JOINT REVIEW: Liberation Day by George Saunders
Jennie: When Janine suggested reviewing this collection of short stories together, I was only vaguely familiar with the author. I remembered that Janine had mentioned him in our joint review of How High We Go in the Dark, and indicated that Saunders was known for literary fabulism. It was only after I looked the author up that I realized he was the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel I’ve heard a bit about, though I haven’t read it.
Janine: He is. Sirius and I have been planning a review of his nonfiction book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life for ages and I still want to get to it, so if anyone here is interested in Saunders, keep an eye out for it.
I said that literary fabulism was George Saunders’s purview but most of the stories in Liberation Day didn’t read like examples of literary fabulism to me. I don’t think all of the stories in his first two anthologies, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia (I still haven’t gotten to the third, The Tenth of December) did either but a higher percentage of them might have.
I would only characterize two or of the nine stories definitively as such. “Ghoul,” where the situation in which the narrator finds himself is absurd and takes place in a surreal environment, under circumstances that remain inexplicable even at the end. “Liberation Day,” the titular novella, can be considered a literary fable too.
Two more are maybes. In “Mother’s Day” the penultimate scene is surreal and it’s not 100% clear what it signifies. But that one is really a genre mashup, since up until that scene everything makes sense and takes place in a real-world context. If I squint, I might consider applying that label to “My House,” too, but it could easily be considered contemporary literary fiction. While the things that happen in it aren’t out of possibility, one character’s expectations and reactions are out there.
“The Mom of Bold Action,” “A Thing at Work,” and “Sparrow,” are also contemporary literary short stories IMO. I would describe “Love Letter” and “Elliott Spencer” as dystopian shorts.
Jennie: I think that’s an accurate run-down, though I found “Elliott Spencer” to be a bit surreal in some of the details.
Reading the first story in this collection, “Liberation Day”, started as a disorienting experience. The titular story opens:
It is the third day of Interim.
A rather long Interim, for us.
All day we wonder: When will Mr. U. return? To Podium? Are the Untermeyers (Mr. U, Mrs. U, adult son Mike) pleased? If so, why? If not, why not? When next will we be asked to Speak? Of what, in what flavor?
“Liberation Day” is the longest of the nine stories in this collection; it takes up fully 25% of the book. I was confused about what exactly was happening for what felt like a good part of it. The narrator, Jeremy, references “pinioning” and “Fahey cups” and many other things that I didn’t understand. The rather stilted language that Jeremy uses increased my sense of alienation.
What becomes clear (eventually) is that Jeremy, and two other people, Lauren and Craig, are slaves of a sort to the Untermeyer family. How they became slaves is not clear at first – Jeremy believes he was born four years before, but he’s a full-grown man. He does not remember any life before the room where he and the others are pinioned to a wall for the vast majority of their time, occasionally let down to stretch and change the position of their pinioning, as directed by Mr. Untermeyer.
The purpose of their service is a bizarre form of entertainment that Mr. Untermeyer invites his friends and neighbors to witness. Through information they are given by the apparatuses they are attached to, the trio declaim on various subjects in a theatrical manner. (The process seems seamless, as if Jeremy et al. are computers that the information is downloaded to.) The performances seem to be intended to both entertain and inform.
Janine: In addition, a lonely Mrs. Untermeyer has Jeremy passionately recite heated words to her while her husband and son are asleep. Jeremy thinks he is in love with her and wants to please her, but his childlike innocence and the power gap between them are such that this feels like abuse even though Jeremy looks forward to it.
Jennie: Exactly. I really felt for Jeremy there.
The first performance the reader views bores the audience, leading Mr. Untermeyer to employ “singers” as well; he seems somewhat desperate to impress. The speakers and singers put on a performance depicting Custer’s Last Stand, from both the points of view of the whites and the Native Americans. The performance is going much better than the previous one when it’s interrupted unexpectedly, leading to revelations and choices for Jeremy.
This story, and in fact most stories in the collection, invoked strong feelings in me, not always positive. I found myself frustrated to the point of being angry about various things: my confusion, Jeremy’s cheerful obtuseness, the benign malignity of Mr. U’s audience.
I think “Liberation Day” is intended to evoke anger, confusion and distress, and it did that. It wasn’t the last story that had that effect.
Janine: That’s interesting. I agree about confusion and distress, but I didn’t feel anger. I was disoriented to start with but I caught on probably 20% in and developed sympathy for Jeremy’s vulnerability and helplessness. He couldn’t do much about his obtuseness; it was a thing that had been done to him. That was upsetting to read. I zoned out a bit for some of the declaiming but I liked how Saunders ultimately threaded together the themes of the Custer’s Last Stand performance with what was taking place in the novella and in Jeremy’s life.
