"Mother's Day"
by George Saunders
Originally published in the February 8 & 15, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.

February 8, 2016Saunders made a gigantic splash with Tenth of December, his collection of short stories that The New York Times declared the best book of 2013 in January of that year. He was all over the place, and people thought there’d be a resurgence of the short story (I don’t know if that has happened or not). I was a bit sad that I couldn’t join the cheers. I loved George Saunders’ work up until he started publishing the pieces that eventually made Tenth of December. Those stories started to feel familiar, which is weird considering the content of something like “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” (post here). But it wasn’t the content that was the issue; it was the tone and structure that felt familiar.

That all said, I’m very excited that Saunders is back with this week’s story. The last time he published anything in The New Yorker was October 8, 2012, when “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” showed up. I haven’t revisited anything of his since early 2013. Three years without George Saunders has made me miss George Saunders.

I can’t wait to read the story and see what you all think! Leave your comments below!

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By | 2016-02-08T18:24:11+00:00 February 1st, 2016|Categories: George Saunders, New Yorker Fiction|10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Archer February 1, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    I’m with you on George Saunders, Trevor. He and Lorrie Moore are both examples of writers I like a lot, but whose styles are so identified with a specific voice and tone that their recent works have begun to feel somewhat familiar, almost like a shtick. It also doesn’t help that they’ve been so widely imitated by other authors, particularly Saunders. (And that’s certainly not their fault.)

    However, be careful what you wish for. I feel like this story is bit of a of a departure. He’s dialled down the satire and the pathos, and gone for something more biting, misanthropic. Unfortunately, it’s terrible. I think I should give this another chance before having such a decided opinion, but my first response was that this just didn’t work on any level. The prose is littered with cliché phrases, the structure felt incredibly contrived and the voices of the two narrators never rang true. I’m not entirely sure what Saunders hoped to accomplish with these ghoulish harridans, what point he was trying to make (insofar as literature should have a “point”).

    Cynically, it’s easy to say that a magazine like TNY would publish anything from a writer of Saunders’ profile. But, reading his lengthy answers in the author interview, it’s revealed that the story was labored over during a long period of time, and that an initial draft was essentially rejected by the editors. In other words, they spent a fair amount of effort to get it to its current form. Again, I respect Saunders enough to give this another crack, but right now, this strikes me as the biggest miscalculation of a TNY story from a major writer since that dreadful 9/11 Michael Jackson story by Zadie Smith.

  2. Trevor February 2, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Yikes! I got through the first third yesterday, and I certainly didn’t know what to make of I was reading by the time I had to stop. I’m planning on starting it over again later today when I have more time to actually finish it!

    But to ignorantly respond to your points, I’m kind of glad he’s dialed down the satire and pathos, as those were the two aspects that started to feel formulaic. You could almost see him sitting there thinking, okay, here’s where I need to insert x to get the pathos going. I definitely got the bite and misanthropy from what I already read.

    By the way, for those interested, you can listen to him reading the story on the website. I usually don’t like listening to the author reading as they understandably aren’t performers, but Saunders is a good one. I want to listen once I’ve read through it.

  3. Sean H February 4, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    This is an author attempting to stretch his boundaries. The humanism is still there but not obnoxiously so. The moment where we veer from Alma’s POV to Debi’s is very well-managed and takes the story in a different direction than I thought it was headed. I don’t agree at all with an earlier commenter that these are “ghoulish harridans,” I found Saunders’ presentation of older women of two very different stripes to be quite convincing and not at all the problem with this story. The problem is it’s a bit simple and didactic. The notion that parents often have kids who are their worldview-ic opposites is essentially the plot of the 80s TV show “Family Ties.” The fixation on mothers needs a longer time to breathe (as in Franzen’s novel Purity; whatever one thinks of that novel, it is the proper size for its topic). This feels like wine ordered by the glass, a short story expert (and really, there are few bigger names in the genre right now that Saunders) who is simultaneously thinking in longer form novelic ways. It’s not a bad story by any means but it doesn’t make much of an impact either. I did like the final POV shift at the end though, it’s a form of telescoping effect that reframes the pre-existing narrative in a very Saunders-esque way, as if his old writing persona couldn’t be fully suppressed.

