The New Yorker Reader: “Al Roosten,” by George Saunders

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01/29/2009 5:00 PM |

I’m happy but you don’t like me.

Having made his reputation as a satirist with a chatty, wisecracky style and a knack for alternate-universe quirk, George Saunders seems to be using his platform to be something like a cheerleader for empathy. (I’ve said something like this before.)

Here’s the beginning of his recent tribute to David Foster Wallace:

A few years back I was ?ying out to California, reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I found the book was doing weird things to my mind and body. Suddenly, up there over the Midwest, I felt agitated and ?inchy, on the brink of tears. When I tried to describe what was going on, I came up with this: If the reader was a guy standing outdoors, Dave’s prose had the effect of stripping the guy’s clothes away and leaving him naked, with supersensitized skin, newly susceptible to the weather, whatever that weather might be. If it was a sunny day, he was going to feel the sun more. If it was a blizzard, it was going to really sting. Something about the prose itself was inducing a special variety of openness that I might call terri?ed tenderness: a sudden new awareness of what a ?x we’re in on this earth, stuck in these bodies, with these minds.

This alteration seemed more spiritual than aesthetic. I wasn’t just "reading a great story." What was happening was more primal and important: my mind was being altered in the direction of com-passion, by a shock methodology that was, in its subject matter, actually very dark. I was undergoing a kind of ritual stripping away of the habitual. The reading was waking me up, making me feel more vulnerable, more alive.

This is what Saunders wants to do, here: to trap us inside Al Roosten’s (middle-aged, saggy) body, and (lonely, self-deluding, disappointing) mind, and by doing so, to direct us in the direction of compassion.

Which is not to say that Saunders is being a softie — in fact Al Roosten seems to be stuck mostly in his own skin and mind. (The story’s larger intention is also its subject.) The drama of the story, such as it is, comes from the narration of Al’s consciousness, and the flickering, on-and-off empathy he’s able to conjure for people who are not himself. As such, the last sentence comes as something of a surprise; perhaps even, in keeping with the spiritual sense, a moment of grace — it’s a successful moment of equivalence (communion?) between two people who seem so wrapped up in themselves that we haven’t previously seen them as being particularly awake to each other.