Jennie: There were obvious and poignant parallels between Jeremy and the last character he plays, that of an Army Lieutenant who gets away from the massacre but then makes a seemingly inexplicable choice. I really felt that the entire performance within the story was masterfully done and oddly moving (I say oddly because I generally don’t have a lot of sympathy for Custer et al. but I ended up feeling for all of the characters in the story-within-the-story).
Janine: The ending of this novella made it (for me) the saddest in the collection. It made me think of Daniel Keyes’ famous story “Flowers for Algernon.” Thankfully it didn’t break my heart to quite the same degree. This one was a B+ for me.
The next story, “The Mom of Bold Action,” was probably my least favorite. The narrator is a writer (and not a very good one) attempting to come up with a good concept for a story while at the same time focusing obsessively on the dangers to her young son who has a dangerous lung-related illness. She frets and panics over anything that might happen to him. When he comes home with scratches on his face and says an old guy pushed him down, she and her husband immediately call the police. After two suspects are apprehended and the boy can’t identify the culprit, her sense of futility and frustration goad her into escalating the violence.
This was an unsettling story. The narrator frustrated me in terms of her terrible story ideas; I really should have more understanding for bad writers because we all start out in that place but I got impatient with her uninteresting fancies (they weren’t meant to be interesting so I was bored, and that made me irritated at her). I was confused about a violent event she describes participating in—did it happen or didn’t it? Maybe we aren’t meant to know. I have anxiety and ending up in the place she is, in a constant state of alarm, is one of my nightmares. So that was very hard to read. This short story still gets a C+/B- because the fact that Saunders was able to evoke such uneasiness in me is a testament to his ability to portray irrational anxiety convincingly.
Jennie: I was not a fan of “The Mom of Bold Action” either. Maybe you are correct and it was her anxiety that I both recognized and was repelled by. But she also had a quality of…I don’t know if I should call it spinelessness? Lack of moral rectitude? Basically, the protagonist was the sort of person who likes to think of herself as a good person but the minute something doesn’t go her way she has the potential to become a monster. She has a veneer of suburban-mom-normalcy but there’s something very ugly beneath.
Janine: More generally, I feel that Saunders portrays male characters better than female ones in Liberation Day. I didn’t completely buy his women. That was an issue here and in other stories.
Jennie: I absolutely agree; more on that in a bit.
I read a review that calls these stories “thought-provoking”, and for me this was especially true of “Love Letter”, another simple story, in the form of a letter from a grandfather to his grandson. In an (I’m guessing) not too far-distant future, fascism has gotten enough of a grip on the United States that speaking freely is dangerous, so the grandfather writes to the grandson in lightly coded language, using initials rather than names for other people and urging the grandson to destroy the letter after reading it.
I found myself wondering what Janine would think of this story especially, because it really did have me teetering a divide. Is the grandfather a coward? Is he wrong to urge his grandson not to intervene and help a friend in trouble? Is he making excuses when he insists that he didn’t know how bad things would get, didn’t know what to do when they began to get bad, and that action probably would not have succeeded anyway?
The thing is, it definitely sounded like cowardly language to me, but at the same time I found myself totally understanding his point of view. Yes, it’s hard for the frog to know when the water has started boiling in earnest. It’s hard to know what to do. It’s hard to think of someone you love and adore taking action that may get them killed, especially when you believe that the action will likely have no positive effect. I’m not sure how much age plays into it – the grandfather seems to think that it’s his age that makes him cautious, in part. Part of me wants to believe that it’s young people, with all of those years ahead, that have reason to be cautious. But maybe that’s not how it works. Or maybe it’s just one’s nature – some are bold, and some (many) aren’t.
I didn’t reach any conclusions after reading “Love Letter”, but again, it did make me think.
Janine: This was possibly my favorite story in Liberation Day and I’ve already reread it. I didn’t feel that the writer of the letter was a coward. He showed a lot of self-awareness, including awareness of how his personal stakes and flaws might be affecting his advice. I was impressed by his sincerity and honesty and thought he had integrity.
I also didn’t think his advice was wrong when he told Robbie (his grandson) that he could actually make things worse for the person he cared about by intervening. It could be viewed as cowardly of Robbie’s grandfather to say that and he called himself on that possibility, yet it could also be viewed as thoughtful advice.
Jennie: Maybe it’s just that the grandfather spends a lot of the letter justifying his choices, which made me wonder if I was “supposed” to judge him more harshly. As someone who is older than the grandson but not as old as the grandfather, I actually identify more with the grandfather.
Janine: These things are subjective, of course, but I didn’t get the sense that I was supposed to judge him. His explanations read to me like sharing–like he was relating what being (to take your frog analogy) boiled slowly was like, not just how he got here, but also how he experienced that part of his life. I saw his writing as an expression of a desire to share himself with a family member of the younger generation before it got too late, so that Robbie could know some of the things he knew and get a sense of what life was like for him when he was younger.
