A new story collection from the most playful postmodernist since Donald Barthelme, with narratives that can be enjoyed on a number of different levels.
Literature that takes the sort of chances that Saunders does is rarely as much fun as his is. Even when he is subverting convention, letting the reader know throughout that there is an authorial presence pulling the strings, that these characters and their lives don’t exist beyond words, he seduces the reader with his warmth, humor and storytelling command. And these are very much stories of these times, filled with economic struggles and class envy, with war and its effects, with drugs that serve as a substitute for deeper emotions (like love) and perhaps a cure (at least temporary) for what one of the stories calls “a sort of vast existential nausea.” On the surface, many of these stories are genre exercises. “Escape from Spiderhead” has all the trappings of science fiction, yet culminates in a profound meditation on free will and personal responsibility. One story is cast as a manager’s memo; another takes the form of a very strange diary. Perhaps the funniest and potentially the grimmest is “Home,” which is sort of a Raymond Carver working-class gothic send-up. A veteran returns home from war, likely suffering from post-traumatic stress. His foulmouthed mother and her new boyfriend are on the verge of eviction. His wife and family are now shacking up with a new guy. His sister has crossed the class divide. Things aren’t likely to end well. The opening story, “Victory Lap,” conjures a provisional, conditional reality, based on choices of the author and his characters. “Is life fun or scary?” it asks. “Are people good or bad?” The closing title story, the most ambitious here, has already been anthologized in a couple of “best of” annuals: It moves between the consciousness of a young boy and an older man, who develop a lifesaving relationship.
Nobody writes quite like Saunders.