by George Saunders
Originally published in the June 13 & 20, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

The summer fiction issue is here. Unlike last year’s, which kicked off the “20 Under 40” with an eight-story issue, here we have only three but from three relatively well-known writers: George Saunders, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Lauren Groff (though she’s lesser known to say the least). This issue also features a bunch of short non-fictional snippets (of widely varying quality) from Aleksandar Hemon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahira, Téa Obreht, Edward P. Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, and Salvatore Scibona.

I was pretty excited by the fiction itself because I like each author. Now, having read one, I hope things get much better with the other two.

Something is up. Normally I am a fan of George Saunders, but the last few things of his I’ve read have really disappointed me. Worse, they’ve really annoyed me. I’ve always understood why Saunders’ work — what with its quirky, blatantly off-the-wall style, its familiar and by-now conventional criticisms of contemporary society — would annoy some, and now I find myself in that company. I found “Home” trite and, relative to Saunders himself, fully clichéd. If you’ve read much Saunders, what was once unique here feels formulaic, and the “human story” doesn’t pull it through.

Not that this retroactively makes me dislike his earlier work, much of which I still find fresh and exciting. But where he fails is when the story comes off as merely that style and un-nuanced, conventional critiques of contemporary society: corporations, pharmaceuticals, war. It failed, for me, here.

The story begins when Mikey returns home, somewhat covertly:

Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.

“Get in here, you,” Ma said.

Inside were piles of newspapers on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head on the wall abovce the fridge and the old orange rug rolled up halfway.

“Still ain’t no beeping cleaning lady,” Ma said.

I looked at her funny.

“Beeping?” I said.

“Beep you,” she said. “They been on my case at work.”

Thus the strange setting and a strange verbal joke that will play out through the entire story. Ma has always had a foul mouth but now she “was working at a church now, so.” Another strength I usually find in Saunders is his humor — not here. It’s not that any of this is typical relative to most other short story writers, but it is more and more typical to Saunders, which is where his uniqueness is turning stale.

At home, Mikey finds that his mother’s former partner has moved out and a stranger named Harris has moved in. The Becket-like dialogue where “father” and “son” meet is indeed absurd but, to me, not amusing or clever and leads nowhere, not even to a point about leading nowhere.

We find out through this, though, that Mikey has returned from the war; the officials in the story give lip service: “Thank you for your service.” After some time with his mom, he heads over to see Renee, his ex-wife. She is remarried and doing well, certainly much better than his mother is doing. They had children together, so Renee and his mother are still in touch, which is important a bit later in the story because Ma is also about to become evicted from her home of 18 years.

One thing Saunders is good at is adding a human element to the absurd world he’s created. He might be criticizing contemporary society in the most obvious ways, but something more human rings out underneath. However, in “Home” it felt like we got to the Insert-Human-Element portion of the story. When Mikey gets back to Ma’s, she’s basically out on the street and has to find a place to live. A temporary solution is to go to Renee’s. And in this transition, we get a moment where the ragged, dialogue driven narrative is interrupted by some stream-of-consciousness as the narrator ruminates on the conflicting emotions as proud people go from bitterness to vulnerability.

Although yes and no. That was just one of my feelings.

Another was, You crazy old broad, you narced me out last night.  What was up with that?Another was, Mom, Mommy, let me kneel at your feet and tell you what me and Smelton and Ricky G did at Al-Raz, and then you can stroke my hair and tell me anybody would’ve done the exact same thing.

As we crossed the Roll Creek Bridge I could see that ma was feeling, Just let that Renee deny me, I will hand that little beep her beeping beep on a platter.

But then, bango, by the time we got to the far side and the air had gone from river-cool to regular again, her face had changed to, Oh, God, if Renee denies me in front of Ryan’s parents and they once again find me trash, I will die, I will simply die.

I’m interested in everyone else’s thoughts here. Did this story, which seems to insert a shallow sample of various ills without counter-balancing with an in-depth look at human emotion, work for anyone?

