in its Failure

With the half-year milestone an easy excuse to publish half-baked tallies of early 2017 classics, George Saunders newest novel is the most undeserving of its literary accolades. The nonsensical acclaim surrounding this almost unreadable book is truly the emperor’s new clothes. Were it not for this writer’s astounding past body of work, his newest endeavor would have been booted out of any freshman seminar for its inane ridiculousness on almost every level of creative writing.

First, let us hail his magnificence. His control of voice, visionary premises, eccentric quirks, narrative chicanery and funny-ass jokes are all superior to most every writer going today. Like a more inventive but grotesque Vonnegut, few authors can ever match his satirical sci-fi.

But to understand his strengths in the short story form is to know why they are ill-translated into the novel. While his instincts succeed in smaller doses, they crumble upon the sustained strain of a full-blown narrative.

One looming issue is that this book is not a book. In structure and design, it more closely resembles a radio-play. And while a majority of the text is the author’s original composition of characters’ direct dialog, the other third is culled from actual nonfiction sources, which are similarly short bursts of primary-source accounts for the true parts of the story. This extremely experimental design reflects Saunders’ aimless whimsy better served in a small dose. It may look and read differently than most any other book ever, but it is not enjoyable. The experience of digesting the material is disruptive and clumsy. The reader must jump between the constantly shifting voices of dozens of different narrators. These gymnastics are all mercilessly compounded by having the speaker’s identity only revealed after reading what they had just said. Only a writer of such acclaim would be permitted to commit such an atrocious offense of upending standing playwriting conventions - leaving a reader in the dark on who is saying something until after they are done speaking. Like a cruel hoax, this bad joke is forced upon the reader several times a page. It’s hard to say why this decision was made to forgo standard formatting, other than for the sake of being weird and different without any substantive value.

Beyond the tricky and scattershot manner of reading the book, it also commits the cardinal sins of being uninteresting and uninformative. Various scenes are so repetitive of their predecessors, it almost leads one to believe that the continuity has jumped back in time to revisit an old scene again. But no, these frequently dull and redundant exchanges are a further example of how stretched the author is to invest any forward momentum to the threadbare narrative. The treading of water is indicative of a very weak and empty story. While the book may technically claim a 368-page count, the hundreds of chapter breaks and excessive spacing between speaker stanzas means the entire featherweight tome can be read in a couple hours. Again, this is the most telltale sign that the writer struggled to meet the demands of a novel, as this work qualifies for that title only under the most lenient measures for page-count alone.

Somewhere among this ramshackle story of grief and the afterlife are some ideas. But there is nothing so evolved thematically that doesn’t rival the most basic of plots. “It’s sad when loved ones die, but it’s important to move on from tragedy.” Substantively, it’s very 101. There is a smattering of subplots for its sprawling cast, but most are quickly resolved without much fanfare. In fact, several are almost callous in their handling of the characters’ final fate. The author has a renowned dark sense of humor, but this book has several punchlines which are more mean than fun.

It’s easy to imagine a terrified look upon the author’s editor upon a first read of this wildly incongruous novel. But then too one could picture a somber expression of acceptance to let the celebrated writer overindulge in such irreparable miscalculations. Perhaps one of its only contributions to the world of literature is how easy it will now be to sniff out the phony defenders of this nonsense — people too enraptured by hype and/or unable to discern quality are already falling upon their swords in hailing the mess, and should not be trusted with future recommendations.

Hopefully Saunders can see beyond the misbegotten accolades and learn from his mistakes. His hesitance to embrace a traditional form can be easily corrected. The man is undeniably too talented to ever fail this hard again, so there’s nowhere to go but up.