This review of Pastoralia by George Saunders was written in 2001 for the website Infinity Plus.
Bloomsbury, 2001, £6.99, 188pp, ISBN 0-7475-5386-6
I’d never heard of George Saunders before I picked up this, his second collection of short stories, but judging by the two whole pages of recommendations from the Times Literary Supplement to Select magazine in the front pages of Pastoralia, and the list of prestigious just-missed awards at the back, he’s a relatively big name.
If there’s any justice in the world then we’ll be able to drop the relatively by tomorrow (I’d prefer today, but that’s probably a little optimistic).
Let me just say this right near the start: Pastoralia is an amazing book that I felt deserved reviewing here because some of its stories impinge on SF themes. It wouldn’t be under that big ‘Science Fiction’ sign next to a picture of a rocket at your local Waterstones. It’s like reading about yourself as written by someone else. Saunders has a gift for unearthing nuggets of common humanity from the most useless or unpleasant characters and making their self-absorbed situations familiar and sympathetic.
There are only six stories over the 188 pages, and the typeface isn’t small, so Pastoralia didn’t last anywhere near as long as I wanted it to. The title story is the longest, dealing with the surreal plight of the actors in a (sort of) future theme park/museum which is in the clutches of insane ‘downsizing’-obsessed executives (whose explanatory letters to the employees are probably the books’ high point for me). Like all of the stories here it’s mostly quite grim, but (Ken Loach-style) succeeds through the inherent lunacy of the situation and flashes of brilliant black humour: Joseph Heller rather than Terry Pratchett.
The stories tend towards the observational rather than the plot-driven and are written from an intensely personal viewpoint. They are always shooting off in directions you would never expect them to but always with an ease and grace that belie the wrench, like really good shock-absorbers on an off-road vehicle.
Pastoralia is far far too short, and you should give George Saunders £6.99 to encourage him to rectify this as soon as possible.