Saturday, January 05, 2013
George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year
Damon Winter/The New York Times
In a little sushi restaurant in Syracuse, George Saunders conceded that, sure, one reality was that he and I were a couple guys talking fiction and eating avocado salad and listening to Alanis Morissette coming from the speaker above our heads. Another was that we were walking corpses. We’d been on the subject of death for a while. A friend I loved very much died recently, and I was trying to describe the state I sometimes still found myself in — not quite of this world, but each day a little less removed — and how I knew it was a good thing, the re-entry, but I regretted it too, because it meant the dimming of a kind of awareness that doesn’t get lit up very much. I was having some trouble articulating it, but Saunders was right there, leaning in and encouraging. He has a bushy blond mustache and goatee going gray, and sometimes, when he’s listening intently, he can look a little stern, as if he just stepped out of a tent at Antietam. But then he starts talking and the eyebrows go up and it’s all Chicago vowels and twinkly Doug Henning eyes, and if you didn’t know that he was more or less universally regarded as a genius, you might peg him as the superfriendly host of a woodworking show on daytime public access.
“It would be so interesting if we could stay like that,” Saunders said, meaning: if we could conduct our lives with the kind of openness that sometimes comes with proximity to death. He described a flight from Chicago to Syracuse that he was on a little over 10 years ago. “We were flying along, and I’ve got a guilty pleasure — I’m reading Vanity Fair — and I’m on my way home. And suddenly there’s this crazy sound, like a minivan hit the side of the plane. And I thought, Uh, oh, I’m not even gonna look up. If I don’t look up from the magazine, it’s not happening. And then it happened again.”
Everyone starts screaming, the plane is making terrible metal-in-distress sounds. Black smoke — “black like in a Batman movie” — starts streaming out of the fresh-air nozzles overhead. They turn back toward O’Hare, “and there’s that grid of Chicago, and I’m seeing it coming up really fast.” The lights flicker, and the pilot comes on and tells everyone, with panic in his voice, to stay buckled. “And there’s this little 14-year-old boy next to me. He turns to me and says, ‘Sir, is this supposed to be happening?’
“And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that one syllable, over and over. And also thinking, You could actually piss yourself. And the strongest thing was the sense of that seat right there.” He pointed toward the imaginary seat back in front of him. “I thought, Oh, yeah, this body. I’ve had it all this time, and that’s what’s going to do it. That right there.” He had assumed that if he was ever faced with death, he would “handle it with aplomb,” he would be present in the moment, he would make peace in the time he had left. “But I couldn’t even remember my own name,” he said. “I was so completely not present. I was just the word no.”