Saint George and My Students

This semester, as I often do, I opened my fiction unit with George Saunders’ “Sea Oak.” I like to open with this story for a number of reasons: because it evokes both laughter and cringing, because it shocks undergrads who are used to discussing more “polite” fiction in their classrooms, but most of all because it encourages argument. My students tend to sympathize with the unnamed narrator who works as a male stripper and lives in a violent subsidized housing project called Sea Oak with his sisters and his Aunt Bernie, but they tend to criticize many of the other characters, especially the narrator’s sisters, as caricatures: dumb, TV-addicted, incapable of caring for their children. Most of all, they argue over Aunt Bernie – the paragon of kindness, the “peacemaker” – who keeps the family going. She’s a stereotype, too, at least at first, but that’s not what makes her difficult for my students to accept. If anything, the caricature of kindness Saunders presents fills them with pathos:

“Sometimes she’s so nonbitter it gets on my nerves. When I say Sea Oak’s a pit she says she’s just glad to have a roof over her head. When I say I’m tired of being broke she says Grandpa once gave her pencils for Christmas and she was so thrilled she sat around sketching horses all day on the backs of used envelopes.”

Personally, I find Bernie’s sainthood completely ridiculous – love that details about the horses, genius! – but I see how my students crave it: some kind of moral compass to guide them through the story’s parade of disgust. Early Saunders is always about the battle between our flawed moral conventions and the world which uncaringly mows them down, one by one; you need a little bit of sugar to make his medicine go down.

Which is why, when Aunt Bernie dies and returns from the grave as a rapacious, sex-crazed zombie, Saunders’ satire is so effective – and why my students are always both excited and a little freaked out by it. In death, Aunt Bernie angrily refuses her previous sainthood. She demands satisfaction!

 “You, mister,” Bernie says to me, “are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it, I’ll make a thumbprint on the forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask… That’s part one of Phase One. You, Min. You baby-sit. Plus you quit smoking. Plus you learn how to cook. No more food out of cans. We gotta eat right to look our best. Because I am getting me so many lovers. Maybe you kids don’t know this but I died a freaking virgin. No babies, no lovers. Nothing went in, nothing came out. Ha ha! Dry as a bone, completely wasted, this pretty little thing God gave me between my legs. Well I am going to have lovers now, you fucks! Like in the movies, big shoulders and all, and a summer house, and nice trips, and in the morning in my room a big vase of flowers, and I’m going to get my nipples hard standing in the breeze from the ocean, eating shrimp from a cup, you sons of bitches, while my lover watches me from the veranda, his big shoulders shining, all hard for me, that’s one damn thing I will guarantee you kids! Ha ha! You think I’m joking? I ain’t freaking joking. I never got nothing! My life was shit! I was never even up in a freaking plane. But that was that life and this is this life. My new life. Cover me up now! With a blanket. I need my beauty rest. Tell anyone I’m here, you all die. Plus they die. Whoever you tell, they die. I kill them with my mind. I can do that. I am very freaking strong now. I got powers! So no visitors. I don’t exactly look my best. You got it? You all got it?”

Bernie’s “show your cock” speech is one of the best rants in contemporary fiction. It completely explodes Aunt Bernie’s status as a stock character, and in the process transforms what might have been easy satire into something more troubling and complex, not only because Bernie transgresses so many taboos (older female sexuality, acceptance of one’s class position, demure femininity) but because her character attacks itself: old Aunt Bernie drives new Aunt Bernie bonkers.

My students are always very smart about unpacking Aunt Bernie’s character. They’re self-aware enough to know that their own sympathy for the earlier, sainted Aunt Bernie is part of the joke here. Zombie Aunt Bernie isn’t just mocking her old self, she’s mocking the reader’s interest in “good” characters, in “goodness” in general. She makes us wonder if maybe we’re just a bunch of saps.

Of course, Aunt Bernie’s energy can’t last. But at the end of the story, after she’s inspired the narrator into action but failed to keep her zombie body from falling apart, she still haunts the narrator in his dreams.

“Some people get everything and I got nothing,” she says. “Why? Why did that happen?”

The narrator has enough respect for his Aunt Bernie to admit that he doesn’t have the answer, and it’s Aunt Bernie’s unanswerable question that gives “Sea Oak” its depth: the immense negative energy that characterizes Saunders’ earlier work. There is no room for simple succor here. In a world like “Sea Oak,” a world which looks an awful lot like contemporary America, kindness won’t save you. In fact, a life of kindness can be a life wasted, stuck in a forced complacency that masquerades as virtue.

My students always respond to this negative energy. Even if they don’t agree with Saunders’ point, they love to argue over Bernie’s fate. Was it justified? What does it say about American life?

There aren’t any easy answers to these questions, anymore than there are easy answers to the questions Aunt Bernie asks the narrator – and I think this lack of easy answers is one of the reasons why “Sea Oak” has become such a widely anthologized and taught story: one of the classics of the contemporary short story canon.

*

I think about my students reaction to Aunt Bernie a lot, especially in light of Saunders’ more recent work. It’s interesting the way Saunders speaks about his fiction, as in this recent New York Times profile. Sometimes it seems as if he’s speaking directly about the sort of students in my classes, the ones who find zombie Aunt Bernie just a little too much.

