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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