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By |2016-07-01T16:48:35-04:00June 7th, 2011|Categories: George Saunders, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |18 Comments


  1. Ben June 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    I felt that although there was not a lengthy look into Mikey’s psyche, what there is is certainly sufficient to move the reader and give credence to Mikey’s actions and Saunders’ commentary. It seems to me that Saunders keeps the direct insight of Mikey’s thoughts to a minimum because for a large part of the story Mikey seems to react instinctively and nearly without thought, probably because of both his formative experiences in the war, as well as his reluctance to depart from his anger and almost stoic bravado (except when his “go, go, go” feeling kicks in) and divulge the actual vulnerability that consumes him.

  2. Lee Monks June 9, 2011 at 4:44 am

    I completely agree with your thoughts, Trevor, sadly. The dialogue exchanges are flat: something has fizzled out of his writing judging from this. It’s two dimensional, not interesting and very un-Saunders.

  3. Betsy June 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Trevor, you commented that you are interested in everyone else’s thoughts regarding “Home”. Here goes –

    I am new to Saunders, having only read “Escape from Spiderhead”, (which I liked) so I do not have a big sense of him having let himself down. I have to say I found the story interesting, maybe because I liked the trick of the slow tick-revelation.

    There is a terrific ick factor in this story: hoarding, disorganization, a broken stove, water stained walls, a stranger in the house who is dressed only in “boxers and hiking boots and a winter cap”, eviction, culminating in Ma’s remark to her just returned son that the plate of bacon and eggs “might have a hair in it.”

    At one point, Ma shuts up her companion with a, “that is too much, that is truly disgusting.”

    Given that Saunders is writing about his own disgust with Americans, I think the ick factor has a point. It also works to distract us from what Saunders is slowly revealing to be the center of the story: the complete breakdown of Mikey, the narrator, the recently returned vet.

    So this is a war story. Tim O’Brien, the master story teller for Vietnam, shimmers. That is what makes reading him so difficult. You are drawn into the affection or compassion he has for everyone involved, and at the same time, he shows you the horror. He makes you stare at the accident, and you are ashamed. I do not think that Saunders makes me properly ashamed, although I am disgusted.

    This story reads more like a cartoon. Except for one thing: the main character is slowly building toward a psychotic break.

    To me, the question is – what is the point of the ticking story? What is the revelation? One is that Mikey has recently been court martialed, but exonerated, although he is now smeared for life. He himself admits that he did stuff at Al-Raz. Stuff that he had no intention of doing, but ended up doing. Saunders makes the point that it’s the nature of “the truth” that is at question.

    But now, “home”, Mikey is having a psychotic episode: circumstances have somehow brought him to the point that he’s going to kill everyone in his ex-wife’s house, including his own two children – except that his mother has turned up and he “softens”.

    This gives Saunders the platform for a particularly poignant curse that ends the story: “O.K., O.K., you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.” There is a ring of truth to this.

    But the story reminds me of a local event in which two young ex-convicts callously raped a mother and her two daughters whom they had selected at random, and then burned them all alive, only missing murdering the father by accident. In all its details, this was a horrifying story. What brought the perpetrators to this crime was not war, and in one case, it was not poverty.

    I don’t believe Saunders captures the horror of what Mikey may have done, the horror of what brought him to have done it, or the horror of what he is about to do, nor do I think that the idea that court-martialed vets come home and slaughter their families is necessarily borne out by reality. And I don’t buy the idea that every vet is represented by a court-martialed vet. It’s too easy, I think, and I wonder if that’s what you mean by cliche in this story, Trevor.

    So while I was entertained by the story, I doubt it. I love the last lines: “O.K., O.K., you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.”

    But I doubt whether the story has enough to it to support the passion that that final curse embodies. I think mass slaughter requires horror, rather than disgust, as to the point of view, and as to the question of our complicity, in that case high seriousness trumps comedy. Now, I’ll admit that Kurt Vonnegut can be very funny, but in the end, “Slaughterhouse Five” achieves high seriousness. That’s the bar, I think. So while humor can work, there has to be more “there” there. In the end, if you’re talking about Abu Ghraib, and all it entails, which I think he is, there has to be a high seriousness that grounds the comic. Mikey is too slight to bear all that weight of the final curse he tosses our way.

