Widely praised and much honored, short story writer and occasional essayist George Saunders is, as they say, "all that." What he does, and what makes him the quintessential writer of our time, is this: He takes the empty language of so much of our daily discourse -- the language of business and boosterism, "journaling" and self-help, pseudo-science and so-called spiritualism -- and shows us how meaningful it really is for those who have no other recourse. Remember Emma Bovary, whose lover can see only the trite and the venal in her familiar expressions, "as though the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest phrases"? In the emptiest phrases, Saunders makes us see the fullness of the soul. It's moving, and it's funny, not in the easiest cynical sense, but genuinely, in the manner of the human comedy.
A few of these stories pretty much say it all for the rest. In the first a spoiled girl-child on the verge of adolescence ("Come on, guys, she couldn't keep treading gracefully on this marble stairwell in her mind forever!") is also on the verge of abduction when a neighbor boy ("Poor thing. He looked like a skeleton with a mullet.") intervenes very much in spite of himself and his parents' strict rules ("What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus ... the directives he was violating!"). There's comedy high and low in the debutante-sort-of girl and the pampered boy ("Beloved Only," his parents call him) and the vile-but-abject abductor, but Saunders somehow manages to eke some real feeling out of the wildly high-pitched story.
"Escape From Spiderhead" is another long story that plumbs the depths of feeling while courting genre superficiality. Science fiction of a sort, the story follows a felon whose incarceration takes the form of various experiments during which he's injected with chemicals that bring on love and sorrow, verbal acuity and shamelessness (and as exotic as the drugs are -- Vivistiff and Docilryde, Verbaluce and Darkenfloxx -- the scientist conducting the experiments still works on an iMac). And yet, the main thing is the character's overcoming of the rules -- his bursting the boundaries of his prison, expectations, and, finally, the world. As schematic as it may sound, it's truly moving, a matter of going beyond the predictable to a place truly open to ... anything.
With so much arch overlooking of characters small and smaller, it's nothing short of amazing that Saunders shows us how to care -- about the trailer-trash mother whose outsized love is not enough to protect her damaged child from the "protection" of others, about the tiny rotund businessman-about-town competing in a celebrity auction, about the father whose diary documenting family life in another familiar but not quite futuristic world exposes the void gaping under our supposed normality. "Human speech," Flaubert went on in "Madame Bovary," "is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to when we are striving to make music that will wring tears from the stars." Saunders' music might well move the heavens as well as the bears.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. She teaches in the MFA program of Fairleigh Dickinson University.