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New Yorker Fiction Review #134: "Mother's Day" by George Saunders

Issue: Feb. 8 & 15, 2016

Story: "Mother's Day" by George Saunders

Rating: $$$

Review: Nothing could make me happier (within the realm of New Yorker short story reviewing) than seeing that a George Saunders story is on deck, and then actually reading it, and being reminded why Saunders is one of our greatest living fiction writers.

Told in alternating first person perspective, "Mother's Day" is the story of two elderly women -- Alma and Debi -- who shared the love of the same man (Alma's husband Paul) in their youth. Now, in their old age, neither holds any particularly great love, or hatred, for that matter, for the other, but the thoughts that go through their minds on their brief encounter on the street on Mother's Day contain, it seems, their entire history, both personally and through the only connection they still have, their once-love for Paul.

The beauty of George Saunders' writing is that it is so "of the moment," or "contemporary" you might say. There is something about this story that just feels like it belongs in 2016. There is a great frankness in his writing, both in terms of the words he uses and the emotions expressed; there is no "wall" between you the reader and the characters. It's as if they are speaking directly to you. That in and of itself is an achievement.

The rotating perspective, while not by any means a "new" trick, certainly contributes to the story's overall effect, the "meta" feeling of knowing you are reading a story, while simultaneously being able to forget you are reading a story, because the language is so good and the story is so engaging. It is a feeling that you, the reader, are in on the joke somehow, part of the story even.

And that's to say nothing of Saunders' actual characters, in this case Alma and Debi (mostly), who are, like all of Saunders' characters, flawed, honest, wry, and above all, three-dimensional human beings. Saunders does not do 2D. His portrayals of his characters belies a deep understanding and a deep interest in other human beings, the kind of understanding and interest that is the hallmark of a great writer.

Take for instance when Debi describes the joy she used to get from sleeping with men:

"Because, O.K., yes, she'd loved men. And they'd loved her. Back in the day. For her? It was a form of joyous overflow...She'd enjoyed every last one of them. Even the sleazes. Especially the sleazes! That salesman from Ohio! With his little billfolds? What had that been about? Did he carry them everywhere? Apparently! But God bless him, that was his thing. Everyone had a thing, or several things, and her view was, if you loved the universe...you had to love all of it."


George Saunders: With facial hair like that...you KNOW he's good.
I mean, whether or not you agree with the sentiment, you have to agree that the character being person  and not just a cipher used to further the plot, like so many characters in short fiction...and FICTION in general. That's the true difference here: Saunders stories are character driven. Truly. But, unlike most attempts at character driven stories, Saunders doesn't need to go on for pages and pages about what's going on in a character's head in order to get his point across. His fiction is so full of life and humor and honest detail, that he can cut to the bone very, very quickly.
portrayed here is a lovable, fully-rounded, hands-in-the-muck person, not a cipher used to push the plot forward.

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