  4. Tess June 10, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Renee is his sister, not his ex-wife.

    “I looked at her and for a minute she was eight and I was ten and we were hiding in the doghouse while Ma and Dad and Aunt Toni, high on mushrooms, trashed the patio….”

    “…Go see your own wife, doofus!” she shouted after me. “Go see your own babies.”

    We never meet the ex-wife in the story, just the ex-wife’s new husband, Evan.

    I have not read anything else by George Saunders, but I found this story compelling enough. I agree with Betsy’s comparison to Tim O’Brien. I like Mikey’s cyclical wanderings from his ma’s house, to his sister’s house, to the store, to his ex-wife’s house; he does not find a berth. There is no home for this man, no real home-coming. To me the “Becket-like dialogue” fits with the emptiness he finds everywhere.

  5. Trevor June 11, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Renee is his sister, not his ex-wife.

    Of course, Tess. Thanks. My apologies for the error above. I’m going to leave my post unedited, though, so anyone reading can see that (a) I was not being thoughtful and what I wrote should be discounted as such or (b) I didn’t care enough about the story to be thoughtful — a critique in itself (not that that’s any excuse, since we can replace “not being thoughtful” with “being sloppy”).

    Betsy, the cliché feel I talked about above is in relation to Saunders’ other work. The elements are gettin familiar. I was also referring to the returning soldier theme. It’s not that that theme isn’t important — it certainly is — it’s just that Saunders doesn’t present anything here nearly as compelling as even the slightest newspaper reports. I don’t think Mikey is a well developed character, and I felt that in order to get him there I had to supply the story with such newspaper stories, as if Saunders were incorporating gravity by reference. It is as if, to me, Saunders is relying on the fact that the emotional depth of this story will be supplied by the reader; he’ll take care of the quirkiness.

    I certainly recommend George Saunders to anyone, but this story just didn’t work for me.

  6. R June 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    “It is as if, to me, Saunders is relying on the fact that the emotional depth of this story will be supplied by the reader; he’ll take care of the quirkiness.”

    Trevor, I think this is the whole point of Saunders’ work. Take 93990 from In Persuasion Nation. The monkey of the story is a pretty flat character, psychologicaly speaking. Eats, plays with a tire, looks upset when looking at dead monkeys. At no point does Saunders make it obvious we should feel sorry for the monkey. But you can feel every sentence working towards you feeling nothing but shame and anger and saddness when the end comes. I suppose for Saunders a character feeling upset and being stuck in an unfair situation SHOULD be enough for a reader to go, “this is all the emotional depth I need.” I think this is what Saunders does – he strips nearly everything away from his characters – back story, physical detail, intricate psychological reasoning – and goes, “here is Mike/93990/the 400 pound CEO/the Wavemaker, feeling pretty shit at the heart of things, and this is all you need to know, because anything else gets in the way of the compassion we all deserve.”

  7. Trevor June 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    R, I see your point. Makes me wonder if reading Saunders in a different order would make me feel differently. Maybe had I read this first, I would like it, not comparing it to the others, and then maybe the others would pale in comparison. Still, I don’t see it quite that way as his recent stories in The New Yorker — “Al Roosten” and “Victory Lap” and even “Escape from Spider Island” (the one I think is most in line with “Home” and Saunders’ typical work) have been fresh, full of character, and didn’t make me think “here’s a Saunders story and I’m supposed to get from point X to Y as usual.”

  8. Kara June 17, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I just got done reading this story and liked it a lot. I’m not familiar with George Saunders’ other writings. Perhaps it was especially meaningful to me because I know someone who is a vet and suffers from combat-related PTSD. The brief descriptions of Mikey’s feelings rang true to me to what my friend goes through, how he gets disoriented and angry and lost sometimes and seems to go into autopilot in ways that make no sense to me. This story came to me at a good time in my life and I found it therapeutic to read. Maybe not the intent of the author, but that’s how it worked for me.

