“Elliott Spencer”
by George Saunders
from the August 19, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

The last time George Saunders published a story in The New Yorker was early 2016, about a year before Lincoln in the Bardo hit shelves. Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I have a very hit-and-miss relationship with Saunders. I was very excited for Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, but I didn’t like it the first or second time I read it. For me over the past decade there have been more misses than hits, though I’m glad others are getting so much from his work. It doesn’t seem to matter how many misses there are, though: I’m still always excited to read whatever he puts out there. I cannot imagine my interest is simply residual heat from his earlier collections. I still harbor hope that the heart of his story will shine more clearly than the quirks of language and structure. There is no doubt about it: Saunders is a master stylist with a superb and unique voice. It’s just that, for me, it seems he’s doing the same thing he was doing years ago.

Let’s see how we get along with “Elliott Spencer.”

Right away I’m both drawn in and wary. In the first few lines I’m already in a world that I’m familiar with: it’s George Saunders’ world:

Today is to be      Parts of the      Parts of my

Sure, Jer     Please do     Point at parts of me while saying the name of it off our list of Words Worth Knowing.

Agespot

Finger

Wrist

At wrist Jer says, This one’s been broken, seems like.

Then pokes.

Ouch? he says.

Yes, I say.

Groin

Waist

You were no spring chicken, says Jerry.

I do not understand what you just said, please explain, I say.

You were not young, Jerry says. Your body is not the body of a young person.

Oh, that’s cool, I say. That’s cool, Jer.

Jer shakes his head his certain way     Meaning: 89, you crack my ass up.

Long ago, perhaps one week, we had Explain Time, due to figure of speech crack my ass up     All asses are precracked, turns out, even mine, which Jer helped me learn by taking of phonephoto.

Capitalized terms of art, broken sentences, an ignorant (at first) but earnest subject of some science fiction project. This is George Saunders all over the place already. It feels quite a bit like “Escape from Spiderhead,” which Saunders published in The New Yorker in 2010.

And yet it isn’t. While Saunders is exceptional at this, we can go back and find similar work at least as far as Daniel Keyes’ 1958 story “Flowers for Algernon,” which was eventually expanded into the famous 1966 novel of the same name.

This makes me wonder about something. I don’t mind it when writers revisit themes, and certainly writers have styles that become familiar. Why does it grate a bit more when it’s Saunders? I think it has something to do with the style, which can come off as gimmicky. Perhaps it stands out more, means less?

Or perhaps it’s that this particular style has already come to signify a particular story with particular themes and, importantly, particular pathos. I’m not sure the variations offer much more nuance.

That said, as I mentioned above, I’m also intrigued. Why is there someone learning about his body, an old body at that? I’m going to find out, and maybe I’ll find my hope paying off.

Please feel free to comment below. Share your thoughts on “Elliott Spencer” and Saunders’ work in general.

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