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February 21, 2017

American Author to speak at UMass

George Saunders, an American author known mostly for his short stories, will speak tonight in the Student Union Ballroom.

Saunders’ works include the story collections “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia,” as well as novellas like “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.” He has also published two essay compilations.

Tonight’s reading is sponsored by Commonwealth Honors College. A committee of senior honors students has selected Saunders’ most recent collection of stories, “In Persuasion Nation,” as required reading for the spring semester.

Like much of his work, “In Persuasion Nation” offers a surreal vision of our soul-less consumer culture, while emphasizing the humanity that sprouts through the cracks. Saunders hits human chords with startling emotion, blending a bizarre sense of humor and a loving attention to character.

Saunders’ stories are particularly renowned for their humor. Their oddball premises range from orphans as marketing test subjects (and then trendsetters) in “Jon” to a crude zombie spinster in “Sea Oak.” The action can be ridiculous, even over the top, but the writing remains subtle in the face of the chaos. His stories, even the goofiest ones, have a knack for blindsiding the reader with gorgeous melancholy.

Often compared to novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, Saunders seems to approach his stories in similar way. He brings rich, relatable characters into a darkly comic variation on reality. The plot builds, the situation gets darker and funnier and the endlessly human characters ground the reader as the story looms in the background, often too big to stomach. The end of a Saunders story, like the end of a Vonnegut story, feels like a punch line; all of the humor and sadness gets twisted together and compressed into a moment of pure literary revelation.

The critics seem to agree. In 2006, Saunders was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “genius grant,” for “bringing to contemporary American fiction a sense of humor, pathos, and literary style all his own.” He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an O. Henry Award, and several National Magazine Awards, and writes regularly for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and GQ.

In a 2000 interview with WAG magazine Saunders attributed his writing style to his unique educational background; he received a Bachelors of Science degree in geophysical engineering in 1981.

He said, “ … any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don‘t have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”

Saunders’ tender metallurgy may be an accident of science, but what a happy accident it is.

If you can see billboards and pop-up ads for their absurdity, if you think calling good literature “bittersweet” is a criminal reduction, if you love humanity but can‘t stand people, you want to see George Saunders speak.

The event begins at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public.

Garth Brody can be reached at gbrody@student.umass.edu.

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