George Saunders, Liberation Day, New York: Random House, 2022, 233pp., $28.00.
When you win both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, as George Saunders did in 2006, it’s a pretty good year. But Saunders has made a habit of winning awards. In 2017 he received the prestigious Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. He is best-known, however, as a master of the short story. His collection Tenth of December, published in 2013, won Saunders the Story Prize and the Folio Prize and was also a finalist for that year’s National Book Award. When Saunders publishes a new volume of short stories, as he did this October, it is something of an event.
Liberation Day collects nine stories linked thematically around the ideas of liberation and enslavement. Some deal with political and economic liberation, others with more personal struggles against subjection: at work, in the family, or to one’s own foibles. The book’s title story—which leads off the volume and, at 60 pages, is perhaps a novella rather than a short story—is a small tour de force. It depicts a dystopian future in which wealthy individuals house and maintain “Speakers,” poorer people who, in exchange for regular payments to their chosen designees, volunteer to provide entertainment after having their memories wiped clean. They spend their lives pinned to a “Speaking Wall” and connected to a “Pulse” machine, which feeds their brains the information they need to give rhetorical performances that are a cross between theater and storytelling.
The themes of slavery and exploitation are neatly picked up in a story within the story, when the Speakers are compelled to perform the tale of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn. But Saunders weaves much more into this narrative. The Speakers are enslaved not for the sake of profit but for status, prompting the reader to wonder how today’s entertainment culture might generate its own forms of enslavement. Naive political idealism gets punctured when a group of youthful activist radicals intervene violently to free the Speakers. Their well-intended but futile revolutionary gesture ends in a mix of tragedy and farce when one of the Speakers, in love with the lady of the house, prefers to remain enslaved rather than see her and her family harmed. Finally, the Speakers’ performances not only provide Saunders opportunities for rhetorical fireworks but also challenges the writer himself: Does the author inevitably tyrannize his own characters?
Saunders raises many of the same questions in other contributions to the volume, “Ghoul” and “Elliott Spencer.” Yet these are virtually the same story as “Liberation Day.” In “Ghoul” we meet a group of people held captive in what seems to be a vast underground amusement park, where they stage a variety of performances—little horror shows, Wild West shows, romantic comedies—for crowds of hoped-for “Visitors” who never actually materialize. In “Elliott Spencer,” large numbers of addicts and homeless have been rounded up, “scraped” clean of all memories, and trained to stage large, fake rallies or protests at which they shout meaningless insults at each other before descending into violent brawls.
In each of these stories (as in “Liberation Day”), a character begins to sense that he is inhabiting a fabricated world of lies. Each concludes (unlike “Liberation Day”) with a faint glimmer of hope for improvement. And each, taken on its own, is well-crafted and compelling. “Elliott Spencer” is an ominous but humorous take-down of our America’s vacuous political shouting matches and the mechanisms by which demagogues stir up their followers. “Ghoul” offers a clever spin on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave—except, in this case, the “Egress Spout” leading from underground, through which some characters imagine they could ascend to the real world above, turns out to lead nowhere. From this cave, there is no escape. Yet the inclusion of all three stories in the same volume is puzzling. By the time one reaches the third, the reader begins to think that he has heard that song before.
Most other stories in the collection are strong. “The Mom of Bold Action” gleefully dissects the dishonest rationalizations we tell ourselves to avoid sacrificing our interests while maintaining a belief in our virtue. With less humor and a heavier dose of social criticism, “A Thing at Work” exposes the callous disregard and in-group arrogance that stand in the way of efforts by the socially, economically, and culturally disadvantaged—the great unwashed—to improve their lot in life.
“Mother’s Day” is less successful. It is difficult to work up much sympathy for any of this story’s generally unlikeable characters or to feel much interest in the dead husband’s history of insatiable philandering with his equally insatiable neighbor. At most we are reminded that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Weaker still is “Love Letter,” the one story in the book that simply falls flat. A grandfather writes a regretful letter to his son, lamenting that he and his generation did too little to protect and pass on a free, democratic society. “Every night, as we sat across from each other,” the grandfather writes, “the TV in the next room blared this litany of things that had never before happened, that we could never have imagined happening, that were now happening, and the only response from the TV pundits was a wry, satirical smugness that assumed, as we assumed, that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal—that some adults would arrive, as they had always arrived in the past, to set things right. It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong.” I sympathize with Saunders’ sentiment. But as a story it is too polemical, too preachy, too obvious, not even approaching the complexity of a story like “Liberation Day.”
Still, the book’s high points easily outnumber its low ones. I particularly enjoyed “Sparrow,” a mere eight pages long, but a miniature paean to the dignity of all men and women. A simple, unattractive, not particularly talented or even noticeable woman falls in love with an equally unimpressive and uninteresting man. Through their daily interactions and her repeated gestures of kindness, he gradually grows fond of her as well. Others notice the budding romance with bemusement. When the two get married, the onlookers, seeing how happy the couple appears, worry that the relationship will not end well. “And it may not,” writes the narrator. “It still may not end well. Life being, as they say, long. But it has not ended badly yet. It has not ended at all.” The couple remains devoted, with no signs of change. In a book that offers at best only modest notes of optimism, it is good to be reminded that even the very ordinary among us—most of us, in other words—can rightly lay claim to humble, everyday happiness.