By George Saunders
All Posts Contain Spoilers
What do you do when an author you love writes a book you don’t?
George Saunders: it would be difficult for me to overstate my admiration for George Saunders. I love George Saunders. I love him not because he’s an incredible writer – though he is – but because he isn’t like anyone else. He’s strange, quiet genius who has been churning away for decades, creating these small, weird works beloved to writers and freaks and snobs.
For years, I’ve gawped at the imagination of George Saunders. He’s bizarre, and hilarious, and a little frightening; reading ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, written in 2005, in the post-Trump era is to wonder at the existence of psychic powers.
I love him. I love his dark funniness, the twisted sadness which bleeds out of all of his characters, which runs through each of his worlds. I love the unanticipatable impossibilities that pop out from his prose, unexplained. I love the anger which animates every word. I wouldn’t miss one of his books for the world.
The aforementioned darkness, that is the thing I love most about George Saunders. I love the fact of it, but also the ease of it. Most writers show off their darkness; they are needy about it – the darkness is the point. But Saunders wears his darkness lightly. The hopelessness of his world is a backdrop, a stipulation, not resolved or resolvable, not emphatic or dwelt-upon.
I’m not saying that Saunders is always subtle – I’m saying that his worldview doesn’t explain itself, and it doesn’t offer relief. So how am I supposed to feel about a George Saunders’ story with a moral?
‘Fox 8‘ is the story of Fox 8. Fox 8 has always been different, a little dreamier than his fellow foxes. By skulking outside the house of a human family, Fox 8 has learned to speak Human, which comes in handy to him and his fox family when a Mall opens up alongside the woods where they live. The devastation of the local environment caused by the construction of the mall has diminished the food sources upon which Fox 8’s family has survived, and they are starving. However, speaking Human has given Fox 8 the sense that humans might be approachable, might just make marvelous companions for foxes, if only they can be
And so, with his best friend, Fox 7, Fox 8 decides to go to the Mall. Things go badly awry, and Fox 7 is brutally killed by the very humans Fox 8 has come to admire. The short little book ends with a plea from a disillusioned Fox 8 to us, a plea on behalf of all of our animal victims.
Time to own my biases: I am allergic to simple sentimentality. I do not like to be preached at. I believe that the world is a complicated and murky place, a canvas of grays with very little black and white, and I am skeptical of neat little takeaways, of simple conclusions.
Admittedly, environmentalism is a topic upon which a little moralizing is easy. The take-home message of ‘Fox 8‘ (and I’m not interpreting – it’s stated explicitly at the end) is: be nicer to little animals. Or, lest you think I’m simplifying, as Fox 8 himself puts it: “If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser [sic].” And I certainly have no objection to that message. Or, rather, I have no objection to that message in particular.
But I have an objection to being spoon-fed any message. I don’t think that works of fiction should have a summary at the end – that deprives them of their magic, and robs me of my right to interpret them myself.
And it is particularly galling to be told how to interpret George Saunders, who is so weird, and so unexplaining in his weirdness. He has never been a simplifying or pedantic author – why has he decided to spell out the fortune cookie message of this book? Does he not trust his readers to get it anymore? Did the other books have no summary because they had no point at all? Or does he consider this point too important to risk that we might get the message wrong?
Another bias: I emphatically do not like books written in dialect. I will forgive a page or two, written in order to give the reader a sense of a character, but when an entire book, or all of a character’s dialog, is written in phonetic dialect, I find it arduous and infuriating. It disrupts the smoothness of my reading, makes me spend what I consider unnecessary effort in taking in the words. And I almost always find it pretentious or performative, a cheap way to make yourself look like a deeper or more creative writer, an illusion of character development.
And ‘Fox 8‘ is written in dialect. Or, not dialect, but in the sort of phonetic English a fox might learn from eavesdropping. Like,
“Wud it be easy? It wud not. It wud take Guts. But I have Guts. I once likked the tire of a Truk that was moving to see how it tasted, which the Groop teesed me about it, because hey Fox 8, why not wate until one found a Truk not moving, wud that not be easier?” (p. 41)
But ‘Fox 8’, for all its moralizing, is funny, and the dialect (really, the spelling errors) is part of that. For example:
“I woslike: This must be Fud Cort.
…Never had Yumans seemed so cul. We were sarounded by splender no Fox cud curate. Hense were fild with respek. Cud a Fox do this? Bild a Mawl? Fat chanse! The best we can do is dig are Dens.” (p. 28)
‘What I herd was a Story, but a fawlse and even meen one. In that story was a Fox. But guess what the Fox was? Sly! Yes, true lee! He trikked a Chiken! He lerd this plump Chiken away from its henhowse, claming there is some feed in a stump. We do not trik Chikens! We are very open and honest with Chikens! With Chikens, we have a Super Fare Deel, which is: they make the egs, we take the egs, they make more egs. And sometimes may even eat a live Chiken, shud that Chiken consent to be eaten by us, threw faling to run away upon approche, after she has been looking for feed in a stump. Not Sly at all. Very strate forword.” (p. 6)
See? Funny. Funnier for the spelling.
But still slightly exhausting to read, which ends up being OK, because ‘Fox 8‘ is only about fifty pages long. So, it’s funny, and weird, and charming. Perhaps ‘Fox 8’ is best understood as one of those children’s stories for adults, a genre I don’t hate, as a rule. If someone else had written it, I probably would have chuckled and forgotten it. But since it’s Saunders, I’m slightly flummoxed by it. Perhaps that’s all it will be: a strange, short, flummoxing episode in an otherwise blissful author/reader relationship. Slightly awkward, best forgotten.