Friday, May 25, 2007

George Saunder's "Puppy"

Wow, George Saunders is no puppy. He is more like one of those dressy, hand held dogs with ribbons and bows that hide the bitch’s sharp teeth . So, let’s not simply run up to Pumpkin and say how pretty she looks, rub her behind the ears, and babble baby talk, but get right into the story, and discuss the way Saunders develops these two characters. “Puppy”– essential a tale about two mothers, one a kooky, suburban house wife named Marie, the other a poor white trash mom named Callie revolves around a chance encounter between them that subverts the reader’s expectations from these stereotypes. White trash mom; Suburban house wife, the Saunders’ reader approaches the story expecting lots of laughs at these characters’ expense, and the story is riddled with wacky, absurd humor.

For example, there is the moment when Marie describes her son’s behavior as, “Josh was less withdrawn lately, and when she came up behind him now while he was playing […] he would reach back with his non-controlling hand and swat at her affectionately , and yesterday they’d shared a good laugh when he’d accidentally knocked off her glasses,” Here, Saunders’ joke shows the violent relationship between Marie and her son, who seems to have some behavior disorder(this disorder later serves to connect Marie and Callie, because both their boys have behavior problems); however, as this passage shows, Marie shrugs at her son’s violent ticks, and expresses joy over the free-will of children: “they were their own little people! You were just a caretaker. They didn’t have to feel what you felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what they felt.” And Marie goes to absurd lengths to support her children’s feelings, so much so it appears her perception has regressed to that of a child’s dream play world. For example, Marie describes the time, “when their cornstalk column had tipped their shopping cart over. Gosh, how they’d laughed at that!,” and giddily remembers the moment, “Josh had goosed her with his Gameboy, [and] she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up,” and speaking of her husband, (who never actually appears in the story; neither does Callie’s.) she says, “she loved him for his playfulness–you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card (both the ferret and the iguana had gone on credit cards) and he’d just say ‘Ho Ho!” Our culture associates suburban motherhood with large S.U.V.’s, soccer practices, and despair, not Saunders, he sees the type of house wife, immediately recognizable, who devotes her life to her children, to the extent that her perception has adapted a child’s sense of playfulness.

Now, conformity isn’t the question, it’s the answer. Marie conforms her behavior to that of her children, and their family dynamic, more of a friendship than a parent/child relationship (at one point she compares their trip to buy a puppy to a college road trip without the marijuana), is set against the neglect Marie faced from her own parents. The first mention Marie makes of her parents, she says , “Dad being so dour and Mom so ashamed.” She presupposes that a family accident, like tipping a shopping car, and her dad “would have given the cart a despairing kick and Mom would have stridden purposefully away to reapply her lipstick.” The story sets up these responses, compared to Marie’s joyful laughter, as adult-like reactions to life, and in contrast Marie feels like a bonafide Mom of the Year. Later, Marie’s parenting technique is revealed as a conscious reaction to her parent’s lack of guidance:

“So her mother could go right ahead and claim that [Marie] was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, ‘I hardly consider you college material.’ At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.”

While Marie’s suburban house mom status has a wackiness the reader discovers is a response to childhood neglect, Carrie comes into the story with a much more somber tone and characterization. The structure of the story goes from Marie, to Callie, back to Marie, and ends with Callie; yet, Callie still comes off as a secondary character to Marie. That’s a shame too, because a second reading reveals her characterization is just as remarkable as Marie’s. I think Marie’s voice is going so fast and so packed with emotional shifts, it easy for the reader to glide over Callie’s section. Saunders writes Callie as a much more action orientated character; the first impression he gives of her is “Callie pulled back the blind.” This simple active opening contrasts brightly with the long, rambling first sentence of Marie’s sections which jumbles the autumnal sun, Halloween, her children’s thoughts, her own thoughts, into one sentence. This first impression of Callie sneaks past the reader in comparison to Marie’s, but the curtain image is not without significance. When Marie pulls back that curtain later in the story, the reader finds the blinds hide Callie’s lawn, where her young, disruptive, dangerous son is chained to a tree. Interestingly, this horrific image comes at the end of Marie's middle class impression of Callie. She describes Callie’s house as having a "mildew smell,” a "pasta pot on the bookshelf,” and most humorously, “the sink with a basketball in it.” These observations – it’s important to note all these observations happen in parenthesis, as if Marie is too liberal to think these things in the open – are never processed by Callie. This disorder words to give the reader laughs, but Saunders sets these jokes on their head when he reveals Bo chained to a tree.

Still, the reader does feel sympathy for Callie. In a way, she is an adult to Marie’s child. Whereas Marie describes her husband like a “ho, ho, hoing” pawn in her play world, Callie says of her husband, “And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash[…]and then they’d got to wresting around and […] he had done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.” Callie’s vision of happiness lies in this sound her husband makes, an absurd sound, but a real human sound, not the mania of pets, video games, and fantasy. While Marie seems to hide from her childhood pain through “ha, ha, ha”, and play, Callie is forced to see her life in her husband's snort.

