With Liberation Day, his first collection of short stories in almost a decade, George Saunders returns to the form of which he is considered, by many, its pre-eminent practitioner in English.
Whether it is considered a return to form in another sense, that of recapturing past quality, will depend on the reader’s attitude to the reprise of familiar devices from his previous work. The protagonists of both the title story and of ‘Ghoul’ are performers in immersive simulations of nightmare scenarios (war and hell respectively) who come too late to an understanding of their own nightmarish, real-world exploitation, a setup on which Saunders has drawn since his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. The problem may be that the intervening years of blurred realities and really existing dystopia have dulled such satiric schemata of their edge.
But if there is hope, it lies in Saunders’ intact mastery of voice; his is a talent of such range as to accommodate the profoundest inanities and plainest epiphanies of his characters, so that the comedy never seems to be at their expense, nor the tragedy beyond their grasp.
For the syntactically impaired narrator of ‘Elliott Spenser’, whose memory has been ‘scraped’ as part of a scheme in which poor vulnerable people are reprogrammed as political protesters, ‘as long as the world is shiny new there is no death and what lovely may I yet do?’
What lovely, after all.
Words: Diarmuid McGreal