I’m sitting here in an LA coffee shop a block down Cahuenga Blvd from our hotel (The Dream Hollywood, with a dazzling white marble lobby and relentless nightclub thumping until 2am every evening) and I’m in a rapture as I consume interview after interview with the author George Saunders. In light of my recent reading of his first novel and instantaneous conversion to the power of fiction (to some religions you get converted again and again, apparently), it’s feels a worthwhile way to spend my last few hours in LA before driving back up north along the dry California highways to Fresno and onward.
The interviews, profiles, and book reviews—a mixed bag of articles—cover a wide range of opinion and format, but all predictably converge on the point of his deep kindness in outlook as a person, his “capacious” heart or the throbbing empathy that runs like an endless thread through his short story collections and his recent first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. This feels validating in some strange way. “He really is as big-hearted as his writing hints at,” I think, relieved. No disappointing hero-turned-neurotic-narcissist in this particular fandom tale: he really is both a genius and just a lovely human being, with a killer sense of humor to boot.
These musings on Saunders reaffirm for me the power of fiction—of art—to illuminate, and in illuminating something about the human condition, to heal. His work and his person are, together, like an embodiment of the most adamant of David Foster Wallace (who was in a mutual fan club with Saunders, turns out) rantings on the imperative of writers to broach some earnest, post-cynical pulse of love, pure and simple. From this standpoint, the contemporary guardedness or disdain for all things "sentimental" feels tired and is beginning to look like hollow defensiveness or a kind of numbed out cowardice. Saunders, if Lincoln in the Bardo is any indication, is certainly not one to shy away from the sadness and tenderness and crazy-making of our shared human experience, and this earnestness is what makes his technical genius even more dazzling.
"Art and love are the same thing," said Chuck Klosterman. "It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you." Two things, both central to being a person in the world, born and struggling for an interlude only to vanish at some unknowable point in the rush of time. Art comes from love, leads to it, is either an inability to grasp it or a headlong embrace of it. And so, “good art,” if I may be so bold and cliché as to articulate anything on the subject, should be about inhabiting that longing or loss of it. Or just remarking on the sheer grace of it. The aboutness can be oblique or veiled or in wild colors. But if the art is to make any imprint at all, that love should be in there somewhere, vivifying the work, infusing its spirit if not dominating the content. That this "art = love" point is so old and weary and tattered makes not a single dent in my sense of urgency to disseminate this belief, the core of my proselytizing if there is any religion at all to speak of in my life.
So. It’s something about love. Isn’t all of anything? And it’s also about how redeeming it is that we do it at all, this zero utility abstraction, that we seek it out and make it and show it to each other. What could be a more common impulse in childhood, for example? What kid doesn’t possess the effortless instinct of what to do when handed a crayon and a scrap of paper? We are makers, and what we make we share. And this is not just a tic of being a human but the central truth of it, the creativity at our center that twirls around the locus of our longings and secrets and desires and heartaches. All of which are about that four-letter word that can hardly be named at all in any direct way if a book or a work of art is to be taken seriously, to be acclaimed critically, or trying to be cool with a half-smoked cigarette dangling from the lips. And yet Saunders is unflinching in this regard, for even when his works are too good to devolve into pure sentiment or any unearned, shallow emotiveness, they broach the topic with the tenderness and complexity and reverence it deserves as something so central to what animates us.