A mini-interview with George Saunders on Twain

George Saunders’ new essay collection includes his introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Which is convenient, because what better excuse to talk Twain with a satirist?

Below he answers a few short questions I sent along.

Your books have a way of disappearing as soon as they reach my apartment, and, sure enough, someone absconded with my copy of The Braindead Megaphone before I finished. But of what I did read, I especially enjoyed the Huck Finn introduction. So let’s talk about that. Sounds like you’re a fellow Twain maniac.

I am. I haven’t read everything of his, but what I have read really stuck with me. Especially Huck Finn, and the Fenimore Cooper essay, and the story, the name of which I’m spacing, about the group of guys who go to war and kill a messenger. Do you know that one? [Ed. note: I don’t think so. The War Prayer sprang to mind, but I don’t think the stranger dies at the end of that one. Please let me know if you think of the title!] Tom Sawyer I like ok. I think what I like most is that you feel that, under all of the humor, there’s a real desire to get to the bottom of things. And if that takes him in a brutal direction, fine. Or a silly direction, that’s fine too. He was one of those rare writers who go where the logic of the story takes them, and are perfectly happy to break form or even make a dorky, badly-shaped thing to do it. (I just this week read, for the first time, this story “Bobka” by Doestoyevsky that has this same quality. It’s a big mess that somehow has two or three of the most dazzling and dark moments I’ve ever read — you just go: WHAT? No way is he going there. And then he does.

(By the way, sorry about the disappearing books. This is a little “planned obsolescence” thing we do. There’s a sensor in the binding and as soon as the book realizes it has reached the purchaser’s apartment, it vaporizes. Then the purchaser has to buy another, thus driving my sales into the triple digits.)

You’re stranded on a desert island and for entertainment you’re allowed only twigs, stones, native birds and rodents, and books by Mark Twain. Do you choose his fiction, or his essays?

Wow. I’d rather have a yacht stocked with food. But ok: actually, I’d take the fiction. Fiction keeps giving and giving. Especially his. Every time I read Huck Finn, it’s morphed into a different book, depending on who I am at the moment. So maybe it could be one of those large-print editions — I mean really large print, like each letter three feet high — made of balsa, and with a sail poking out of the cover.

Your essays have been compared with Twain’s. It’s true that you share with him a strong sense of the absurd, an intolerance toward stupidity and unfairness, and a concern with precision in language. But it seems to me that your satire is gentler — or, more accurately, far less wrathful. Do you think your relatively compassionate perspective is something that will endure if the world continues on its current course? Or do you feel yourself growing more crotchety?

Honest answer is that I feel like I’m kind of at a crossroads. I really have been shocked, as I get older, at how shoddy and mean the world is starting to look. Or parts of it. Our leaders, specifically. And our media. So that’s pretty crotchety. But the other fork in the crossroad (?) is that I also am starting to see the whole deal as a kind of wild display. There’s always been shoddiness and corruption and idiocy and cruelty and also there’s always been the respective opposites of all those things. It’s beautiful, really, like a wild animal. And our feeling that life has gone bad, or that life sucks, or that fate is against us — those feelings, when you break them down, amount to proof that the person feeling them has just fundamentally misunderstood the whole contract. The world has always been what it is. We enter it, and immediately (wrongly) surmise that it will stop being wild, or will politely form its wildness around us, preserving us upright and intact at its center. But if we weren’t so ego-centric, I suppose we could grasp our own temporariness right away — and what could disappoint us then? So I’m trying to tip my mind toward the latter view. I don’t really want to be funny and bitter. I’d rather be funny and hopeful, with a touch of bitter, as required.

Saunders reads at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble tomorrow night at 7. If you’re not in New York City, or have other plans, you can catch him on Letterman.


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