rating: 4 of 5 stars
Really liked the story, “the museum of whatnot.”
Many of the stories in this book seem to take George Saunders, particularly Saunders less plausible and silly stories from “In Persuasion Nation,” and create a kind of genre out of them. In Saunders work I tend to get really taken in by his naturalistic stories set in plausible but bizarre real world situations, such as the title stories from Civilwarland in Bad Decline, and Pastoralia. When Saunders enters full satire-mode I find the broadness as painful as listening to gin-drunks argue, i.e., The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.
High-concept stories, I think, are fun to write and are easy for readers to go, hey, I can figure out what is going on here even though it is kind of hidden. Even well done ones seem to risk being didactic. and so here the title story (“tunneling to the center of the earth”), “the dead sister handbook,” the story about the guy working in the scrabble factory, all fit this bill. They are clever, but after reading them, it was kind of like having heard an Aesop fable — the allegories line up neatly, there is no room for misunderstanding, there is only some writer telling you how it is.
But among these stories are perfectly plausible, less high-concept stories with pretty fully fleshed out characters. My favorite of these is the “the museum of whatnot” about a kind of lonely woman who becomes the curator at a museum of found, naive art — collections of spoons, rubberbands, and various unintended, obsessive ephemera left by people living in their own isolated rooms. The story before this, too, is fairly naturalistic and about again about a lonely girl, this time a girl who is forced by her mother to become a cheerleader, but all she is interested in is putting together models of cars, even though she doesn’t like cars.
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