THE TITLE STORY of George Saunders’ new collection, “Liberation Day,” has been holding me prisoner for weeks. It absolutely will not let me go, and I suspect a lot of readers (and writers, especially) are going to feel the same way. It forces the reader to reckon with the everyday materials of one’s everyday life, and find so much that is so altogether new. But the distress is worth it. Probably!! No, it is.
“Liberation Day” concerns the plight of Jeremy, a literary artist who has been brainwashed and enslaved by Ted Untermeyer, a rich weirdo who forces him to compose and perform technologically-mediated works of art, some of them richly evocative—hypnotically entrancing, for both performer and audience—and others less so. Saunders’ own ability as a spellbinding prose stylist means that as Jeremy describes the narcotically sensuous pleasures of holding an audience enraptured through art, the unfolding story echoes the reader’s real consciousness. There is also obfuscation, betrayal, U.S. history, tragedy, and dread. Also the longing for an impossible future that obviously can never be. And yet you can only feel encouragement and tenderness for, e.g., the deceived lover, drunk on his doomed illusion, who “can hardly sleep for the joy of it all.”
Who is Ted Untermeyer? He is your mentor, your boss, the publisher who gave you a huge advance, the producer who has optioned your screenplay, the eminent professor who took you under her wing; the potentate, who has bestowed on you at last the treasured, long-sought space—however confined!—in which to ply your trade. He may be someone you admire, but is definitely someone who admires himself. For Untermeyer, life is “a grand adventure, marked by frequent, almost predictable victories; dominion on every front; daily confirmation of his location at the center of the universe.”
I read “Liberation Day” as a searing interrogation, even an indictment, of the practice of art, and specifically of literature—its artifices; its social, aesthetic, and business imperatives; and the consolations that “culture” may or may not still offer a suffering world. When I finished it, I felt almost certain that any artist—any person—who operates in commercial spaces would be as freaked out as I was.
However, when I got the chance to ask Saunders himself about all this, he was delicately surprised by the intensity of my disquiet. Complicating everything yet again, as this deceptively simple writer always has.
This conversation has been compressed and edited, a little but not much, for clarity.
Maria Bustillos: I felt so seen by the story and so frightened, as if all of us are the victims of Ted Untermeyer and this twisted society—all artists, writers and literary artists in particular, people who are in love with the ability to speak, and to feel beauty, and be concerned with it, are pinioned (!) and I’m like: am I pinioned?! am I pinioned? It was so upsetting.
Panic! You know what I’m saying?
George Saunders: Yeah, that’s a tough word, “pinioned.” “Pinioned” is a tough word.
MB: The worst. It’s so cruel.
GS: Well, in the story, this guy Jeremy is pinioned, but…it’s in a very specific world. First of all, he’s been programmed to be able to Speak. He has a chip in his head and has this exaggerated oratorical ability, which is also, we gather, deeply pleasurable for him. So that’s one thing, but if they let him down [off the wall where he’s kept] and let him walk around, it’s a different thing. He loses that skill and loses that ability. He’s like, (to him), a nobody.
I also think… for me, that story was surprising. I mean, it was out of my control, in the best way.
And the truth is, I don’t know what it means, exactly.
[MB: I do!! It’s the soul-wracked cri de coeur of a successful commercial artist rattling the bars of his gilded cage!!]
These days, I think that an artist is most like a roller-coaster designer, you know. The job is to produce a thrill. With writing, the way to produce the thrill is to be entirely genuine all the way through—to be in intimate relationship with the reader. When you go left, she has no choice but to follow you. At the end, you go over a cliff together, and she’s like, “Well, I have no choice.” One thing I picked up while writing my book on the Russian short story [A Swim in a Pond in the Rain] was that maybe the most thrilling ride of all leaves the reader altered at the end but not quite able to say why. That’s the best. You’re sort of leading the reader up a path, and she can’t help but follow, and at the beginning of the trip she is making some judgments about the characters and the world of the story (as are you, as a writer) but then, as the two of you approach the top of the hill, those easy judgements, challenged by the details of the story, start to become unsustainable, and fall away.
Also… I like the Untermeyers. He’s a very creative guy, even though he’s the guy who’s pinioned all these people. This book, this story—the whole thing, for me, was an exercise in creating patterns of contradictions, to try to bring about the effect I described above, of being briefly free of easy or habitual judgments. So, it felt like “writing” was exactly equal to “the construction of a system of contradictory indications.” This had to be honest, it had to be earned. But, in the end, the “meaning” of the story is exactly equal to that pattern of contradiction/complications.