Of course, there was more to it than, but I felt like that thread ran through everything else. He’s old now; he’s made mistakes he regrets and he knows he might live to regret the choice he is making now. His time is almost over and he hasn’t changed the world as much as he wishes he had. But he is loving and kind, and love and kindness are virtues as great as courage in their way, even (or perhaps especially) in dystopian times. The author portrayed him with tenderness and that made me feel tenderness for him, too. I wanted him to be cherished and I rarely feel that way about characters in literary fiction. This story is an A for me.
Jennie: “A Thing at Work” was one of the most conventional and straightforward stories (though Saunders has a distinct prose style that does not feel natural to me). In a nameless office (we only know that they do business with Kodak), conflict arises between Brenda, a middle-aged sad-sack low level employee, and Genevieve, who is both higher on the totem pole and supremely self-satisfied. Having to mediate is Tim, more or less a decent guy, if a bit of a shlub. We get each of their perspectives, and nobody comes out looking that good. This was probably my least favorite story because it had what I think of as a “literary fiction” quality of depicting everyone as fundamentally ugly to their souls. It’s well written (Saunders can *write*), but it left me feeling grubby.
Janine: Yeah, I wasn’t crazy about it either. I don’t know if I would say it was my least favorite, I think “A Mom of Bold Action” might be. But really the only one of these people I felt sympathy for was Tim, which I think gets back to my feeling that Saunders writes male characters more effectively than female ones. Brenda and Genevieve were hard to like or sympathize with. I felt the story had something to say about workplace / corporate politics but it wasn’t anything new. But the tail end of the story had an unexpected sting and I liked it for that. It’s probably a B- for me.
Jennie: I found that some stories echoed others for me: “Ghoul”, for instance, was reminiscent of “Liberation Day”, with the absurdity dialed up to about 11.
Janine: Yes, this one was pure literary fabulism.
Jennie: The protagonist of “Ghoul”, Brian, has spent his entire life in an underground amusement park of sorts, part of a vast network of themed parks. Brian is assigned to an approximation of Hell. Unlike Jeremy of “Liberation Day”, Brian is aware of some pretty harsh truths about the reality of the world he’s inhabiting, but voicing those truths will lead to him being reported, turned on by his co-workers, and subsequently kicked to death. Several such killings take place during the story, so it may be weird to say that I found “Ghoul” quite funny, albeit of course in a dark and fantastical way:
“I guess one never realizes how little one wants to be kicked to death until one hears a crowd doing that exact same thing to someone nearby,” I say.
Janine: Yes, I really like the humor and irony here and elsewhere in Saunders’ writing.
Jennie: Like many of the stories, “Ghoul” ended up moving me in the end, almost against my will. In retrospect, I think it might be my favorite story in the collection.
Janine: It had a terrific ending that I did not anticipate. For many of its pages, this story was the one I was most afraid to keep reading. The situation the narrator and everyone else were in was so dark and felt so hopeless. I think that’s why I liked the ending so much.
The next story, “Sparrow,” is about a drab store employee who lacks personality to such a degree that nothing surprising comes out of her mouth; she speaks in cliches. The narrator(s), self-referenced as “we,” describe how they snicker at her complete colorlessness and at her trite replies to questions, at the way nothing about her stands out or seems unique. Then she falls in love and makes an effort to stand out more.
For the first half this story felt like playing with cliches was its raison d’etre. I like wordplay but I want a story to be about more than that. My impression did change eventually but it took a while for this story to feel substantial. It’s probably a B-/B for me.
Jennie: I was surprised by “Sparrow” because at the beginning I was anticipating more of the literary fiction grubbiness, a sense that everyone in the story is a loser, and then it sort of turned on its head.
“Mother’s Day” reminded me a bit of “A Thing at Work” in that it featured two women facing off; I believe these two and one other story (“The Mom of Bold Action”) are the only ones featuring a female protagonist’s POV. It’s disappointing, then, that the two women in this story are as unpleasant as those in “A Thing at Work” – in this case two older women who encounter each other on Mother’s Day. Once they were rivals for the same man, married to one but having a long affair (one of many) with the other. The wife is nasty and bitter, and appears to have been a lousy mother; the mistress is an irresponsible “free spirit” type who hasn’t seen her only daughter in decades. Again, it’s a well written story, but it lacks the touch of compassion that Saunders grants to his flawed protagonists elsewhere.
Janine: Yes! Agreed. I think he probably has a greater affinity for male characters. I liked Alma (the wife) less than Debi (the mistress) but neither of them inspired a lot of sympathy in me. Alma’s philandering husband Paul comes off as a bit more likable than either of them, and he’s not even alive when the story begins.
