On January 3, The New York Times Magazine proclaimed with the title of its cover story that “George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read this year.” Heady words for being only three days into 2013. Tenth of December, the best-selling author’s fourth short-story collection has lived up to its hype, but don’t take Saunders’ word for it. “I think if someone didn’t read any other books then that prediction would be true,” he quips. These 10 imaginative and very human tales offer a vision of a near future in which all our yearnings for commercialism and technology have been realized to tantalizingly dystopian results. Saunders—who once hitchhiked to Las Vegas in the ’80s and “had the ignominy of staying at Circus Circus”—returns on October 15 to lead a Black Mountain Institute panel discussion with UNLV professors Douglas Unger and Maile Chapman, his former teacher and student, respectively.
Theme parks are a recurring theme in your stories. Vegas is like one giant theme park. Any thoughts about that?
When I first started to write after grad school I was drawn to Hemingway and to that sober realism. But I didn’t have much gift for it. I think I was meant to be a funny, comic writer. I found that if I set a story in a theme park they were automatically funny somehow. … There’s something about being in that alternate space that was so magical to me. I find setting it in those Vegas-like atmospheres helps my imagination start to run wild.
It seems like the world has evolved to meet your sci-fi visions.
I can hardly keep ahead of it. I did a story for GQ, where I went to Dubai, which is a version of Vegas. I was thinking that our senses don’t really know from real or not real. So if it’s a fake river, it could be beautiful. In a way our senses are smarter than we are. I also noticed that there’s something geopolitical in it that I can’t put a finger on. When you go to Disneyland or Disney World, and you go to the French Quarter section, it’s not like the French Quarter really. It’s like a hygenicized version of the French Quarter. There’s no winos. There’s no vomit. There’s something about human beings that likes that. It’s not necessarily a healthy impulse. They want the beauty without the complications. Again, I’m really just kinda talking. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking about any of this, I’m just trying to make a lively surface.
What are your thoughts on technology since it’s so prominent in your stories?
I think it’s great, and I think it sucks. … You can have it both ways. You can fully immerse yourself in [technology] while watching it carefully. People have always been what they are, and whether the technology is a club or a suit of armor that gets you all sweaty or an iPhone, I think people’s basic tendencies are so strong that that’s what’s interesting.
Chapman describes your writing as simultaneously dark and light.
I’d go with that. I’ll start with some dark proposition and then over the course of the story I’ll feel the characters start to struggle a little bit to try to be better. If there’s any trace of worldview in my stories that’s where it is. It’s when there’s a ton of bricks on a guy and he wiggles a bit. Is the world dark or light? Yeah, it is. Our best understanding of the world is that it allows both things to exist, I guess, right?
I guess. I don’t know. I’m just making it up sitting here in a parking lot.
What’s your favorite moment in the writing process?
I’m trying to be an equal-opportunity enjoyer. Whatever stage I’m in, I’m just going to go, all right, now I’m at the stage where the story is totally kicking my head in and I can’t get any purchase and I’m going to be OK with that.
Any advice for new readers?
They’re pretty dark stories, and some people find them a little cruel in their conceptions. But I would say they’re almost like lab experiments. Of course no actual human beings were harmed in the writing of the stories. It’s an elaborate game. I don’t mean it as a linear representation of life as it quote-unquote actually is—more like an amusement park ride.
Why short fiction as opposed to novels?
I just don’t want to suck. I want the energy of the story to be high; I want the intelligence to be high. So far I’ve been able to accomplish that by paring things down, trying to tell them as quickly as possible. I’m working on something now that’s longer, and it feels fun. It’s the same principle. It’s made of a bunch of small pieces that are all pretty intense.
Anything you want Las Vegas readers to know?
The one thing I’m really excited about is that I’m going to be onstage with Doug and Maile. Both of them were so important to my development and my life. Doug was my teacher when I got to Syracuse, and just the most generous, selfless teacher. Then Maile came along once I started teaching, and she kind of transformed the program with her luminosity.
Three Generations of American Writers: Featuring George Saunders
7 p.m. Oct. 15, UNLV Student Union Theatre, 895-5542, BlackMountainInstitute.org, free.