  4. Martha Johnson February 6, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    I thought this was a very profound and moving story that asks that essential question “How do you want to be?” Alma has been angry so long that it has altered her personality to such extent that she has become a bitter and mean old woman. She doesn’t have a good relationship with her children because of her own pain that gets translated into neglect and rejection of her children. She is totally incapable of seeing her own role in all of this, since her focus is completely on blaming her husband and his mistresses. She says that she still wants to fight her husband and make him pay, as she always has done. She feels she is the innocent party and the long suffering one. She is shocked in the end when her baby girl says to her, “This has nothing to do with him. How do you want to be?” It is a very good point and it stops Alma cold. In the last moments, Alma wants to pick up her children and hold them, but she can’t because her hands have turned red hot from all of her anger. Alma learns that the only way she can pick up her children and save them is if she lets go of her anger and rage. She realizes that the only way she can do this, is if she completely lets go of the person she has become. It is so interesting that this letting go also coincides with her own death. In her letting go, Alma is finally free of her anger and rage, and we hope she has learned something about herself in this life review.

  5. Ken February 9, 2016 at 5:29 am

    I agree with Martha–this is good. To follow up on her point–We also can ponder what sort of life Debi lived. Here we have someone who seems the opposite of Alma, yet is her mirror–both are resentful but Debi’s is towards Alma. Debi sees herself as this bountiful earth-mother, but she too is flawed. I was impressed by the virtuosity of this. I’d agree Saunders has been down this path before with a story about 5 years ago about a real jerk who was in his house and then something happened–I forget the name–where we were stuck in his asshole mindset, but I still liked this plenty.

  6. Joe February 12, 2016 at 12:57 am

    Astonishing that Saunders took leave of his senses for long enough to save this story from the rubbish bin, let alone be published. It reads like a gag piece that the Believer would have published entitled “A story written by someone channeling George Saunders during the instant he taps out the absolute first draft of a story that should receive a dozen more passes before being read by any human being.”

    I love Saunders, but with publications like this it is going to greatly effect how he is taken as a serious writer. Cliches — lazy observations — non-sensical digressions — POV shifts not only within paragraphs, not only within sentences, but, it feels like, right in the middle of a long word — I mean this really was a total stinker and a slog and an absolute unmitigated disaster on so many levels. Truthfully, it feels like a story written by a drunk person and edited by a stoned person. I’m all for imbibing the liquor and the grass on occasion, but for the love of clarity, DO NOT DO SO WHEN YOUR WORDS ARE GOING TO BE PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORKER.

    Wowzers. I’m stunned.

  7. johnnyhenry February 13, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Agree Joe. This took too much of an effort to follow despite it being not all that complex. Too much unnecessary shifting within the narrative on even the sentence level as you pointed out. He was probably trying for a certain effect, but it didn’t work. And for me it sounded alot like the same old Saunders. Mind you I definitely like some of the old Saunders, the themes, the edgy science fiction aspect of his work, but perhaps I’m getting tired of it. Heavy editing needed indeed on this one. Saunders is an original (somewhat), but if this is him trying to break a mold….the mold barely cracked.

  8. David February 14, 2016 at 11:21 pm

    I had never read Saunders before, but came across this one, and like Martha and Ken, found it very moving. I was also very drawn in by the whimsical style, on top of events that sat very squarely in a realistic setting. But something about it bugged me, and ultimately I think it was the juxtaposition of extremely clueless and often abusive people in a setting where I was also feeling sympathetic towards them. It made me think of another story, “Too Good to Be True,” by Michelle Huneven, which I also felt moved by, but I didn’t feel bugged. So I wrote about that over here: http://www.davidweiss.net/blog/on-mothers-day-by-george-saunders/

  9. Alvin February 15, 2016 at 11:30 am

    It’s a great story. I don’t care that the characters internal monologue is full of hokey one-liners and cheesy diction– not all of us have a Booker Prize-winning author in our heads narrating our existence. After this and the other one with the boy on his bike, Saunders could start a new genre– streetdeath.

  10. Greg February 18, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    Thank you everybody for giving me so much to think about!

    I agree Sean – The ending was very well done via a “telescoping effect” as you have shrewdly observed.

    Also, I loved your posting Martha. Especially the quote you chose to showcase: “This has nothing to do with him. How do you want to be?”……..so Archer, would you agree with me that Martha found the ‘point’ of this story?

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