  9. Jon June 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I liked this story too. I liked all three in this issue. Here are my impressions:

    I immediately saw a theme with “Above and Below” because, as Ben wrote, “for a large part of the story Mikey seems to react instinctively and nearly without thought”; the girl in that story does the same. They are both almost entirely on a plane of pure un-mediated existence. Mikey struggles with it and he wants to get back, not just to Home after the war, but more importantly to control of himself, i.e. to a mediated existence. He does not like that he did things he had no intention of doing. It bothers him a lot.

    I liked the dialogue and particularly that Saunders could tell much of the story through dialogue alone. I don’t have it with me but IIRC the entire first two pages were nothing but dialogue. This made the characters very real for me: meeting someone, you don’t get a written briefing on their character and its development, you just listen to them and watch them and you can get to know a lot about them very quickly if you are observant. Also, the dialogue was funny, and it’s hard not to like that, and I’m just a sucker for snappy dialogue. Elmore Leonard and all that.

    I’m beginning to think that “Above and Below” and “Home” form a contrast to “Asleep in the Lord”, which they sandwich in the paper issue and in which we meet characters who are the ultimate self-involved tourists whose experience of the world takes the form of highly developed inner narratives. They treat the misery of other peoples’ desperate lives (and deaths) as a sort of theme park, reveling in their brush with these people while actually experiencing nothing (the main character flat-out flees when he finally, against his wishes, is nearly forced into engaging with the experiential reality and suffering – fecal incontinence – of one of the patients whom he flatters himself he is there to help). In “Above and Below” and “Home” on the other hand we have protagonists who are almost pure experience. So I think there is a theme here.

    I thought Al Raz was short for the murders near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, where three US soldiers shot dead three unarmed non-combatants and then planted weapons on them a few years ago. When Mikey was speaking with one of the other vets he met, they discussed Al Raz as a neighborhood where there was heavy action and where it was hard to tell the combatants from the non-combatants. That’s what the (not atypical) situation was reported to be in the Iskandariya murders. In real life, Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley was acquitted at court martial of murder (go figure) after ordering a subordinate to shoot a man who discovered their snipers’ nest, although the man was unarmed with his hands in the air when he approached. “He’s not a killer,” Hensley’s aunt told the local paper in Asheville, “Michael would never do anything like that.” Sounds like Ma and Mikey.

    Finally, Betsy, I am curious as to the parallel you draw between the last scene and the Petit murders. Those were almost random: the Petits (may peace be upon them) were targeted by strangers in much the same way and for the same reason – robbery by bumbling low-life morons – as the Clutter family of Kansas memorialized by Capote. Those crimes were horrific, but they were not intra-family, as is the slaughter Mikey contemplates, and Mikey is not a bumbling low-life moron motivated by robbery. His crime, which he doesn’t commit, and which after all we don’t know how likely he was to commit (all the evil intent is drained out of him by the simple sight of his mother in a sympathetic pose), would have been the spur of the moment crime of a man out of his mind with anguish, not the deliberate, planned actions of the Petit and Cutler murderers (although if Mikey is Hensley, the crime in Al Raz is much closer). I would not bring this up but for the contrast again between the self-conscious inner narrative loaded with conceit and the un-mediated experience of the world that these three stories suggest.

