Pastoralia by George Saunders

(Riverhead Books)

Ever feel like your life might look like a theme park exhibit to an outsider? George Saunders collects his thoughts on American society in a series of short fiction he calls Pastoralia. Over the course of six stories, Saunders puts us under a microscope and manipulates our lives with wit and humor.

In the title story, we get a bird's-eye look at a totally bizarre, yet strangely familiar world in which the modern American workplace has regressed into a demented Office Space-esque freak show. We follow a nameless narrator and his brash, less-than-intelligent co-worker, Janet, through the frivolous workweek. The two live together in a mock prehistoric cave and earn their living by pretending to catch and eat bugs, speaking in grunts and hand motions, building cardboard fires and roasting whole goats. They wait for people to "poke their heads in," to view this educational display, from sunrise to sunset. Business, however, is not exactly booming.

At the end of each humdrum day, our main character struggles with daily "Performance Evaluation Forms" required by the "Higher Ups" and is torn between his morals and his job. He must decide whether to accurately assess Janet's performance, or tell the truth because Janet is a poor worker, constantly speaking in English, smoking cigarettes, and refusing to adhere to the authenticity policy. Nonetheless, the narrator continues to rate his partner highly, and carries the workload on his shoulders.

A few stories later we meet another quiet narrator trying to make ends meet by "Piloting" tables at a restaurant called Joysticks. He is required to wear tight pants and makes his money based on his "Cute Rating." He lives with his sister and cousin, both with small children, and watches them study for the GED during commercials on TV. When his dead aunt resurrects herself — through some fantastic means, which are not clear, and don't need to be — and moves in, the already dysfunctional home is turned upside down. Because she lived life as an ideal person and never received credit from anyone, she is back to torment her family and steer them away from her fate.

Saunders' tone and style make the book entertaining, but the larger moral free-for-alls are what make Pastoralia resonate. The characters are born losers, the situations are depressing, and there is no such thing as a happy ending. It may sound bleak, but in the midst of the desolation Saunders' voice leaves a tender mark. He envisions a near future where America is blinded by the chaos in our lives, and the consumerism on which we were founded runs amok. He demands our attention to our callous national identity, the growing objectivity of human beings, and our inability to distinguish what's really important in life. Indeed, this stuff may be grim, but Saunders' extraordinary talent has us laughing the whole way through.

As always, Saunders challenges his audience to question the day-to-day rat race we compete in. Pastoralia insists that life is full of ups and downs, and when they're down, they sometimes get worse. But even in the most miserable circumstances, there's always room for laughter.

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