Our Decline

The newest Lannan podcast is an April 20, 2005, reading from George Saunders, followed by a conversation between Saunders and Michael Silverblatt. An hour or so in, Silverblatt reminds Saunders of their interview in 2000, when he questioned the author about why he felt it necessary to treat his characters to one misfortune after another. Life does that, Silverblatt said; but the author who doesn’t give his characters at least a little light, at least a chance for a break now and then, might be something of a sadist. Apparently, Saunders was a bit frozen with the interrogation and offered no real response. In this more recent Lannan exchange, Saunders takes a stab at it. Silverblatt’s larger reason for bringing it up, though, is to say that since that 2000 interview, he has come to no longer feel the way he did. He wonders why:

I think, you see, that what happened in the interim is that American life became so brutal and vicious that no matter what you did to a character, it seemed real. Our attitudes toward the poor. Our attitudes toward foreigners. Our attitudes toward generosity. I was reading Marilynne Robinson, who said that there’s nothing more important in the Bible, in the Christian Bible, than the idea of giving to the poor unto giving everything you have to the poor. How can they say we’re living in a Christian country when we dislike the poor and think that they are doing something wrong [because] they are this way? So what happened, I think, to George’s stories is that life got more and more horrible. And therefore he no longer seemed like a sadist. America seemed like a sadist.

Readers of the Fall 2004 Review of Contemporary Fiction will recall Silverblatt’s similar comment about William Gass’s The Tunnel. Introducing the reprinting of his own review of the novel, originally published in the LA Times on March 19, 1995, Silverblatt wrote:

It seems to me that The Tunnel is not so much a difficult book as an unbearable one. Culture should aspire to understand and be worthy of the greatest literature. But in the years since the publication of The Tunnel, our culture has descended to the level of its narrator William Kohler. Wherever you look you see the fascism of the heart, ingrained racism perpetuated by childhood habits; everywhere the consequences of the activities of the Party of Disappointed People.

We have not learned to understand The Tunnel, instead we live in the horrible nightmare of its implications. It is one of our nation’s greatest novels and the hardest to accept. To the extent that we have seen the world of The Tunnel take daily shape around us, we have become a vicious, unbearable nation. Surely it was the thirty-year project of our greatest writer of prose to capture with such beauty the ugliness of our decline.

When I interviewed Gass in late 2004, I asked him about his take on Silverblatt’s comments. You can read his response here.