The lengthy, absurd reign of George Saunders

All Growns Up

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Xinyu Li/Senior Staff

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“My short story is going to be about a woman who finds a magical magnifying glass that exposes the imperfections in everyone she meets, and her coming to terms with the fact that we live in an imperfect society.”

“I’m writing about a female chess master who falls in love with her opponent and grapples with her sexual orientation as well as her desire to be the best. It will be called ‘Checkmate.’ ”

“A man pursues women and after he captures their hearts, he kills them and turns their faces into flower pots in his elaborate butterfly garden, commenting on the sacrifice of love and struggles with identity.”

When it was my turn to pitch my final concept to the entire “Advanced Short Story” class, all I could say was, “It’s about a guy who stuffs a pork chop in his pants.”

I was always insecure of my voice as a writer. While the kids around me embellished their stories with extended metaphors that took years to fully interpret and 50-cent words that made everything sound like an excerpt from some obscure 19th-century novel, my stories were always simple, insignificant and silly.

In my mind, nothing I wrote met the criteria for a “good” story. I never wrote anything melodramatic, complex or flush with rich imagery. I never wrote anything about finding myself or important life lessons. I just wanted to make myself laugh.

One day, I was searching through the redwood bookshelf my family kept in our dining room for a book to read. No one ever went through these books, covered in thick blankets of dust, the rows of pages tattered from being read in the bathtubs or accidentally dropped in toilets. My family notoriously thrashed novels. After they were read, they were shoved away in an unorganized stack where only my little fingers scampered through on idle Sundays.

On that particular day, as I skimmed through the rubble of literary masterpieces, YA novels and nonfiction accounts of wars, I stumbled across a bright orange cover peeking out between “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” and “Everybody Poops.” I pulled it from the bookshelf and sat back, tracing the cover under my fingertips. The book was “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” by George Saunders.

I finished this book in one day. And then I read it again. Two weeks later, I skimmed through it a third time. A year later, I read it a fourth time.

It was about people made out of trinkets living on a land that only fit one person at a time, and a tyrant whose brain fell out of his head every once in a while. It was absolutely absurd, every line making less sense than the one before. Saunders created a world that was impossible to summarize to anyone inquiring into what I was reading. I could only tell people that it was the best book I had ever read.

When I read “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil,” it unscrolled its crisp, leafed limbs, opened itself to me — insides stained with watery, brown rings of coffee — and it kissed me square on the lips. This novella breathed life into my lungs, patted me on the back and told me that it was OK to be who I was. Not by being overtly deep, insightful or connecting to my life in some transitional way. It was because it did the opposite.

It was a nonsensical collection of scenarios that made me laugh so hard my dogs would bark at me, thinking something was wrong. It was colorful and extreme, my copy full of dog-eared, moth-bitten pages, everything I thought was ingenious marked in yellow.

Though with every page flip the conflict became more ludicrous, the characters more risible and the novella more unbelievable, the story Saunders told still meant something that was ultimately as heartwarming as it was comical. Because it wasn’t just an absurd story. It was a story about the drastic influence of love and the pain of love being unrequited.

After “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil,” I read “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and fell in love with its farcical commentary on U.S. history. I read “Lincoln in the Bardo” and drastically swept from laughter to tears as the hilarious characters told a heart-wrenching story of loss and grief. Everything he wrote had an impressive, underlying meaning grander than the absurdity displayed on the surface.

Looking back, I’m not embarrassed to have pitched a story about a guy with a pork chop in his pants for my final project in “Advanced Short Story.” As ridiculous as it may be, my voice as a writer is something I’m proud of, thanks to a book I stumbled upon a year ago written by a man named George Saunders.

Maisy Menzies writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on milestone moments experienced through art. Contact her at [email protected].

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