Confounded by Love

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Book Reviews

For Christmas this year I received a copy of George Saunders’ collection of short stories entitled Tenth of December.  I had never heard of Saunders before, and didn’t know what to expect, but the giver of this gift– an inspiring young man securing his MFA in film directing with whom I’ve been known to occasionally watch Celtics games, make an Indian food run, or share a conversation in support of a draft screenplay in which we deconstruct the failed art of management performance reviews, whose mother I fell in love with some decade and a half ago– has had a habit of providing me with the next best bit of art or literature for which I am ready, so I began with eagerness.

And now I am hooked.

(Thank you, Willy…!)

(A music video Willy conceived, directed, shot and edited…)

All of the stories were great, and I can’t slight any of them by coughing up a favorite, but I will say I laughed with joy amidst the brief tragedy of My Chivalric Fiasco.  The witty ebullience and brash innocence that emerge after a few minor chemical “adjustments” to the main character were priceless.  When I reached the end of that particular session I set the book down and swore a few times in gratitude.  You might think that is a subtle acknowledgment of a favorite, but I swore to myself frequently while reading this book.

Frequently

I loved the way Saunders uses TM and ® symbols in several of the stories, My Chivalric Fiasco among them, attaching those symbols to proper nouns he deploys to describe the active ingredients of mass manufactured experience– to fictitious drugs that are named for the moods and feelings they induce in the characters, or to events such as parties that are named for their caricatured themes.  His stories are sprinkled with these ACME style experience-inducing elements, as if all of life can be commoditized, controlled and offered in separately wrapped packages on aisle 5– a myth Saunders constantly dispels– but surrounding and infusing these carefully branded ironies are brilliantly wrought characters planted in moments of crisis or uncertainty to which we can all relate, situations where we find real lives in the balance.

Saunders’ characters are honest, complex, and confused, but also loving.  Like us.  We see in these stories the aberrations of loving that permeate our world– the distortions that arise from seeking to protect and defend,  from mixing love with shame and guilt, from introducing our conditioned expectations to the unscripted abyss.  I experienced Saunders’ characters with the immediacy of the way I experience myself, as a stream of consciousness muttered under the breath, as a rich stream of cognitions too scarcely examined, filled with desire, inconsistency, inadequacy, and compromise.  But still somehow luminous.

A great pleasure for me in reading this book was the discussion at the back (of the paperback version) where Saunders is interviewed by David Sedaris, another writer I would undoubtedly benefit from discovering.  During the interview Saunders talks about the way he writes– about how he begins with a glimmer, an insight, a line of dialogue, or a character, and then he builds from there.  I loved his notion that there are no failed stories, only stories that have a mind to become what they are rather than what we may have wanted them to be instead.  If we can sit with them, and let them teach us what they desire to be, we can bring them to life as fully as possible.  These morsels were reassuring to me, as they put into words things I had been feeling.  Not that this is any sort of validation of my potential as a writer…  It simply didn’t hurt to hear an author as accomplished as Saunders describe a phenomenon I’m able to correlate in some small way to my own plunking in the dark.

He also spoke, however, of his stories as his laboratory, as a means of putting love into the midst of difficulty to see what it might really be made of.  I thought that was a beautiful description of fiction’s power to guide and influence us.  When Willy gave me the book, he suggested I watch a Saunders video on-line, and while I’m not sure I found the one he had in mind, I found a good one.  I think it contains a little insight into the man, and what he may have meant about his characters being fundamentally loving.  Like us.  I know time is precious, but I think this is twelve minutes worth spending…

23 Comments

  1. I like his reminders about kindness, love and living for more than self. You’ve stirred my curiosity about his book, so I’ve requested it from our library. Thanks Michael.

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  2. I love his, and your take on letting the story write through us Michael. It’s an amazing process that puts us in touch with something beyond us.

    Adding love always works, of course!
    D

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, Debra! I have experienced this in writing poetry– where a flash or a feeling, by the time it ends up on paper, has become something else entirely. It seems like a type of acceptance, or openness, you could apply to entire lives…

      Much Love
      Michael

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  3. I’m glad I visited, Michael 🙂
    I was intrigued by Willy’s video as well as its juxtaposition with George Saunders speech at graduation. I love the connecting thread of sharing a book, new art. Overall, a very touching post, while calling for a deeper meditation into luminosity and kindness.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to ditch your studies temporarily, Ka. I hope it was time well spent. Willy is insanely creative. As is Saunders. As is Love, when you get right down to it… There’s a common thread here. I happen to be on good terms with the paper mache doughnut head maker as well… 🙂

      It is amazing how simple it is at the end of the day. Luminous, loving kindness holds the key…

