Inside the Cave-Speak of Saunders

By Leslie Daniels

Featured Image: Still Life by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1866
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

The setting in George Saunders’ story “Pastoralia” is a theme park where two characters—the narrator and Janet—live and work in a simulated cave. Their job is to perform for the occasional tourist the skinning and roasting of a goat. Theme park rules dictate that employees must not speak English at any time so as not to destroy the illusion of being cave people. The narrator abides by the rule, but Janet flouts it, which is a major concern of the narrator’s. On this occasion the freshly dead goat has not been delivered. There are no tourists present.

Janet comes in from her Separate Area and her eyebrows go up.

“No freaking goat?” she says.

I make some guttural sounds and some motions meaning: Big rain come down, and boom, make goats run, goats now away, away in high hills, and as my fear was great, I did not follow.

Janet scratches under her armpit and makes a sound like a monkey, then lights a cigarette.

“What a bunch of shit,” she says. “Why do you insist, I’ll never know. Who’s here? Do you see anyone here but us?”

I gesture to her to put out the cigarette and make the fire. She gestures to me to kiss her butt.

“Why am I making a fire?” she says. “A fire in advance of a goat. Is this like a wishful fire? Like a hopeful fire? No, sorry, I’ve had it. What would I do in the real world if there was thunder and so on and our goats actually ran away? Maybe I’d mourn, like cut myself with that flint, or maybe I’d kick your ass for being so stupid as to leave the goats out in the rain.”

In this section, the first interchange between the two principals, Saunders’ dialogue does everything it’s supposed to: advances the understanding of character and relationship, builds tension, moves story, elicits emotion. In addition there are breathtaking leaps in the intimate contract between reader and writer: You make it worth my time and I will read your words.

Putting aside the question of whether writers read with less innocence than other readers, reading fiction with absorption can be an experience of communion with the persona of the author, admiring, questioning, doubting, or it can be the more compelling experience of the author’s disappearance.

When it’s good, dialogue can be the place where the story leaves the reality of a writer building a story for a reader, where the reader ceases working to envision the meaning within the string of words, and the story attains buoyancy, becoming something impossibly airborne and fleet.

This isn’t due to the simple exhilaration a reader feels reading dialogue, eyes moving swiftly over wide white swaths of page; though dialogue delivers faster by page-turning measure than other prose. There is a deeper psychological factor that can activate only in dialogue.

As humans we can wrap our minds around the transformation of an individual into another being; think of actors, of masks, of con men. We accept an author ‘building’ a character as the same process: using what he or she knows or can imagine to create a character that readers experience as plausible, as having integrity as an entity.

What a writer as skilled as Saunders knows in his bones is that it is not about what a character says but about how it lands on the other. Dialogue should never be direct, but slanted to the tilt of obliqueness. This is geometrically consistent with the idea of each character possessing a unique trajectory. Characters will not approach each other directly, but glance off like marbles, like bumper cars. In the Saunders passage each utterance, each behavior tag advances the story by a leap, the character and relationship knowledge by a grand jeté, and the tacit impact on the other character is potent.

The magic occurs here. These independent entities, each with an agenda, neither in obvious harness to the plot, these two individuals cannot both be the author, and the sophisticated feeling of communion with the author drops away and a naïve experience of intimate observation begins.

Saunders builds this intimate witnessing with brio, without explaining  the assumptions within the relationship. He honors the readers, trusts them  to merge at high speed with this world in a faux cave. This short interchange houses two examples of mastery that surpass the sleight of hand that is fine characters plausibly conversing.

The first is that there is no conceivable way to mime “as my fear was great.” What the character believes he is communicating is not at all what he is expressing. The reader shares the joke, now understanding more about the narrator than the narrator does about himself. The reader is inside the story.

The second is Janet’s reference to the “real world.” Her belief in a world outside where they would actually be cave people, an impossible reality, solidifies the implausible artifice of the immediate scene. Again the reader is drawn inside.

The internal place to which the reader is initiated is one where the rules of reality are brilliantly contravened: a place where one is two, where the reader is the only one who gets the joke, and where what is impossible makes what is fake real.

Leslie Daniels’ first novel, Cleaning Nabokov’s House has been published in translation in four languages. The novel, now under option for film, fights the good fight of being both literary and funny. Daniels’ stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications. She served as fiction editor of Green Mountains Review, currently teaches writing at the Spalding University MFA program, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Leslie Daniels lives in Ithaca, New York.

Originally appeared in NOR 17

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