In this story, what was being said had something to do with agency, and what oppression actually looks like and feels like (from the inside and from the outside), and, beyond that, how variable it all is: how we easily can go from being the oppressor to the oppressed in a heartbeat.
I’m still working on figuring out that story, in my mind. I’m still not quite sure what it means. But I’m happy with the way it proceeds, with its energy, you know?
MB: It’s great.
GS: Thanks. I always like it when I get into a place during the writing of a story such that I finish it and have no idea what it means. That’s a thrill. That’s an example of what I mean when I say that we can write a better self into existence. Whatever that story is “saying,” it’s smarter than this guy talking to you right now—it has considered more things, is more comfortable with ambiguity, is willing to look in more unusual places for truth, and so on.
MB: It really works as an allegory of our current situation. There’s this really beautiful phrase in Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth: “works of passion and imagination.” I think about this constantly, it suggests that art produces a state of transport. This seems to me to characterize your work in general.
Also, we are living in a really dark time. To what extent has that gotten amongst you and affected what you’ve been able to write, in this book?
GS: “Passion and imagination,” yes, I love that. I have the feeling that for the writer to get into such a place, intensely, and then offer that to the reader, and then she goes there too— that, in itself, is really important. Kind of like in music—if someone is improvising and the result is intense and inexplicably beautiful, and then I hear that—just that little exchange is hopeful, because it says something about our connectedness. You can go into a crazy place in search of truth and I, listening, can track that, you know?
Whatever that story is “saying,” it’s smarter than this guy talking to you right now.
As for this dark time—yes. I’m thinking about that a lot. I feel like, with this book, I was somehow able to incorporate the moment and my conflicted feeling about it—able to use it, or find it refracted in the stories. I know we’ve talked about this before: My usual process is to take some dark subject matter and kind of try to… I don’t know if “try to,” is the right phrase, but let’s say I “tend to” find some redeeming human thing within that matrix of darkness.
A story might be seen as a rough scale model of “the way things are,” but seen in the funhouse mirror of the writer’s psyche. So, in my mirror, the images tend to be dark. I tend to show the worst things that can happen. But within that, for it to be understood as a reasonable scale model, there has to be some good in there too—which, for me, is often the character flailing against the darkness.
In each book, that mix changes a bit. In this one, I felt I was less inclined to rush toward the positive outcome. And that, I think, was a result of these “dark times.” These problems we are facing are difficult and intractable.
Sometimes—I think I say something like this in “Ghoul”—the whole foundation tilts and everything we believe in gets called into question. What then? In Tenth of December, I was trying to use the dark material to show that we do, in fact, have resources with which to fight against evil and misfortune. So, even though they’re dark stories, I was sort of striving for, you know, a “happy ending.” That was the artistic goal. in a way.
This stance of this book (maybe) is more like, OK, there are times in the world when things are in ascendance and times when they’re descending. There are decadent times, and I think we’re in one right now. So the proper response of the form, it felt to me, was to somehow speak to that. Let there be ambiguity. Let there be defeat. Let there be times when people don’t rise to the occasion. That’s part of our story too.
When I read the book through for the last time—I mean just to be frank—I thought: This is powerful, but it’s ambiguous. And then I thought, OK, no, maybe it’s powerful because it’s ambiguous? That’s my hope anyway. I think it’s more mature than anything I’ve written before, in terms of modeling an actual, workable, moral view.
The ultimate result is positive, in the sense that you and I get to huddle over that artifact and go “Yeah, the times suck. Now, what might we feel about it, what might we do about it?” And that’s a fundamentally hopeful thing. Kind of like—imagine two photographs, of a pair of friends whose car has just broken down in the desert. In one, they’re on opposite sides of the car, sitting in the dirt, looking dejected. In another, they’re side-by-side, looking down into the hood with interest.
MB: I agree as a reader, that’s the effect. It’s very—it won’t let you off. It won’t let you off just by laughing, or whatever.
GS: And I’m really confused right now, in the coolest possible way. Partly, because of age. You realize oh yeah, I’m going to die and the world’s still going to have all its problems. When I was 20, I thought: This will be the generation that fixes it all.
MB: Same. We’re almost the same age. All you need is love, dude. Obviously.
GS: Yeah. Yeah. So, there’s age, and also there’s a sense of having had a beautiful, charmed life, you know? And then going, wait, wait, but I’m still going to die? I thought if I had a charmed-enough life I would get off the hook.