      Michael

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  4. Thank you so much Michael! As ever, you have added your own profound insights to an already profound subject, in this case the writings and teachings of a surprise new author. I always love to find such!. How refreshing to find an author who assumes a loving core in his characters! And if he occasionally brings one to life who doesn’t appear to have that core quality, he “throws a little love” into the story to find out how that shifts things. I find this quite remarkable in today’s literary world. I have not watched the videos yet but hope to find a moment when my husband and I can share those treats. Blessings and love to you, My Friend, Alia

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    • Thank you, Alia! It is intriguing for me to read his stories, and then to watch the video, because these are not stories dripping in romance or loving kindness, but rather stories of struggling and wounded people– people with flaws, people with inability to see through their own shortsightedness, through whom love peaks in moments of darkness and difficulty. They are stories that take a great deal of introspection to write, I imagine, a real ability to see people in trying circumstances. I hope you enjoy the videos!

      Blessings to you also, Alia…
      Michael

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  5. What a joy to see you celebrate Saunders. I love the full poem from which he quotes in his address:
    So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
    with its grains of sand drifting down,
    not as an object in our world
    but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
    drifting down grain by grain,
    sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
    see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
    Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
    of ego with which we began, the mass
    in the upper chamber, filters away
    as love accumulates below. Now
    I am almost entirely love.
    Hayden Carruth

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    • John, thanks for sharing that Carruth poem in its entirety! ‘Tis a beauty… I love the line Saunders picked: “I am almost entirely love.” Such a sweet and gracious admission…

      Much Love
      Michael

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  6. David Sedaris is wonderful. I, and in deference to his popularity, assume many, share much of the way he looks at the world. But he is able to translate his vision into language and manages to be funny as well.

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      • I enjoy sharing this story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n5CkoRx_CI when we are talking about cultural differences in class. I think his vocal delivery adds to/o…
        Hey, thank you, M. I’ve been enjoying your shares here – donut head madness (so clever and well-executed) and this morning as a traffic situation had students trickling in late, I shared the commencement speech – the flow from then on seemed coated with kindness – how could it not be? 🙂

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        • Nice, M! Enjoyed the David Sedaris video. I loved his use of English as foreign language. Will definitely have to check out more of his writing!

          I agree that the Saunders speech would probably work wonders wherever played. It probably helped that when I first listened to it I was a little slack-jawed, having just completed that book of his, but my guess is like any heartfelt expression the message is conveyed regardless of the words. It is funny as I think about the Sedaris video, and how learning a foreign language reduces us so often to technicalities, to grammar and vocabulary, but the real communication doesn’t rely on these. My wife required an unexpected surgery once in a German hospital while we were on vacation, and she shared a room with a German woman who had just come out of a pretty serious seeming procedure. Neither spoke a word of the other’s language, but when I came back the next day during visiting hours, they were singing hymns to each other and looking at pictures of children.

          Once, we had a German-speaking friend call the woman in Germany for us, and they couldn’t even really speak. Just laugh or sing or share a silence. Say a few things through the translator. But there were tears at the thought alone. At the knowing of connection. Language is so very wonderful, and yet just a carrier. Such a dull instrument at the same time…

          Thanks for taking a few moments here, M. And for watching the donut head madness!

          Michael

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          • So precious to be able to express sans language at times, the way your wife’s hospital stay prompted – forced to go straight to the heart of being human together seems superior than language can do, to me this morning. I used to love little respites from speaking from having laryngitis, especially the way it forced me out of my mom naggy patterns, and switched the daily communication necessary into note pads and mime skills, helping shift mundane into fun play acting. I remember, distinctly when the kids were little, extending the silence after the voice had healed because I didn’t want to go back to the old patterns of speaking in certain ways. I think I am due for a little self-induced play in this area again. 🙂 Thank you for giving me a little trip down this road, M!

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            • Marga, you have invoked here a seldom accessed childhood memory of my own mother suggesting a silent hour as a fun way of inspiring my sisters and I to engage in different ways. (And allow a moment or two of silence to drift through the house… though we probably offset it with our running and furniture slamming corner-cutting…) I recall it working pretty well, until the conflicts set in… then none of us had the patience… 🙂 I can remember, though, how these little shifts inspired a new experience of the world, gave it a different angle and a different spaciousness, even if just for the first few minutes. Play is so good in this regard– opening up fresh perspectives. Wishing you a fruitful game of tag with silence…

              Michael

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        • Thank you for the link, Ellen. Will check it out. I actually gave the first essay entitled You Can’t Kill the Rooster a read. Having made an opposite journey, from an upbringing in Alabama to a permanent residence in New England, it had me cracking up. Much appreciated! I listened to the link Marga sent below (or above) (or as one way so the other) (or however these comments are stacked on your screen) and enjoyed that one, too.

          Blessings
          Michael

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