George Saunders peoples his stories with the losers of American history—the dispossessed, the oppressed, or merely those whom history’s winners have walked all over on their paths to glory, fame, or terrific wealth. Among other forms of marginalization, Saunders’s subject is above all the American working class. In the last twenty or more years, however, for reasons that include the fall of the Soviet Union, the impact of poststructuralist theory, conceptualizations of identity that more and more take race and gender into consideration alongside class, and the general cultural turn in class analysis, it has become increasingly difficult to write about class and unclear what value the “working class” has as a concept for social and cultural analysis or for literary representation. Saunders’s fiction not only reflects these changed ways of conceiving class but also challenges us to reconsider basic questions of class representation. “Sea Oak,” from Pastoralia (2000), is perhaps the most effective expression of Saunders’s class constructions and representative of his approach to the formal representation of class. “Sea Oak” attempts to represent the realities of class in an era when the concept has lost its objective determination and has become one coordinate in a differential field of experience and identity that includes race, gender, sexuality, and culture. Moreover, while constructing working-class identity as a complex, differential field, “Sea Oak” intervenes in enduring debates concerning literary form and working-class representation. Subscribing wholly to neither tradition noravant-gardism, “Sea Oak” provocatively suspends the techniques of realism and postmodernism in tense differential relation. This suspension creates productive incongruities that allow Saunders’s fiction to undermine class ontologies, often through powerfully affective moments of formal collision.
Document Object Identifier (DOI)
Rando, D.P. (2012). George Saunders and the Postmodern Working Class. Contemporary Literature, 53, 437-460. doi: 10.1353/cli.2012.0024