So, all that’s in there, I think.
[Both stop and think for a minute.]
MB: Oo. I wrote my questions down, and then I forgot all about ‘em. OK, so. Self, right?
“Self, right?” I mean that could be the name of something…”Self, Right?”
MB: So, I’ve talked with Buddhist friends many times over the years, about self and desire and love. [Saunders has been a practicing Buddhist for many years.]
Now… you are a guy who wanted to be a great writer when you were a young guy.
GS: Yes, I did.
MB: And you are one of the rare guys that actually became it.
GS: I’m still trying, honestly.
MB: No, truly—
GS: But yeah. Thank you.
MB: No, you truly did. You got the awareness, and you got the craft, and the love of the whole world, and all the things that you as a young man could possibly have wanted, right?
GS: Right. And much more. More than I could have imagined, yeah. For sure.
MB: Yeah. So you tried to do this really hard thing, and you fuckin’ did it. It’s so great. I love that. Anyway, so you got to do this thing…
GS: And so I’m not going to die, right?
MB: Definitely not.
GS: Is that… can I get that in writing? OK. Phew.
MB: So, how does this fit with, “The end of desire is the end of suffering?” How does it fit with the abnegation of self? How does it fit with Buddhism?
GS: Yeah. Here’s what I think. And…I’m on really thin ice, in terms of my understanding of these things. But I think that if a person has a strong desire, it makes sense to go try to get what it is he desires. It’s not like I was going to stop wanting to be a great writer just by willing it, just by wishing it away. It was, after, a desire. And I didn’t really want to stop. It was, and is, like a strong, strong desire. To write, to create, yes, but also to be known for being good at something, to have some fame. Those are all things I’ve felt for a long time, since I was a little kid. So, my thought is, you have to burn through the stuff that you want, try to get it, try to get it. And then when you’re done getting it, you’re in a better place. You’re a step closer to actually having your shit together. Or, you can see what the real issue is with more clarity.
I can’t say I didn’t get my life’s dream. I did.
GS: And yet, I still have a problematic self, and I might even have a more problematic self, because I got everything, and I like it. OK. So that’s where I am but that somehow feels (to me) like a better place than “I want this but since it’s wrong to desire anything and I’ll just pretend I don’t have any desires, and/or spend a bunch of energy trying to quash those desires.”
I mean… it’s not the desire. It’s the relation to the desire.
If I think (as I jokingly said I did) that accomplishing all this stuff is going to save my life, that I’m not going to die, or that it’s going to make me completely, irremediably happy…then I’m deluded. Then I’m wrong. But getting the thing you want makes it clear that…that’s not what’s going to save you. No way. And I also believe that working hard at something is a really good, healthy thing.
So, at this point, faced with some success, I try to say, “Yeah, this is pretty fun… pretty fun.” That is, I try to really appreciate and enjoy my good luck. That seems sane. And then—this will sound a little high-minded—but with all the rest of the energy that isn’t dissipated by that “pretty fun” admission, I’m going to say, “AND…I hope I did some good.” So, I try to push all of that elation energy or pride of whatever over there, try to convert it, essentially, to, like, good intention. Then it’s clean. Cleaner. You know?
So, the p.s. to all this is, I talk a good game. That’s my job. But my understanding of Buddhism is very limited. And what I know is mostly…in my head. So…it’s all about getting that understanding out of the head and into the heart. And that’s where I’m stuck. That takes, I know, a lot of hard work.
So regarding ambition and having dreams and all of that, I sometimes think of it in terms of eating. If it’s two o’clock and I haven’t had lunch, I’m going to be hungry. If someone says, “Oh, that means you’re just a deluded human being,” like, well… yeah, I am! I’ve got this body, I’m fucking hungry.
I still have a problematic self, and I might even have a more problematic self, because I got everything, and I like it.
Then you eat. But the thing is, if you say, “This meal is going to be the best ever, and it’s going to change my whole life, and I’m going to be perfect,” then you’re deluded, because… it’s just a meal. You’re going to eat it, and then you’re done. The thing is that whole cycle…that’s the cycle of desire and suffering we hear about. And it seems to me that how you set your mind during that is what is the key.
Right now, I’m about to, I hope, start another book. I know the cycle. I’m going to go through all those steps that are familiar to me. Despair because I don’t have an idea, then I’m going to get an idea and doubt it, then it’s going to suddenly seem workable…then elation, completion, send it out, have a sudden panic attack when you don’t hear back right away, etc., etc. If you go through that whole process lightly, then you’re better off. If you go through it mistaking it for your path to ultimate validity or salvation, then you’re going to be disappointed. Something like that. I don’t know if I’m making sense.
