A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. Wading In.

Read January 2023
Recommended for fans of literary analysis, thinking
★    ★   ★   ★   ★  

Suffice it to say that I have 177 highlights on this book.

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship… The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.”

I have almost no interest in literary fiction. But this attracted me in a friend’s feed because of it being short stories; the stories are from the greats in Russian fiction; Russia being what it is, I thought her literature might give me more insight into her people; and while I seem to do a lot of reviewing, sometimes I feel like I lack the tools to be as specific as I would like. Saunders has even more insight on why we (I) study the way we (I) read:

“To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time.”

There are seven short stories here: In the Cart by Anton Chekov, The Darling by Chekov, Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy, Nose by  Nikolai Gogol, Gooseberries by Chekov, Alyosha the Pot by Tolstoy and Singers by Ivan Turgenev.

‘In the Cart’ is the only that he walks through like a professor, page by page. Saunders acknowledges the reader must be fretting with impatience, and notes that the better the story, the more annoying the exercise is. I’ll be honest; this part was the most tedious and was one of my stopping points before the library recalled the ebook. But the value of what he does here is makes the reader think what words have been chosen that carry the reader forward? What has been written that makes us want to continue reading?

“We might imagine structure as a form of call-and-response. A question arises organically from the story and then the story, very considerately, answers it. If we want to make good structure, we just have to be aware of what question we are causing reader to ask, then answer that question.”

In contrast to the stories, he speaks very colloquially and, at times, playfully. He knows his audience is not just students of literary fiction, but also writers and ordinary readers. Throughout the analyses, he will drop various bon mots; one of the lessons in the first is:

“Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain “laws” in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically.”

The Darling proceeds faster, but along similar analysis, showing a more dialed-out view of the rhythm of a story. Saunders notes callbacks and parallels, and the way reader expectations are set up from this structure and then changed to create greater interest.

“This complicates things; our first-order inclination to want to understand a character as “good” or “bad” gets challenged. The result is an uptick in our attentiveness; subtly rebuffed by the story, we get, we might say, a new respect for its truthfulness.”

Saunders continues through the stories, vacillating from a literary-analysis viewpoint of ‘what could this mean.’ But he understands that some of his audience are writers and so he speaks often to this aspect as well:

“I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t. First, a willingness to revise. Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.”

‘The Nose’ is the story that feels most uncharacteristic in the collection, perhaps because as satire, it takes everything less seriously. In a book of Very Serious Narrators, it allows Saunders to introduce the dual ideas of consensual reality and narrative bias–important concepts, to be sure, but interestingly at odds with what I’d call the social realism of the other six stories. However, it also allows Saunders to digress a bit on following one’s own inner style/voice for its trueness.

“Every story is narrated by someone, and since everyone has a viewpoint, every story is misnarrated (is narrated subjectively). Since all narration is misnarration, Gogol says, let us misnarrate joyfully.”

The stories themselves were… curious. Since I haven’t read literary fiction since high school, I can’t speak to their representation for their class or culture, but Saunders does share some of his thoughts on each as well. He’ll note what Chekov may have thought about his own works, particularly comparing them to Tolstoy, or how Tolstoy’s changing religious beliefs, as documented in personal journals, came to impact how Saunders interpreted Alyosha the Pot. That story actually is the one that undergoes the most detailed literary analysis, as he shares different translations from the original Russian.

What I ended up doing after laboriously working through the first three stories, is reading Saunder’s analysis and then going back and reading the stories. Somehow it worked much better for me. Unfortunately, it gave me a bit of bias to interpretation, but I think it allowed me to actually finish the book in a more timely manner when there was so much I wanted to ponder (ebooks being subject to a two-week loan).

Did I read it for a class? No. But it was an excellent exercise in both thinking and reading.

The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it. It is, we might say, a structure to help us think.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Fiction, genre-bender, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. Wading In.

  1. Pingback: The Stone in the Skull | book reviews forevermore

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