Above all else, the stories collected in George Saunders’s Pastorolia are morality tales. The short stories are thematically linked by the exploration of where personal desires and interpersonal morals meet in a world that places the emphasis on the greedy individual. Saunders’s characters are repeatedly faced with choosing between their own selfish desires and doing what is right for those around them as well as themselves.
Now, I do not want to make the collection sound like a drab assortment of stern moralizing. The stories found in this book are very entertaining, and quite often hilarious. Saunders is often described as a satirist. His eye for the absurdities of modern life is fantastic, and he has a knack for drawing them out to their logical, but brutally silly extremes. He utilizes a simplicity of expression to describe the bleakest of societal situations which reminds me of Vonnegut at his best. Saunders is also brave enough to allow traces of optimism shine through the cracks in even the most seemingly nihilistic situations.
The stories in Pastoralia are not perfect. “The Falls”, the book’s concluding story, underlines the theme – which is also the theme of much of the book – a little too bluntly making it feel more like an incomplete exercise rather than a fully fleshed out story. Still, by and large the stories succeed in drawing the reader into the author’s slightly bent world-view. The title story offers a caustic rebuke of impersonal corporate culture set in a strange amusement park where employees are paid to act like cave men for the entertainment of visitors. The story shows the almost Orwellian impact of corporate language, and the toll taken when hierarchy pits person against person. It says a lot that the people dressed as cavemen are more human than the corporate bosses above them.
The books best story is “Sea Oak” which mixes elements of horror and pathos in it’s description of a lower class family trapped in their bleak existence by their own laziness and apathy. It takes an act of ghastly, almost zombie intervention to begin to shake the family out of its stupor. It speaks volumes to Saunders’s abilities that hope begins where the rotten, fallen apart body of a family member ends.