Furthermore, the reader sees Callie's tenderness, (not wanting her husband to have to kill the puppy, like he had to kill the two kittens, or the worry she shows over her son’s dangerous highway darting routine) and is as shocked to see what’s hidden behind her blinds as Marie. Her son chained to a tree, drinking from a dog’s bowl. This is her solution to Bo’s behavior problems. (Key suggestion for not having retarded kids, don’t give them retarded names. Important to note, Marie allows her son Josh to see chained Bo, and Josh immediately recognizes the severity of the image. Maybe because he knows his own behavior has called for a chaining on occasion?) After the reader discovers Callie has chained her son to a tree, how does one return to her and remain sympathetic? This is Saunder’s greatest challenge in the story, and becomes his greatest accomplishment. The last scene of the story finds Callie, having just killed the puppy to spare her husband the heartache, walking back home, and trying not to think about the dying puppy. The narrator says of her, “Then she was walking along Teallback Road like a sportwalker, like some lady who walked every night to get slim, except that she was nowhere near slim, she knew that when sportwalking you did not wear jeans and unlaced hiking boots.” Callie is walking home and her dreams illuminate her common humanity (is there anything as human and universal as our need to dream?). “What the heck,” she tells herself. “When things got easier moneywise, she’d get some decent tennis shoes and start walking and get slim. And start night school. Slimmer. Maybe medical technology.” These aspirations humanize Callie in the face of her own inhumane treatment of her son. She dreams of a better world, one where she is slim and has a career. Ultimately, even her treatment of Bo – no matter how irresponsible and incomprehensible (which it is both) – is human. She ends the story with an evocation of her love for him that sounds strikingly similar, but maybe more intense and concrete than Marie’s love for her two children:

“Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at the flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him? Her. She did.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


The last few months, I have noticed how many people in New York read The New Yorker. Riding on the Subway, Tuesday afternoons, Wednesday mornings, it is guaranteed I will see more than one person yielding The New Yorker tight to his or her face, trying to read through the bumps, slides, and abrupt stops of the subway. What types of people are reading this magazine? A good friend of mine wrote a piece about attending events at the 92nd street YMCA that had a great line about how one couldn’t avoid The New Yorker in certain areas of Manhattan, and I agree, but I also think the magazine’s influence stretches to a more youthful crowd than one might expect. During rainy Brooklyn afternoons, I have noticed my favorite yuppie gentrifiers reading the magazine at coffee houses, and several evenings, I walk will walk into a small, niche Williamsburg restaurant and find a young woman waiting for her meal alone at the bar, using the magazine to avoid catching eyes with horny pick-up patrons such as myself. Furthermore, several of my friends and acquaintances under thirty, most with no interest in magazine publishing or journalism as a profession, read the magazine regularly. (Actually, my friends over thirty and under fifty seem to be the people with no interest in the magazine. Now that I think about it, those friends by and large never seem to be reading anything – too busy working real careers, listening to their pregnant wives, drinking away the work week, and preparing to enjoy their life sentences as parents, I presume. Doesn’t stop them from being experts on everything though. I guess they get their knowledge from television and cyberspace.) The magazine felt even more ageless when I attended a recent college graduation ceremony and spoke with the younger sister of a college friend. Talking to fresh alum and her mother, they both told me they read The New Yorker front to back every week, with the exception of a small section towards the back of the magazine called Fiction. This amazed me, because the daughter is an aspiring fiction writer like me, but she said the fiction in the magazine doesn’t interest her. She tries to read it, but gets bored or lost by the first few paragraphs. The mother seemed nonchalant in her dismissal of the section and didn’t bother to explain. Both of their responses to The New Yorker’s fiction shocked me, not from surprise, but from the realization of just how many people I had heard complain about the fiction in The New Yorker.
Many of my friends, like me, are fiction writers, and our relationship to the fiction section of The New Yorker is more complicated. While, many rant and complain about its fiction, claiming the editors require rigorous re-drafting of stories, or that all the fiction has a certain style and the magazine doesn’t allow writers that challenge this aesthetic, (I mostly think their distaste for the fiction stems from knocking on the magazine’s door and never being granted entrance), none of us can deny the great writers who have come through those mid-town doors. Some of the greatest fiction writers in America’s literary history, like Ann Beattie, John Cheever, Phillip Roth, and Donald Barthelme, published their stories in the magazine, and its influence has help make the career of current literary success stories Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. Despite any grievance with the magazine, most of us writers keep an eye on who it taps; because we know publication in The New Yorker has the possibility to create what we desire more than anything: the widest audience possible.

That said, I really believe many of the magazine’s readers, disinterested in writing themselves, don’t give a flying fuck about the fiction section. Odd, too, since publication in the magazine can almost ensure excitement about the arrival of a writer’s book; it’s like fiction readers and bookstores and the literary world know to pay more attention to a book if the writer has previously been published in The New Yorker, while ignoring the work when it is actually in the magazine. Well, Mr. New Yorker, I plan to knock off your top hat, give you some green colored contacts to replace those Benjamin Franklin bifocals, cut your hair, and force you to wear t-shirts with messages like Stop Snitching, and Fcuk You!

Jokes aside, the goal of this blog will be to take apart the short stories published in that magazine, not to tear them down, but to see how they work, and to talk about their themes and emotions. I often love The New Yorker’s short stories, and the ones I don’t love still teach me as much about our world as the profiles, witty commentaries, and reviews. Now, I have set a few rules for myself. I will not talk about the biographical information of the writer. Who cares? Well, admittedly, it can be interesting to know the life behind an artist, but this blog is dedicated to talking about the work, that’s it. Also, unlike many book reviews or literary criticism, I don’t want to spend the whole blog comparing this short story to others by the author, or short stories and novels by other writers, past or present. I find this type of criticism fruitful for long time fans of a writer, but a person who reads a short story in The New Yorker may just want to read and share thoughts about that particular story, not that author’s career or the career of writers like her. Those are my two rules, and I’m sticking by them. Thanks for reading, and by tomorrow morning I will have posted a response to this week’s New Yorker short story by George Saunders called “Puppy”.