Jennie: Yes, it just felt unfair that Paul, who is inarguably a flawed character who really hurts those around him, is somehow given enough grace that he comes off better than either Alma or Debi (I wouldn’t say I liked Alma better, but I did sympathize with her more than Debi).
Janine: I think had more sympathy for Debi because of her rough childhood. This story had some of the most amusing touches of wordplay in the whole collection. I cracked up when Alma described the time before she met her husband as “Pre-Paul,” and I took some delight in the rhymes Saunders sneaks when Debi imagines mother’s nature stream of consciousness during a scene that takes place in a hailstorm.
but which I, Mother Nature, call “my wondrous display,” which shall resound or rebound to the music I play, such that they shall—whoa, dang, fuck!—ricochet
The ending entered surreal territory and I’m still not positive about that it means what I think it might mean. This one’s a B for me.
“Elliot Spencer,” the penultimate story, is the other of my two favorites. It has some parallels to “Liberation Day.” The opening here is also disorienting and for similar reasons; the narrator, “89,” is in a situation not unlike Jeremy’s. He’s a blank slate to a large degree and there are things going on around him that he doesn’t have enough context to understand, so the reader is always a step or two ahead of him. Early on he is mainly aware that his job is to bellow at strangers on behalf of people who tell him and his “cohort” that they are doing their part in a fight against oppression.
It’s hard to say much about this one without spoiling it. Everything that made me love it best comes at the end, when 89 must rely on the limited information he has to make a consequential decision. I found this story redemptive and meaningful and I really did not expect to. The newfound hope at its end is the counterpoint to the sad ending of “Liberation Day.” This one is an A-/A for me.
Jennie: I agree with you; redemptive is the right word. It was a hard story to read though; at first because I didn’t know what was going on and then later because 89 was so vulnerable.
Janine: The last story, “My House,” is narrated by a man who finds his dream house, a place full of history, only to have the owner insist on getting a feel for him before selling it. The owner and his wife can’t afford to hold on to it much longer but he’s too attached to the house to let it go to just anyone. When the owner asks if it would be okay to visit the house from time to time after it’s sold and stay overnight in the guest room, the narrator hesitates and a conflict arises.
This one was very good for its length (seven or eight pages) but I felt like there was more story there than the author had explored. Thinking “I want more about these people” is a compliment to a writer’s skill with a story this short that feels complete even with its brevity. The twist at the end gave it more dimension than I expected it to have. It’s a B for me and I would love to read an expanded version.
Jennie: I’m not sure I entirely understood “My House” but it had an interesting, dreamy (then maybe nightmarish) vibe that intrigued me. (Also, was it confirmed that the narrator was a man? I have every reason to think so but I wasn’t entirely sure if it was made clear and the idea that it could be a woman amused me for some reason.)
Janine: I think you’re right that it doesn’t say.
Jennie: Liberation Day was a “head book” more than a “heart book” for me. I admired it, and it did in fact move me at times. But it didn’t delight me – it was often too bleak for that. The laughs were dark ones, and the moments of triumph were bittersweet: Brian’s final act in “Ghoul” and the old man in the story “Elliott Spencer” – both make choices that affirm their humanity and free will, but it’s far too late for a happy ending.
Janine: There is definitely a melancholy, wistful tone to the several of the stories. I should state that I have a higher tolerance for darker material in short stories than I do in novels, probably because I don’t spend as many hours immersed in each one and so the characters feel less like companions. This is especially true when I don’t read more than one story in a day, and that was the case here. For me some of the stories were more “head stories” and others were more “heart stories.” Sometimes I thought a story would remain a head story until the end and then it surprised and touched me, elevating itself above my expectations.
(I don’t agree regarding “Elliot Spencer,” BTW. I think perhaps you are defining “a happy ending” differently than the main character would. What might not be a happy ending for many people could make him happy. But there is bittersweetness there, absolutely.)
Jennie: I think it’s fair to say that the endings of several of the stories, since they touched me, made them “heart stories.”
Regarding “Elliott Spencer”, bittersweet is fair.
My grade for Liberation Day is a B+, mostly because it’s just so damn well-written.
Janine: I have a hard time applying one grade to anthologies where the stories aren’t interconnected. Averaging the grades of all the stories doesn’t entirely work because very few short story collections have standout stories—stories that are as tender, gorgeous, moving, and meaningful to me as “Love Letter” and “Elliot Spencer.” I could read twenty well-regarded literary collections by lauded authors and not find a single story that good so one story like that is enough to make the book a keeper for me.
In his best stories Saunders shows that people, no matter how frail, marginalized, or ravaged by life, are worthy of having hope for and that being worn down or disempowered doesn’t make a person less deserving of compassion and dignity. This is a theme I love; it resonates with me. When I average my grades for all the stories I arrive at a B/B+, but when I take into account how superior Liberation Day is to most anthologies of its kind, I have to give it a full-on B+.