It will surprise few readers of contemporary fiction to learn that George Saunders’ new collection of short stories, Liberation Day, is very good indeed. At this stage, reviews can only confirm his talent, not reveal it, and should consequently focus on other issues. Once one has established that Liberation Day is as good as one would expect (it is), and that it only strengthens Saunders’ position as a major contemporary writer (it does), one must consider how it intervenes in current debates and what it contributes. It is a compelling, witty book but it is not just entertainment; there is a considerable amount at stake in its inventiveness, its dexterity, and its skillful use of the fantastic. Political in the broad sense, it not only demands that we explore the relationships between individual moral failings and social injustice, but also exposes the acts of evasion, rationalization, complicity, and plain cowardice that enable us to avoid this. One of the most important functions of art is to challenge the comforting illusions we live by, which are too often not only unquestioned but unnoticed. Literature disrupts what we think we know, insisting on complexity, ambiguity, nuance. Liberation Day is a pleasure, but—like all the best books—an unsettling one, denying its readers simple consolations.
The collection persistently explores the distinctions between trying to be good and being good. In “The Mom of Bold Action,” the narrator reflects on the “hours of her life she’d spent trying to be good.” She not only recognizes that intentions are insufficient, that there is more to being moral than “[w]alking through the mall, trying to offer a little positive vibe to everyone,” but that even small benevolent acts, valuable in themselves, can serve as a way of avoiding more difficult but important ones. Saunders’ has a precise, unflinching eye for sins of commission and omission that cannot be expunged just by spending time “deciding if some plastic tofu tub was recyclable” and allowing “frazzled young moms with babies” to “cut in front of you at the post office.” The failings it explores sometimes seem minor—as in the case of “My House,” which centers on a moment of hesitation—but they have far-reaching consequences. They are often compounded by a self-deception that prevents people from recognizing what they have done. In “Mother’s Day,” Debi reassures herself that the fact her daughter “hadn’t even bothered to say goodbye” when she left just proves she “raised an independent young woman.” The claim enables Debi to retain her belief that she “was love, was forgiveness, was goodness, was light” but it does not resolve anything; she is still alone. Too often, characters see problems only when they directly threaten their own comfort or security. The narrator of “Ghoul,” one of the highlights of the collection, observes without irony that “one never realizes how little one wants to be kicked to death until one hears a crowd doing that exact same thing to someone nearby.”
As Saunders emphasizes, these problems are not simply personal. Instead of focusing on individual cruelty, Liberation Day considers the ways in which people contribute to oppressive systems. Public and private are always interwoven, and suffering cannot be attributed to a few malicious or flawed people. Saunders’ concern with social structures is most obvious in his most fantastic stories, which are also his best. The darkly comic “Ghoul” is set in an underground amusement park featuring areas such as the Maws of Hell but only the most obtuse reader would fail to recognize our own society in its characters’ criticism of the “worry, the suspicion, the stress, the meanness” of the “the way we live.” Liberation Day is particularly attentive to the use of social and economic conventions to legitimize injustice. In the title story, Mr. Untermeyer insists that the people he has literally made into instruments “considered it a great privilege to have been accepted” for their roles and are “well compensated.” But as one of the women who attempts to emancipate them emphasizes, it is “not exactly ‘volunteering’” if “you’re driven to it by hardship.” Like the later story “Elliott Spencer,” the narrative challenges the reductive ideas of consent embodied in the foundational capitalist myth of freely chosen contracts.
Saunders knows that it is sometimes difficult to recognize, much less challenge, oppression. Even the most victimized people he represents try to find meaning in their situation, obscuring their exploitation from themselves as well as others. When Jeremy, the narrator of “Liberation Day,” is told that “help is coming” he questions why “help would be needed here, where we all get along nicely and… have creative, fulfilling work to do?” There are costs to resistance, including moral costs, that not everyone is willing to assume. In the same story, Mike insists during the crisis he has initiated that “I’m for the freedom” but “not for the killing,” only to be bluntly reminded this is not possible. Most difficult of all, inaction can be due to a desire to protect others. In “Love Letter,” set in a dystopian society only slightly extrapolated from our own, the writer is motivated by “love, much love, more than you can know” when he implores his grandson not to defend someone who may be “more than just a friend”. Liberation Day nonetheless insists on the importance of recognizing the consequences of one’s actions, on a commitment to the truth, however uncomfortable. When one does the wrong thing, which often means doing nothing, one should know it. It also insists on the possibility of redemption. In “Elliott Spencer” the elderly protagonist tells himself, even at the end, “the me I was then is not the only me” and that there is still a chance “to do lovely” in “what time he has left.” Liberation Day is uncompromising but not despairing. A book for our troubled times, it is a major achievement by a major author.
Liberation Day: Stories
By George Saunders
Published October 18, 2022
Ben Clarke is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of "Orwell in Context," co-author of "Understanding Richard Hoggart", and co-editor of "Working-Class Writing." He is currently editing the "Routledge Companion to Working-Class Literature" and co-editing "The Idea of the Lumpenproletariat".