“If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven [out of ten readers] turn off to it,” Saunders says, “I’d like to figure out what that is… maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

And, in response to David Foster Wallace’s suicidal depression, Saunders says (and the article’s authors elaborates): “If you have a negative tendency and you look at it” — which is, in part, what the process of writing allows — “then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”

It certainly seems to me that Saunders’ recent fiction bears out the aesthetic plan outlined above. The humor is still present, but the anger and frustration – the risky emotional rush of thoroughly negative emotions that Aunt Bernie brings to “Sea Oak” – has been excised, in favor of a much more holistic, spiritual worldview. The negative has been converted, and the result is certainly more morally palatable.

Consider one of Saunders’ recent short stories, “Escape from Spiderhead,” also in The New Yorker. On the surface, it contains pertinent themes similar to “Sea Oak”. Like in “Sea Oak,” the narrator is in an untenable position: a convict, he is expected to undergo dangerous pharmaceutical testing, and, as in “Sea Oak,” his awful supervisor adds to the difficulty. But there’s a certain gleefulness to the evil in “Sea Oak” that seems absent from “Spiderhead.” Compare the boss from “Spiderhead”:

“Am I a monster?” he said. “Do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on a Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Rexall and pick up a prescription, paying for it with his own personal money?”

That was a nice thing he’d done, but it seemed kind of unprofessional to bring it up now. “Jeff,” Abnesti said. “What do you want me to say here? Do you want me to say that your Fridays are at risk? I can easily say that.”

with the boss in “Sea Oak”:

“Perhaps you need to go home,” he says. “I’m sorry for your loss. But I’d like to encourage you not to behave like one of those Comanche ladies who bite off their index fingers when a loved one dies. Grief is good, grief is fine, but too much grief, as we all know, is excessive. If your aunt’s death has filled your mouth with too many bitten-off fingers, for crying out loud, take a week off, only don’t take it out on our Guests, they didn’t kill your dang aunt.”

“If your aunt’s death has filled your mouth with too many bitten-off fingers” is remarkable. “Do you want me to say that your Fridays are at risk?” is boilerplate.

But what’s most interesting about “Spiderhead” isn’t the flatness of the characters or the language – Saunders has always used flatness as a quick route towards accessibility – but the way he uses these “flat” characters towards a far different, more moralistic goal than in “Sea Oak.”

As the story continues we learn that the narrator is in prison for killing someone in a moment of rage, just – a point that Saunders bears home none-too-subtly – as if he were under the influence of a pharmaceutical. He gains his redemption when, faced with the decision of whether to watch and describe the death of one of his fellow prisoner/testers, and under pressure to do so in order to continue getting a chance to see his mother, he instead decides to give himself a suicidal dose of Darkenfloxx. Instead of killing, he redeems his earlier sin (murder) through self-sacrifice (suicide).

In the wake of death, the narrator experiences a kind of spiritual reverie, which is shown here:

“What’s death like?

You’re briefly unlimited.

I sailed right out through the roof.

And hovered above it, looking down. Here was Rogan, checking his neck in the mirror. Here was Keith, squat- thrusting in his underwear. Here was Ned Riley, here was B. Troper, here was Gail Orley, Stefan DeWitt, killers all, all bad, I guess, although, in that instant, I saw it differently. At birth, they’d been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuck-ups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life-enders? In that first holy instant of breath/awareness (tiny hands clutching and unclutching), had it been their fondest hope to render (via gun, knife, or brick) some innocent family bereft? No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life-poisoning flowers, said water/light actually being the requisite combination of neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform them (transform us!) into earth’s offal, murderers, and foul us with the ultimate, unwashable transgression.”

The language here is of sin and redemption: “charged by God,” “holy instant,” “crooked destinies.” How can the prisoners fight fate? It isn’t their fault; God put them on this path. Even the birds suffer this accident of destiny: “some birds blessed in voice, others cursed; some squawking, others rapturous.”

I might be in the minority in believing this, but I feel less sympathy on Saunders’ part for the murderers in “Spiderhead” than there is for Aunt Bernie in “Sea Oak.” They are “earth’s offal,” “fouled with… unwashable transgression,” and the only option for their redemption is the narrator’s suicide:

“From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”

To put an end to violence, the murderer must put an end to himself.

In “Sea Oak,” the intense unfairness of the world is presented as a problem: a painful, unanswerable reality in which people are left to cope as best they can. This is what drives my students crazy: the way Bernie articulates (and explodes!) a world in which so many people are placed at an inherent disadvantage to others. In “Spiderhead” the intense unfairness of the world is represented as an inevitable part of God’s plan, one which people must accept the roles which they are handed, and do the best they can, even if the best they can do is ritual self-sacrifice. In other words, it substitutes the difficulty of an impossible problem with the simplicity of an easy solution – as long as you aren’t the bird cursed in voice, the one asked to die.

Imagine, if you will, if the narrator of “Sea Oak” had responded to Aunt Bernie’s question with this simple answer: “you have been given this life and this fate: all you can do is accept it.”

I don’t think Aunt Bernie would find such an answer sufficient. She already died once, and she knows it’s not birds and joy. “It sucks so bad,” she says. “You regret all the things you never did.”

If I have more time in a given semester, I might consider assigning both “Sea Oak” and “Spiderhead.” It might be interesting to see if the students find the difference between the two stories as fascinating as I do. It seems to me that Saunders’ change in worldview really has been an attempt to find a moral response to the questions raised by his earlier fiction. I don’t find the response at all sufficient, but that doesn’t mean my students wouldn’t.

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