The settings and subjects haven’t changed much in his new collection, “Liberation Day,” but Saunders’s career-long strategies have acquired a deeper intensity, focus and bite. He’s always been a moralist, concerned with our obligations to one another; now, an ongoing and intense debate over democracy and its threats has further exposed that. (It’s not an accident that one of his starkest good-vs.-evil stories, “Escape From Spiderhead,” got a high-profile film adaptation from Netflix this year.) Though in many ways the new collection is typical Saunders, it also speaks more directly to our current moment.
Sometimes Saunders delivers his message at a human, everyday scale. In “The Mom of Bold Action,” a suburban mom and dad rush to defend their young son, who’s been accosted by one of two neighborhood drifters — but nobody’s sure which one. That uncertainty leads to acts of cruelty. Such cruelty, Saunders suggests, is stoked by the stories we tell ourselves. The mom, a failed children’s book writer, is constantly trying to find fodder in her everyday experience, but what she’s actually doing is trying to shove her life into a potted narrative, even if others are diminished in the process.
Similarly, “A Thing at Work” is a satire of office politics, in which a boss is compelled to referee an escalating squabble between two employees who are flinging accusations of various misdeeds, from petty theft to financing a fling on the company dime. “Sometimes you had to be decent,” the boss tells himself as he plans an intervention — the joke is that “decency” becomes hard to define, and efforts to take control are doomed to backfire.
These set pieces are easily read as Trump-era allegories, and occasionally Saunders can be overly on the nose about that. “Love Letter” is written from the perspective of a survivor of an unnamed but unraveling country, sounding a warning about how we got here: “This destruction was emanating from such an inept source, who seemed (at that time) merely comically thuggish, who seemed to know so little about that which he was disrupting,” the story intones.
But Saunders has long tended to approach matters of power, ethics and compassion more indirectly and universally, and with better jokes, too. “Liberation Day” is different only in that the humor is a little blacker, the fears of our exploitation more intense. In the title story, the narrator and his cohort describe being oddly “Pinioned” and sent to “Work” in an “Arrangement,” until it becomes clear they’re modified, controlled androids. Likewise, the title character of “Elliott Spencer” is a former homeless man who’s had his memory wiped and is being reused for deployment at political protests. The story is a sendup of so-called “crisis actors,” but it also questions how much any of our political actions are sincere, and how much shallow parroting of talking points.
Saunders is fixated on the ways language can be used to rationalize and dehumanize. One of his funniest early stories, “I Can Speak!,” parodied legalistic customer-relations language, in that case involving a gizmo that purported to translate baby talk. But words have influence and weight within even a humdrum household: The mother in “The Mom of Bold Action” learns that an essay of hers on justice, written with the casual rantiness of a Facebook post, has genuine consequences. “No more essays,” she tells her chastened self. “No more writing at all. She could do more good in the world by, like, baking.”
See that casually tossed-off “like” there? Saunders’s ability to repurpose casual speech for not-so-casual uses is one of his chief talents; he pinpoints a phrase or word to signal that we might be lying to ourselves. Without “like,” the mother would be expressing a moral certainty — she’d be better off baking, full stop. That “like” is her trying to wriggle off the hook a little.
Saunders loves to parody legal language, thick with appositive commas and capitalized terms, because he understands how that junk works at cross-purposes — it’s rigidly precise but designed mainly to cover things up. “Liberation Day” has various stories intentionally fogged with lingo, until the truth of the predicament becomes clear.
But Saunders doesn’t always do this for the sake of political or moral argument. In the collection’s strongest story, the quietly devastating “Mother’s Day,” an elderly senile woman on a walk with her daughter mentally races through her life. Her late husband plainly mistreated her, but the phrases she uses suggest she’s buried the truth under a mound of weasel-words. He’s not an alcoholic, but instead “drank a bit with great sophistication.” He never cheated, but there was “that time he very funnily called her Milly.”
Words root us, trap us, manipulate us and betray us — now more starkly than a decade ago. Saunders hasn’t become any more concerned with precision; his most recent book, last year’s “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” is a craft book that delves into a clutch of Russian short stories in granular detail. But 2022 has made his precision more meaningful, the stakes higher. In “Ghoul,” a group of diligent workers — laboring underground for unexplained reasons — discovers they’ve been going about their business under false pretenses. They fumble for direction, a reason to do what they do. A character asks of his tribe, much as Saunders asks of us: “We must believe in something, mustn’t we?”
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”
Random House. 256 pp. $28
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