I DETECT MELLOWING. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I, for one, do not at all mind if writers get a bit wiser, gentler, more forgiving as they mature. And seeing as, professionally speaking, Saunders is happily circumstanced these days--in his acknowledgments, he thanks the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations and his editor at the New Yorker--it would hardly work for his fiction to suggest that all is vice, folly, desperation, dust and ashes.
Saunders is a satirist, and if your stories consistently represent people doing the right thing, rising to the occasion despite their inherent flaws and unpropitious circumstances, aren't you at least going to get a stern note from the satirists' union? The characters in "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December," which bookend the collection, overcome fear and their own despair to do the right thing; the main characters in "Escape from Spiderhead" and "My Chivalric Fiasco" do the right thing, even though it costs the latter his job and the former his life. Even in the stories where matters are left somewhat in suspense, hope gleams: the father-diarist in "The Semplica Girl Diaries" seems ready to face the dire consequences of his young daughter having done the right thing, the family of the desperate returned Iraq war vet in "Home" seem on the cusp of doing the right thing, and even the envy-ridden, far-from-likable Al Roosten seems about to bite the bullet and do the right thing.
I mean... if you have as much faith in humanity as Saunders seems to have, can you still be a satirist?
Then again, Saunders remains America's laureate of Marx's concept of alienated labor. The father-diarist describes his work to the father of the girl whose birthday party his own daughter is attending, and the other father comments, "well, huh, amazing the strange arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things, things that offer no tangible benefit to anyone, how do they expect people to continue to even hold their heads up?" There's the genius of Saunders--all of his characters have that sort of job, have to deal with bosses who represent the workplace as family yet will squeeze their employees any conceivable way, have to strain every nerve to provide something that can approximate for their families the kind of life they see on TV.
Even uncannier is his ability to imitate the mismatched syntax and the leaden phrases borrowed from motivational speakers with which his characters try to understand their lives.
"The Semplica Girls Diaries" exemplifies both virtues, adding the irony that even while the father-diarist fights down his cold-sweat status anxiety, dreams up ever-more-unlikely scenarios in which his family escapes to calm prosperity, and struggles to articulate his reality in the cliché-clotted discourse his education has furnished him with, there are people much worse off than he--specifically, the "Semplica Girls," young women from Asia and eastern Europe who have let themselves be neurologically altered so as to serve as ornaments for suburban American lawns. When his daughter takes pity on the Semplica girls and frees them, he will be contractually stuck with the titanic bill, and without the status the dangling women confer--yet the last lines suggest his decency is not yet extinguished:
Empty rack out in the yard, looking strange in the midnight.
Note to self: call Greenway, have them take ugly thing away.
Even the hypocritical, manipulative middle-manager of "Exhortation," who seems irredeemable, ends his memo by quoting Julian of Norwich, and you think, well... maybe there's hope for him, too.
But once satire is hopeful, it is turning into something else. Saunders may be in transition to a whole 'nother kind of thing. Will his Brideshead Revisited be next?