MB: For sure, yes. But tell me: Suppose it hadn’t happened. Suppose you’d never arrived at the moment where you realized that you had to climb your own little dung heap, as you’ve talked about sometimes, and you always remained deludedly trying to be Hemingway or whatever. If there had been whatever accident, and you’d never arrived at the awareness, what would be the difference between the George that didn’t become the celebrated George Saunders, and the one that we have?
GS: I don’t know. That’s a great question. I think for me, one answer is he’d be bitter. No—
MB: Would he?
I don’t think that’s actually true. I think what would happened is… well, for example, when I was a kid, I had just this strong a desire to be a baseball player. I remember one time going, “If I don’t become a baseball player, I don’t want to live.” I mean, as, like a 10-year-old: “I can’t. There’s nowhere I want to be except on the White Sox.” Well, I didn’t get on the White Sox—I wasn’t even a standout on my individual Little League team, which, you know, gave me a certain signal—but what happened was, I adjusted. You’re thwarted, and you go, “I guess I’ll want something else instead.”
I think if he has some intelligence, at some point, the thwarted person goes, “Yeah, this isn’t working out for me for some reason. I guess I have to use my energies otherwise. And, actually, I’d like to, because this being thwarted thing is a drag.”
So, I don’t actually think I would have been bitter. I think I would just … it’s a hard one, because you’re fundamentally a different person in that scenario. Like, the story I wrote that was first published would need to be impossible for that imaginary person to have written, and therefore he’s… not me. So, we’re essentially asking what “he” would have done…
But when you think of it, our lives are made up of hundreds of thwarted desires, thousands, millions. I think a person adjusts.
Even back then, when I started writing CivilWarLand, and I was like 32, and it seemed like a longshot that this writing thing was going to work out… I was happy. I’d started to consider doing something else creatively, like music. At one point I thought, “Maybe I’ll be a disc jockey and have a radio talk show.” And, actually, I was getting better at my engineering job, too, and taking more pleasure and pride in it. I think that would have been OK.
MB: It’s just magical reading about your early writing life. You’ve talked about your own development and process so much that it’s almost like an autobiography, to read and experience your views on this. It’s absolutely a delight to see a person describe all that happened, and then have the result be so amazing and great. It’s wonderful.
GS: I really like thinking about those times. I certainly talk and write about them enough, ha ha. Part of the fun of thinking about that time is that, as you’re hinting at, I really could feel for a while that it might not happen. And when it did, it was such a surprise, and it kind of came from somewhere I didn’t… I didn’t navigate over to the artistic place that resulted in the success. I was suddenly just there.
Whatever caused my stories to start getting published….well, it wasn’t me. There was a particular part of the mind that started asserting itself—more improvisatory, more fun, wilder, funnier. So, the fact that that part existed was interesting, and that “artistic progress” in this case really just meant letting that part out—that just felt…mysterious. The ability to write in a way that compels comes upon us and it leaves us, and we don’t know why.
So, I like to talk about that period because it really means talking about creativity, and admitting that we really don’t understand what it is. I learned the value of this when I started teaching—that the best way to approach it, especially with talented students like ours, was to be honest and open and forthcoming about process. When I would say, “Look, here’s how it is for me,” I’d see the students light up, like, “Oh yeah, that’s me too. I know that feeling.” When I’d admit to doubt or confusion or talk about the details of revision, how many drafts it took me, all of that, I could feel their energy and interest rise.
When my first book came out, I was doing a lot of pre-thinking, along the “What image should I project?” line. Or, you know: “What should I withhold, in the interest of preserving an air of mystery?” (Or, even, in the interest of preserving and protecting my practice, you know?) And, it turned out, the necessary fabrication involved in that was just too much work. It was easier, I found, to just be honest. Just…let it all out. If you’re trying to be a big shot and pretend like you just poop your books out, that’s a lie. It takes a lot of energy to repeatedly lie like that, whereas if you’re honest, if you say, “Yeah, here’s how it went really bad this year” or “Here’s how it actually felt, here are the exact stages that story went through”….well, that’s easy.
MB: So, my last question, because it’s so present in the book: Politics.
MB: So… Anti. Thumbs down.
GS: Thumbs down on politics. Just don’t talk about that!
