Journeys With George (Saunders), or Why Magazines Should Hire More Fiction Writers

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A while back, as a nice gesture, a publishing pal gave me George Saunders' (at the time) new book, The Braindead Megaphone. Exciting: here in my hands was one of the few perks of being in a publishing-related field -- an advance copy book! And free! Plus, I like that George Saunders guy too.

But I had no idea how much more I would like Saunders when I read his non-fiction, nor did I even know that he wrote non-fiction, since I had entirely missed the fact that GQ had stolen a page from the early '90s Harper's playbook by sending an idiosyncratic and wildly inventive fiction genius on major journalism assignments, which, collected, now formed (in my opinion) the best part of The Braindead Megaphone.

Reading them, I got the sense that Saunders' non-fiction stories were the first real conceptual challenge to the magazine article since David Foster Wallace's expansive, footnoted, densely erudite and analytically observational opuses shed entirely new light and cruise ships, state fairs, and Presidential campaigns. Like Wallace, Saunders also appears in his own journalism as the bumbling, inexperienced journalist, but Saunders is more believable as a bumbler, which is to say that he is a bumbler, which is part of the charm. And the narrative drive too. While Wallace feigned ignorance as he supplied copious reporting, Saunders seems to do very little reporting, eschewing most external detail for his own empathetic internal conflicts and observational experience among, say, The Minutemen, or in Dubai.

That was the first piece I read, at which point I thought: of course! Why did it take so long for someone to think of this? The almost supernatural-seeming and vaguely sinister techno-consumerist Potemkin fantasyland that is the real Dubai seems like a fictional place cribbed from a George Saunders short story, so why not send him there to blow his mind?

The result was an incredible read, as Saunders attempted to resolve the tension between the reality of the un-reality of the place out loud, or at least on the page. (Although on the reporting front, Saunders did punt on the shady finances that coax the mirage of Dubai from the desert.) My favorite piece was another GQ story, "The Incredible Buddha Boy," in which Saunders goes to investigate a claim that a boy in Nepal had been meditating for seven months without any food or water. What follows is true greatness, which you'll have to get the book to experience.

Notice there are no links above, despite that the two articles references are from GQ, a large-circulation, fancy glossy magazine that surely must have a website! Yes, there is such a website, but it is so bad that most of the stories are not available there in their entirety, and those that are are split into so many screens, with fussy type, and bad colors, and such generally poor design that the stories are basically unreadable.

Which is why, even though I had a link to George Saunders' latest non-fiction epic, "Tent City, U.S.A.," in which he lives for a week in a homeless encampment in Fresno, I couldn't bring myself to read it, as it was split by GQ into twenty seven screens. Until, that is, someone went to the trouble to combine all 12,000 words in one place.

To whomever got down to business with Tumblr: thanks a million! I love this story, although I was skeptical at the beginning of the format, which frames the article as a pseudo-sociological field study. For some reason, it didn't sit right with me at the very start, despite that I could tell how much fun it was as a writer to refer to oneself in the third person as the Principal Researcher (PR). But the PR's eye for detail and presentational capabilities are irresistible, especially when combined with his confessional asides, as in this scene where he meets a guy named Ernesto:


the pr looked good. Too good. Ernesto himself tried to look not too
good. The PR better park that van somewhere else. There were crackheads
living up in here. After dark the crackheads would break into the van
and steal everything. Even the van. This was not a good place. These
were not good people. The PR better take off his wedding ring. They'd
come in the night and steal it, taking the finger if necessary. The PR
would see tonight how wild it got. A friend of Ernesto's had stayed out
here once, to learn about the homeless. After two weeks, he was dead.

They killed him? the PR said.

He killed his own self, Ernesto said. It made him so sad to see how
the people are living. He stayed a couple nights. Then two weeks later,
he kill himself. I don't want that to happen to you.

The PR observed with some interest that his reaction to the
clarification that Ernesto's friend had not been murdered, but had only
killed himself in despair, was relief.

And here's Saunders' first real encounter on his first day:

Wanda was a woman of uncertain ethnicity between 30 and 50 years of
age whose face consisted of a series of sun-darkened red-and-purple
rounded structures, like rosy cheeks, but located in places on her face
where cheeks would not normally be found. Nevertheless, Wanda exuded a
wry joviality, as if aware that there were comic aspects to the fact
that she was seated, sunburned and barefoot, on a street of houses made
of garbage, wearing what appeared to be a set of maroon hospital scrubs.

How are you? the PR inquired.

Could be better, Wanda responded.

Wanda reported that she had recently been hit by a train. (The Study
Area was located illegally on railroad land, and its western border was
a busy switching yard.) She'd been trying to cross the tracks with her
bike. That train could have at least honked, she said. Wanda inquired
as to whether the PR would give her a hundred dollars. The PR demurred.
Wanda asked whether the PR would give her a kiss. The PR demurred.
Wanda stated that the PR "looked rich." The PR protested that he was
not rich. Wanda looked pointedly at the project research vehicle, a
late-model rental minivan. Wanda showed the PR her train-injured foot,
which was red, glazed, and infected. Her big toe was bent at a right
angle, as if someone had snapped the big toe at the joint and set it
ninety degrees from the correct orientation.

The PR expressed his desire to put up a tent of his own.

Wait, you staying here? Wanda said. How long you staying?

Maybe a week? the PR said.

You married? Wanda said.

Twenty-one years, the PR said.

I'm a rape you, Wanda said.

There's a lot more where that came from, and none of it feels exploitative, since Saunders is such a softie  and humanist (like me!) that he wants to do justice to every single person he meets. He even wants to help them himself, but knows he can't. And he wrestles with that in the piece, giving the tragic humor of a marginalized wasteland some poignancy for balance. Saunders also confesses that he knows -- and regrets that he knows -- that he will not think about these people much once he's home and never has to come back. In the meantime, Saunders has a chameleon-like ability to tell their stories in their voices while also inserting his own, which manages to humanize his subjects along with himself. It is quite something: funny, moving, and very real -- so real from the tact you don't even need to see the one worthwhile link at GQ, a slide show of the real people of Tent City, U.S.A.


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