  10. helas July 4, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Saunders is funny. A big part of the fun of reading any of his stories are the one-liners, just the dialogue in general. You can imagine him chuckling as he writes some of these great lines – “what did you think, it’s a midget who can’t talk?” Haaaaa….He writes his dialogue like a wacky sitcom that turns his characters into cartoons, but he usually is also able to evoke some sympathy for them by inplying that, hey, these well-intentioned idiots just don’t know any better, and since they are the people who are in our (the collective ‘we’ that is the protagonist(s)’) lives, they therefore are (mostly) deserving of our love – which can, admittedly, get old if you read him expecting something else, but it’s like food or music or anything else in life – if Saunders is pizza and soda, and, say, Nabokov is caviar and fine wine, well, if you’re in the mood for pizza then you’re going to get some of the best there is by reading Saunders, if that makes sense. I was watching some Louis C.K. before I read this story, and I found many similarities – Saunders is like a comedy writer who could write for a really good cable show. And that’s not a diss at all.
    I think the “lack” of character development or affect in Mike that some commenters here perceive is interesting, as I found one of (if not THE) main underlying “theme” or “commentary”, if you will, to be the numbness of our vets, and perhaps more importantly, society at large, when dealing with (or FAILING to deal with) the aftermath of a human being engaging in the activities of war. That, to me, is what this story is “about”, and it’s one of the things that Saunders continues to do so well – through humor, raise some of the more troubling aspects of modern life on both personal and societal levels. The final lines speak volumes. Mike both hates and loves these people. He recognizes them as being both responsible for what he has become and the only hope of redemption for him. Being the kind of writer that Saunders is, I think he wisely leaves it to the reader to fill in the subtext and the extent of meaning of Mike’s discontent, which shouldn’t be so hard, should it? Does one really have to ask, “So how bad is war, really?”

  11. Trevor July 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Certainly Saunders is funny, but in the past he’s also been successful at turnging this into something more insightful. I’m afraid, helas, that I’m still not seeing the point to this story as it still feels like Saunders-lite in terms of style and offers nothing, in my opinion, in terms of substance that isn’t better done in even average news features. It just doesn’t rate as an achievement.

    I have been reading Saunders for a long time, so it’s not a matter of “expecting something else” (I don’t think). For me, it’s a matter of feeling like he’s lain back and used his formula to rehash a common — albeit important — theme, adding nothing in the process.

    I’m misreading your last lines above here, but when you say he “leaves it ot the reader to fill in the subtext and the extent of meaning of Mike’s dicontent, which shouldn’t be so hard, should it?” I think, that’s exactly my problem: it’s not hard to fill in any of the subtext because it’s familiar.

    I’m still a fan of George Saunders, and I’d like to remain so, but this story was off-putting.

  12. Ken July 8, 2011 at 3:56 am

    I was also disappointed considering how I usually really like Saunders’ stories. I did find it compelling and suspenseful and certainly well-written but would agree that the narrative of the vet with PTSD is very familiar and requires something more than this treatment to be interesting. I did like the surrealism of his visit to the drugstore and the odd sense of time. Those conveyed his hallucinatory reality well. On the other hand, a bit more realism in terms of describing the acts committed in the war (and having it clearly stated as the Iraq war) would make this more powerful. And yet, after the last line I did hold my breath and would agree that it was a powerful conclusion.

  13. zmkc July 19, 2011 at 1:05 am

    I’ve never read anything by George Saunders before. Bits of the story made me laugh, some bits needed tighter editing, I thought – in the second paragraph, for instance, it seemed to me that he didn’t need to say ‘All of that was as usual’; instead, he could have just said ‘The only new thing I could see was…’, and later he didn’t need to labour his very obvious point about the tadpoles by inserting the sentence ‘Years later, at Al-Raz, it was a familiar feeling.’ More importantly though, I wasn’t at all convinced Saunders had any idea what it feels like to come back from war and his attempt at imagining it resulted in something that felt presumptuous to me and would probably strike a veteran as fairly insulting. The subject is not actually taboo, but a writer needs to tread a little more carefully than Saunders when tackling it, I reckon. Thanks for putting up such posts. It’s great being able to read a New Yorker story and then discover other people’s reactions to it.

  14. Trevor July 20, 2011 at 10:39 am

    zmkc, if you haven’t read anything else by George Saunders, I certainly recommend you do. As you can tell from my post, I am a fan but felt that this one was quite a bit below his general output.