MB: My gosh. I mean, I would say that “Love Letter” is the most [politically] explicit, obvious story of yours I’ve read. It’s so completely about events in the moment.
MB: Please comment on that, because you’ve often spoken about not having to write about real life, and yet it seems here sort of like real life just was too much, so you almost had to write about it.
GS: I think, at the end of the day, you just honor whatever spark you can feel. So, if I say, “I will never write a story about a duck,” and then one day I see this amazing duck, and I just want to, then I’m going to do it. That’s the truth. You go where the life is, which means, you go to whatever place will yield… rich language and confusion, and which feels vital to you.
Here’s one thing I try to do, if I’m writing something that I recognize as being of the moment—of being “political” —I just say to the story, “OK, I’m going to do this, but will you do me one favor, little story? Would you please try to be somewhat timeless?”
So, instead of just writing about Trump, and offloading my feelings about Trumpism, I’m looking for a way for that story to ascend into some sort of universality, even in the smallest way. That’s how it earns the “I am a story” claim. I want to write about autocrats or the response of a decent person in an autocratic climate, or something like that. So, as I’m writing, I’m sort of rooting for the story to edge up towards the literary a little bit, and become more than just polemic.
On that story, I started just writing about me, really. How I felt and what I was doing, in the run-up to the election. Feeling powerless, frustrated, in a state of disbelief. Paula and I were doing a lot of those jigsaw puzzles. And then gradually it became—he started being worse than me, that guy. In other words, he’s urging his grandson to, just, let his friend rot in prison, which I don’t think is something I would do. But I might, you know. People in difficult historical periods have taken that attitude, and worse.
So that’s when the story really opened up for me – when he started advocating for a position that made me uncomfortable.
So then there came the desired moment, when I felt, “Ah, OK. So, actually, this is not just about Trump. It’s about anybody who gets in a situation where their true beliefs will get them in trouble with power.” Then suddenly, it’s OK. That can be literature, if done right.
But also… I think we’re in trouble. The world is in trouble with these right-wing movements. For complicated reasons, there’s just a move towards autocracy everywhere. So, something for all of us good people to think about: what are we going to do about that? And maybe to say, “Well, look, there were good people in Nazi Germany. There were good people in every… There were good people in Rwanda. There were good people in America, when we invaded Iraq, when we set up Guantanamo, as we were torturing people in Iraq.”
So, it’s somehow too safe and static an attitude, to say, “Oh, I just wouldn’t do anything bad.” Well, you might. You have.
MB: And how everything we’ve done contributed. Remember how we were talking a minute ago about how we thought everything was going to be fine, and all you need is love? It’s going to get better, obviously, because people aren’t going to be stupid. They’re going to do things right. And so… even just believing that, having believed it, turns out to have been kind of a sin.
GS: It’s really complicated, to get to this end of life and feel that, maybe, the worst thing that we all did was… we just fucking drove all the time. I mean, it’s ironic, it’s, like, high comedy that, when all is said and done, if we would’ve just said, in 1960 or whenever: “Oh yeah, no cars for us, from now on it’s all bikes.” That might’ve been the most highly moral thing we could have done. But imagine that law being enforced.
MB: Or like, if the Pope had started giving out condoms.
GS: These days I can feel the next phase coming on, and it’s feeling really… There’s some hard medicine going into my body, which is this thought that we may have irremediably screwed up the world, and we may have fucked up our democracy. But then, there’s a little voice going, “Sure, maybe, but, one: don’t give up. Despair is our worst enemy. And two: even if both those things were true, if democracy was over and we’re burning up the world…is there still a place for love? Still a way to enjoy life, strive to be better?”
That’s what I’m thinking now, and I think the answer has to be yes. If the ship is sinking, you don’t, you know, start cannibalizing everybody. You start bailing, or patching, or whatever. Or, if there’s no value to that, maybe you start singing.
We’re in our 60s now. God willing, we’re going to be in our 70s and 80s, and then the curtain comes down. So: can we be happy along the way? Can we find love and purpose, even though the short-term narrative isn’t the most cheerful? Might we convert the short-term narrative into a more positive one, and what’s the best mind state for us to be in, to do that? We’ll see. To be happy, hopeful, alert, active—those are good no matter what the weather, no matter what the news. And that way, if there’s something to be done, we’ll be more apt to be able to do it.
And I might just write that book about ducks.
MB: Ducks. Absolutely, I need to know about ducks. Just expect a stern lecture if it doesn’t come out the way I would like.
GS: It never does, with ducks.