Review – Liberation Day

George Saunders
Saunders is always a liminal kick in the pants…
(CWs Below)

I don’t know if you’ve read any of George Saunders’s books, but they are always a challenge. And I don’t mean like get your steps in for the week challenging, I mean brain-sweating, intellect-chewing “I’m going to be thinking about this for ages” challenging.

I haven’t read all of Saunders work. First thing I read was Civilwarland in Bad Decline, which is a brilliant, dense, satirical collection of stories lampooning America and Americana. Saunders has a deeply original voice, with stories that challenge (there’s that word again…) the reader with structure, characterization and content. Sometimes/frequently all at once.

Saunders teaches writing at Syracuse University, and if you look him up on YouTube you can find a slew of interesting interviews and even a really great series about story by Redglass Pictures. The latter better just searched for as the channel does not show all of the videos. I’ll embed one below so y’all can check it out. They’re introductory, but I’ve thought about these videos again and again over the years. Neatly done little things.

Anyway, I am deeply interested in anything Saunders has to say about story, and when life settles out a bit more, look forward to reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. I think, like King’s On Writing, there’s going to be some meandering, but just like with some of my favorite writing classes (looking at you, John Dufresne), that’s where the … more ephemeral grist for the mill is. I’ll let y’all know when I get it read, but if any of you have read it, I’d love to hear some feedback.

I was recently able to borrow Liberation Day, his first collection since Lincoln in the Bardo, one of my favorite books. I knew it was going to be challenging, having read other short works of his prior to Lincoln, and it was. This volume contains nine stories, starting off with the longest, which lends its name to the book.

Looking over reviews of this collection, it seems a lot of folks view it as uneven in focus and, in some instances, quality, but for the most part I think that perspective might originate in the reviewers love of Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunder’s singular novel. Frequently, I found that more negative reviews of Liberation Day were comparing the two, which is definitely literary fruit comparison. This is an orange that feels, in my incomplete experience, like a very George Saunders Orange.

Saunders says this about the arc of this collection: “In each of the stories in Liberation Day, someone starts out deluded and confused and misled, then sheds that delusion and moves in the direction of truth, with different results.” I could see that, myself, as I reached the end of these stories. Most of them are fantastical, short of two of them with a more realist bent. They all are drenched in Saunders’s very unique voice, but also they are threaded through with a quiet compassion that I really love. Not everything goes well for his characters, but he treats them with respect, and in doing so gives the reader a great deal to think about. While this was a difficult collection for me – some stories definitely take a lot more focused effort to get into and through, I really enjoyed it. The compassionate, frank journey one takes with each story’s main characters is well worth the effort, in my opinion.

(As with all of Saunders’s work, diving into this collection means abiding with a lot violence and cruelty. If you dig in, be prepared for that. You can see some content warnings below.)

Resources for more on this book and George Saunders:

Content Warnings – domestic violence, violent death and murder, slavery, child abuse, death

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