I have now finished George Saunders’s collection of essays The Braindead Megaphone, and I’m sad there are no essays left to read. I wrote about the first half of the book here, where I concluded I liked the collection very much, and now having finished the book I can say I loved the collection absolutely. Not every essay is on the same level of wonderfulness, but even the not-so-wonderful ones are great, and the truly wonderful ones are breathtaking.
The book’s second half offers an essay on conflicts at the U.S./Mexico border where Saunders spends some time with members of the Minutemen, an anti-immigration group, and one on “Buddha boy,” Ram Bahadur Bomjon, who supposedly meditated for many months without food or water. In both of these essays, Saunders creates a persona who is out to see what he can see, keeping an open mind about everything and preparing to be surprised. He doesn’t withhold judgment entirely — it’s clear, for example, that he doesn’t agree with the politics of the Minutemen — but he does look for the stories and the details that might surprise readers and himself. Saunders’s specialty, it seems to me, is seeing, and then getting readers to see, the complexity of the situations he describes and the people he meets. The entire book is an argument for reserving judgment, for taking one’s time to think about things, for really looking to see what’s out there before drawing any conclusions. It’s a particularly humane argument and one I think our culture needs.
All that was great, but what I really, really loved were his essays on literature, the ones that made me realize there’s a genre of criticism, or perhaps I should just call it writing about literature, that I love, which is the sort of writing about literature that enthuses so eloquently, with so much passion and very little attempt at critical distance, that the reader finds it irresistible, even if the reader doesn’t know or like the literature being written about. TJ and I have been talking about this mode of writing because of his Loving Iris blog, which promises to be a fine example of the kind of writing I’m talking about. The title of his Iris Murdoch blog reminded me of the book Loving Dr. Johnson, which I haven’t yet read but hope to soon, and which is about the love many people have for Johnson, including the author. All this reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s book U & I, which is a completely over-the-top celebration of Baker’s love for Updike, and then I read Saunders’s essays on Huck Finn and the Donald Barthelme short story “The School,” two brilliant examples of what I’m describing here.
TJ and I agreed that we love this form of criticism, but we can’t decide what to call it. TJ suggested “adoration crit” but wasn’t really pleased with it, and all I can think of is my post title, “the criticism of loving adoration,” which has a nice rhythm to it, I think, but is obviously too unwieldy.
Can you think of a better term for what I mean, if what I’m meaning is making sense? More importantly, can you think of other examples of this type of writing?
Saunders’s essay on Huck Finn was written as an introduction to the Modern Library paperback edition to the novel, but it’s not a typical introduction, which comes as no surprise if you know Saunders at all. It opens with this sentence:
Let me begin by confessing that I have had more trouble with this piece than I’ve ever had writing anything in my life, mainly because I love this book and was deathly afraid I would fail to do it justice, which caused me to rush off to the library and do hours and hours of research, which only terrified me further and reduced me to writing quaking tautological sentences like “Much has been written about the fact that much has been written about the fact that, whereas the shores of the Mississippi, mythologically speaking, represent America’s violence, the center of the river, which traditionally has been represented as Utopian, is also occasionally seen to contain bloated floating corpses.”
Fortunately, Saunders gets past this difficulty and comes up with his “Tentative Narrative Theory regarding Huck Finn” (he capitalizes Important Ideas in all his essays, a tic which would usually annoy me but which somehow seems to work with Saunders), which he explains by way of a brilliant analogy involving airport people movers and piles of dirt. Saunders can work magic with an analogy. I’ll let you read the essay to find out what the Tentative Narrative Theory is, but I will say that the essay deals with the complicated issues of race and class in the novel in a way that’s both accessible and profound. It manages to say good things about the book and about American culture both, all the while using Saunders’s personal, colloquial, loving voice. He loves the novel, it’s clear, but he also sees its flaws — in fact, he seems to love it for those very flaws.
And then there’s the essay “The Perfect Gerbil” on Barthelme’s short story. This is a 10-page masterpiece of loving adoration, an essay that says wonderful things about Barthelme’s “The School” but also about the short story genre itself. Here’s an example of one of his brilliant analogies, which he uses to analyze what Barthelme does:
When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station. Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels. One’s little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track or, more often, fly out and hit one’s sister in the face.
A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations. The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story. Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent upon this.
So: if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the ending of the story.
These “gas stations” can be plot events, but they can also be interesting uses of language — they are any sort of surprise that brings the reader pleasure. Saunders’s essay charts how Barthelme uses these little surprises to delight the reader and then how he creates the perfect ending, though the entrance of the “perfect gerbil” of Saunders’s title.
Saunders essay becomes like a short story itself, the story of reading and delighting in Barthelme’s story. It’s complete with tension — how will Barthelme pull this off? Will Saunders like the ending? — and surprises — where did that character Helen come from? Wow, there’s a love story appearing now! — and a narrator whose charming personality comes through in the tone and syntax of every page.
I’m not sure why, but writing like this pleases me in a way that no other kind of writing does. I suppose it’s a reminder of how much fun reading can be — a reminder experienced directly in my own reaction to the piece and indirectly through the writer’s own pleasure. Anyone want to help me with a name or more examples?