I'm after kindness. Given... just about everything lately, I want to be somewhere careful and caring. I don't want to be told the world is anything it isn't, of course, but I want to know that all this harsh hardness is also marbled with softness, the coldness with warmth, and so on.
And so it's a boon, in this tumultuous first week of January, to receive a new book from George Saunders, whom I find to be one of fiction's finest purveyors of warmth and kindness, as well as these qualities' inverse. And while A Swim in a Pond in the Rain isn't fiction (we've all been tapping our foot since Saunders revolutionized the novel with Lincoln in the Bardo a few years ago) it's the next best thing: Saunders reading fiction. Taken from twenty years of teaching the Russian short story at Syracuse University, A Swim... consists of the full texts of seven stories from the likes of Checkov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol accompanied by professor Saunders' guided surveys.
These are stories that Saunders considers "scale models of the world, made for the specific purpose of... [asking] the big questions, questions like How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how do we recognize it?" They're not necessarily the best known stories from these Ruskies but are ones that are always with Saunders as he crafts his own stories, "the high bar against which I measure my own."
The questions that Saunders asks the reader to ask of the texts are relatively simple but profoundly elucidating. "Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you felt it, it's valid." As Saunders unpacks these stories, answering for himself and perhaps for you, you get some sense of such compassion and curiosity makes its way into and is handled in his own work.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain quickly reveals itself as essential for both readers and writers. For the most part, Saunders does away with tentpole notions such as plot and theme and character and structure in favour of more practical and organic considerations. "Increased specification" stands in for characterization. "The writer asks, 'Which particular person is this, anyway?' and answers with a series of facts that have the effect of creating a narrowing path: ruling out certain possibilities, urging others forward." Structure, Saunders writes, is simply "an organized scheme hat allows the story to answer a question it has caused the reader to ask." It's a form of call-and-response. "A question arises organically from the story and then the story, very considerately, answers it. If we want to make good structure, we just have to be aware of what question we are causing the reader to ask, then answer that question."
Terming a story considerate, I think, reveals much about that kindness and warmth I (and hopefully you) find in Saunders' work. A good story is a welcoming and collaborative thing that has the reader in mind, sees the reader as a thinking and feeling and aspires to accommodate. "A story," Saunders writes, "is a frank, intimate conversation between equals." So is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain