Its hard to think of two authors who are more diametrically opposed than Mary Gaitskill and George Saunders. Saunders writes like a bat-shit-crazy fabulist whose abstractions seem more real than the paper theyre printed on. Gaitskills stories are beautiful and tightly woven, a kind of literary shibari.1 Itd be easy enough to classify Gaitskill as the focused, Apollonian artist and Saunders as the freewheeling Dionysian, but when you get closer to their work, that distinction gets hazy.
Start with Gaitskill, whos probably best known for writing Secretary, the short story that served as the basis for the James Spader/Maggie Gyllenhaal film of the same name.2 The story is a long-fused literary firecracker that pops into ecstasy the minute the protagonist realizes that what she wants is entirely different from what the world expects from her. Never before had a voice in mainstream literatureand, later, in mainstream cinemaannounced so assuredly, so obviously, that pain could be pleasure and that loss of control could be the greatest satisfaction of all. It was the message that launched a thousand spankings; probably no other work of fiction has inspired as much light BDSM play as this brief examination of a confused young womans life.
Control or lack thereof, pleasure in painGaitskills stories frequently find joy in the perverse, and the leering reader can miss her literary achievements. One of her most tender looks at female friendship and competitionthe underrated novel Two Girls Fat and Thinalso manages to become a polemic against Popular Fictions Greatest Ideological Dominatrix, Ayn Rand, portrayed in the book as Anna Granite. Gaitskills most recent novel, Veronica, is about female friendship and the toxic nihilism of the 1980s. Reading her work chronologically, it becomes clear that, as her prose gets better and better, the emotion squeezing between the sentences and paragraphs becomes more vibrant and forceful: The exuberance of life is working with her controlled veneer, not against it.
George Saunderss fiction at first looks like a mess. Candy bars stab oranges in the side, polar bears run amuck, imaginary beasties attack goats, and the leader of a nation loses his brain after it slides off his brain-rack during a tirade. Saunderss imagination is so alive that other authors steal bits from his short stories and build entire novels around them.3The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a childrens book by Saunders recently reissued by McSweeneys, is as close to a wholly alien ecosystem functioning within a book that youll ever see. For Frips determined and capable heroine alone, Saunders deserves accolades, but just recently hes gone and released In Persuasion Nation, a collection of stories so gloriously freaked-out and ratcheted-up that they barely seem to belong to the world of short fiction. Advertisements and sitcoms eat themselves and vomit back outward into works so bizarre that you begin to worry about the sanity of the author.
But its in works like The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil that you begin to understand that Saunders is possibly the sanest author working today. The novella, about an invasion of a country big enough to fit only one person at a time, is entertaining enough, a kind of literary stop-motion cartoon. As a work of satire, though, its perfect.4 Its terrifying to realize that Saunders isnt a screwballhes just sketching the world outside our window with more clarity than anybody else.
Putting these two authorsthe control freak with a juicy human center and the madman with the hard honesty of a diamond cuttertogether was programming magic on Bumbershoots part. This may be the best literary event this year.
1. Japanese bondage, typically utilizing intricate, decorative knot work. For more information on this topic, refer to the delightful full-color advertisements in the back of this very publication.
2. Gaitskills story is vastly different from the movie, though they share the same delicious up-as-down and spank-as-kiss spirit.
3. No, Im not going to tattle. Im just going to identify one nigh-entirely plagiarized story of Saunders: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. You gure out who stole it and what they turned it into.
4. Im not going to spell out what hes satirizing: Lets just say it involves a certain fucktard whos currently the most powerful man in the world.