George Saunders is the best contemporary American writer, an opinion I feel more comfortable holding following the deaths of first Toni Morrison and then Cormac McCarthy.
Unusually among successful writers, his primary medium is short fiction. He’s only got the one novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which is so good that he should probably stop there. Pastoralia is his second collection of short stories, published in 2000.
Prose craft is different from storytelling. Being good at either one of these things is uncommon. Each Saunders sentence writes is a gem, but handled in such a lowkey way that you don’t realize you’re reading a master. You’re too focused on turning the pages because you need to know what happens next.
Though if you enjoy audiobooks, I would implore you not to turn the pages but to listen to Saunders narrate his own work. The thing about Saunders that too many reviews miss is that he’s funny. Uproarious. The man is funny in print, but I listened to the book and I was howling.
Also: when you listen, you can’t look ahead to know when a story is about to end. Three different times in this book, a story ended and I gasped out loud in shock. There are only six stories so that is a fifty percent gasp rate.
My favorite story was “Pastoralia,” about some historical reenactors, but the one I’m going to quote from is “Sea Oak,” in which an elderly aunt bullies her nephew (a sex worker) into earning more money: “Show your cock. It’s the shortest line between points.”
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.