I’ve reviewed one of his works already, Tenth of December, and loved it. Saunders has a wonderful style of writing. One of his strengths is being able to write and feel exclusively from his character’s point of view.
And while I lauded Tenth of December for its interesting hope for humanity through compassion, I want to compliment Pastoralia on something completely different: the separation of thought and action. The themes of compassion and dignity and worth are still there, but they are tackled in this dichotomy: what we think versus what we do.
I’m still in awe of how Saunders has done this, but he writes characters that are human to a frightening degree. He perfectly captures the stream-of-consciousness thought process of humanity, in how we can build ourself up and tear ourselves down moments later. He takes us on a roller coaster of thoughts as characters talk themselves into one thing and one perspective, and then completely backpedal, telling themselves its horrible and terrible and why did they ever think of that? And it’s done so well, that even though their thoughts are terrible, you can’t help but root for them.
And the really interesting thing, is that even while they think in these terribly steep ups and downs, their feet don’t stop moving. Which is what brings me to the point about Pastoralia.
Saunders’s characters are the perfect example of humanity’s strange ability to think one thing and do another thing entirely. In his novella, “Pastoralia,” the protagonist replica caveman worker admonishes his colleague for breaking the period piece and smoking cigarettes and speaking in english, while he goes and uses the fax machine in the back of the cave to check on his family. In “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” the middle aged, sad barber talks himself out of dating the young girl because she is overweight and wouldn’t she look better if she wasn’t, well I’ll let her know and we can tackle this problem together, even as he opens the door for her and hopes beyond hope that it works out. In, “The Falls,” a nebbish, older man sees two girls adrift on the river, headed for sure death, and readily talks himself out of it, even as he dives into the water.
Humanity is a contradiction. We’ll complain about each other until the end of the earth, and still help that miserable old lady with her groceries to the car. We’ll constantly belittle ourselves and tell ourselves we’re no good, but we’ll still put ourselves out there, hoping someone can convince us otherwise. Our thoughts and our actions, many times, are not exclusively on the same page.
Saunders’s work in Pastoralia captures this contradiction beautifully. More than the casual fluidity of his prose, more than his sad and hopeful characters, it is this lens of contradiction and its celebration where Saunders succeeds. Highly recommended.