  15. Aaron July 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    The story is funny, yes, but I’m with Trevor on this one — doesn’t do enough with that satire. I’m convinced that’s because Saunders is torn between doing two things, neither of which he adequately fulfills. (http://bit.ly/nicDZx)

    First, there’s the “war” story that Besty mentions: I don’t really find this to be one, but it’s clearly attempting to deal with the PTSD flashes that our narrator gets, and the ending certainly sets up the story as if the entire thing has been about his adapting to his “same-but-different” alien conditions: new step-father figure, same laziness; new word being used by the mother, same intent behind it; new husband for the sister, same lies spreading through the family. And second, there’s the social story, which is what Saunders really seems to be writing about, i.e., the class divide in which our hero’s mother is being evicted, our court-martialed veteran is thanked for his service but offered no compensation other than at-a-distance respect, and in which he fears that his children will grow up to be selfish dicks.

    He wants these people to feel bad for him for his war experience, but Saunders writes as if we should feel bad for him for his social circumstance (which may have contributed to him going to war, sure, but for which we do not have enough real information or insight into this character to talk about). The portions of the story I liked the most were the ways in which our hero — who has seen some shit — views the petty concerns of the safe and nouveau riche, who talk about how they measure up to other families which import harelipped Russian babies en masse for corrective surgery and American college. (And why no similar concern for our homegrown and mentally harelipped soldiers?)

    The point Zmkc makes is a great one, and one I’ve emphasized often when it comes to known writers and their contributions to the New Yorker: they’re not called to edit down their work nearly as much as they should, and it’s been a long time since I found Saunders to be as precise a satirist as that field requires. Instead, he spouts comedy everywhere in this piece, hoping that — as others have said in this thread — we’ll make an emotional connection of our own volition: he’ll put in the humor, we’ll do the rest.

    I’ll wait eagerly for Louie C. K. to get a short story in here, or perhaps something in the Shouts & Murmurs section.

  16. Chris August 8, 2011 at 4:57 am

    This is a really interesting thread to me, as when I first read this story I felt exactly the same as the original poster – and thought I was alone. I think what is most striking in this thread is the obvious difference in opinion from the Saunders fans and the less familiar. For the latter this story lives up to a story, but for the rest of us it just does not live up to Saunders. What makes reading Saunders so unique I think is that it can be such a different sensory jarring than with most fiction. I’m not looking for a moving passage in Saunders, I’m looking for the bawdy, high jinx, cheap gag, the melodramatic packaged for great, unforgettable fiction. In his first two collections he came so close to a rare originality in presenting a corporate, hyper-consumer, end-user entertainment world that he had a lot to live up to. But topping CWIBD with Pastoralia I think the majority of us thought this man had endless reserves of the same. But, that just isn’t possible. I think there are a lot of different directions Saunders could go, but I think (all subjective, personal conjecture here) the one thing Saunders should have kept close is the world his characters came from, the slightly-in-the-future but not so far, heavily branded world of 300 pound CEO and Pastoralia and Winky and Puppy, all of those stories – while never straying far from very human complexes – lived in a place that is entirely Saunder’s own. This latest story seems to want to straddle into the more conventional realm of Tobias Wolff and even in Jim Shepard’s latest collection there is a story of very similar material (the homecoming theme is an American constant, but overloaded at the moment.) I don’t want to demand too much from Saunders, he is after all a writer and can write what he wants, but I do get the feeling that he feels demanded of, as if this story is one way of trying to outreach his own idiom and epoch, but some of us would like him, selfishly but undeniably, to stay exactly where he is.

  17. Trevor August 8, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Chris, I find it interesting that while neither of us who have read plenty of Saunders liked it, we didn’t like it for different, even opposing reasons: me, because he’s doing much the same thing here stylistically as he’s done in the past; you, because he’s strayed away from what he does well :).

    I think we have more common ground that is apparent in my quick little summary of our positions, though. I think my approach is that the style is stale and especially stale when applied to a stale subject. Your approach seems to be more focused on the staleness of the subject itself.

    As an aside, I really liked Saunder’s two pieces he published in The New Yorker in 2009 — “Al Roosten” (my brief thoughts here) and “Victory Lap” (my brief thoughts here) — and each of those were set in the present and seemed to be more focused on character than on culture and society.

  18. […] as well while reading it.  When I wrote about Saunders’ last story, “Home” (my thoughts here), I wondered how much of my disappointment was based on the fact that it wasn’t a good story and […]

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