The Last Book(s) I Loved: Juliet Linderman, Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia

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europastoraliaIt’s impossible to read George Saunders books slowly. This might be cheating because I’d read them before, although not in a few years, but a couple of weeks ago I picked up Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, Saunders’ two short story collections—the result of a distinct Saunders craving—and reread them both in a matter of days. These are the kind of books you literally, physically cannot put down; the kind of books you intentionally miss your subway stop for, just to afford yourself fifteen extra minutes of reading time while you sit in the station waiting for the train to take you back to your destination.

Reading Saunders isn’t like reading at all, it’s more like consuming—or being consumed, sucked into a world almost the same as this one but a little bit stranger, darker, funnier, more devastating. Everyone looks and talks the same, but then maybe you’ll be hanging out in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-esque nowhereland and you’ll think you’ve found an awesome new friend, but then his feet are really claws and that’s a problem. Or you’ll be sitting around in the housing projects with a couple of deadbeat cousins minding your own business, when you look over and your dead/half-dead/undead aunt is sitting in the rocking chair in the corner with her nose in her lap and her arm on the floor. Like Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions, doodling American Flags and vaginas on your cocktail napkin as you sit together in a dark bar, Saunders’ world is all encompassing and, as a reader, you become a sort of participant. Things are bleak there, and odd and full of pain, and peppered with moments of belly-busting humor that can only truly come from a place of genuine humanity. He is a master of walking the line between the bizarre and the banal, the artificial and the real. His exploration of all that goes on just beneath the surface of things both absurd and mundane, which are so often one in the same somehow—a man working as a caveman in an amusement park to raise money for his sick child, a blue-collar community dependent on a Civil War reenactment park smack in the middle of gang territories, a motivational speaker who gives terribly detrimental advice to his devoted followers—reveals, in the midst of its humor and weirdness, the complexity and the difficulty of the human condition.


Juliet Linderman is the managing editor of the Greenpoint Gazette in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →