Writing Seeing: Open City (1)

What sense can one expect readers to make of the opening words of Open City? What speaker can hope to convey any meaning with words that flow out from a coordinating conjunction? “And so,” the speaker begins, “when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” Since nothing precedes that “And so,” the coordinating conjunction elides the cause of the speaker’s evening walks. But flip back a few pages to his aphoristic epigraph and consider how it issues a statement to which his walks may be a response. “Death,” it declares, “is a perfection of the eye.” Insofar as those words form the first full sentence of Open City, the subsequent “And so” coordinates the notion contained therein with the evening walks that the speaker discusses. “Death is a perfection of the eye,” and so, perhaps in some perverse courtship of death or otherwise in pursuit of perfection, the speaker sets out into the city each night and then, when his walks come to an end, he notices that they have afforded him an alteration of his perspective on his world. Having “fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment,” he says,

I wonder now if [that habit and the evening walks] are connected. … I used to look out of the window like someone taking auspices, hoping to see the miracle of natural immigration. Each time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high-rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove.

The speaker’s name is Julius. He is a young Nigerian of German-Nigerian parentage who now works as an intern at a hospital in Manhattan. Given his first-person detailing of events, his perception of his surroundings is far more circumscribed than that of the knower of The Known World or the seer of Blood Meridian, and so, as he crosses and recrosses the city, he comes to hunger for a mode of perception that will make him more like them. He wants to develop a perfection of the eye that will, in a sense, allow him to obtain an omniscient view of the life he leads. Continue reading Writing Seeing: Open City (1)

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Why Tenth of December?

Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth of December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something like conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?