Jon is the first story that I have read that was written by George Saunders. It was included in My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, an anthology of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I would describe the feeling in finally turning the page to Saunders’ place in the anthology and reading his short story, it is akin to discovering a new world. Hyperbole? Maybe but consider the fact that before Jon, before Saunders’, I was subjected to equally magnificent story telling written by authors renowned for their style: A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, The Dead by James Joyce, A Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov, and The Lady With The Dog by Anton Chekhov. These are writers who writes with a somber atmosphere, writing phrases that seem sacred in their poignancy, delivering hard truths about love with deft hands and restrained writing. After such stories, I began to think that humor and comedic word play has no place in a story about heart break and lost innocence. Then I turned the page and there was Saunders.
Saunders shattered my belief that was established a few pages ago. Here was Saunders telling a love story between a young boy and a young girl set in the near future with prose so distinct that one can only conclude that he has one of the most unique voices in literature. The cadence of his prose and how it plays along the page has a certain uniqueness to it and a certain charm. Consider the opening paragraph:
“Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coordinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame!”
The comic timing is perfect and the paragraph acts as a perfect hook to get the reader into the story. This, for me, is the appeal of the George Saunders story. You get hooked because of something funny, something interesting, but you are left with a precise message in the end. The craft here is undeniable but what elevates Jon from the realm of the good short story writers into the realm reserved for the most skilled practitioners of the art is that Jon is actually telling a story, a good story in fact, without the craft getting in the way.
Jon is set in the hopefully-not-so-near future and is about a young man named, well, Jon who is living in a facility that determines the commercial viability of certain products for a valuable demographic: young people. Jon is part of the testers in the facility and he is treated, alog with his fellow testers, like celebrities by both the people within the facility who are non-testers and by the people outside. Yet, despite all the comforts, Jon is also human and thus subject to the same emotions and whims like an ordinary young man. He has sexual needs that can’t be satisfied by doing the things mentioned in “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!”, feel depressed in the face of death, and then, of course, feel love. A love that, in the age of consumerism, looks like this:
I do not want to only speak of my love in grunts! If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor! If I want to say like, Carolyn, remember that RE/MAX one where as the redhead kid falls asleep holding that Teddy bear rescued from the trash, the bear comes alive and winks, and the announcer goes, Home is the place where you find yourself suddenly no longer longing for home (LI 34451)—if I want to say to Carolyn, Carolyn, LI 34451, check it out, that is how I feel about you—well, then, I want to say it! I want to possess all the articulate I can, because otherwise there we will be, in non-designer clothes, no longer even on TrendSetters & TasteMakers gum cards with our photos on them, and I will turn to her and say, Honey, uh, honey, there is a certain feeling but I cannot name it and cannot cite a precedent-type feeling, but trust me, dearest, wow, do I ever feel it for you, right now. And what will that be like, that stupid standing there, just a man and a woman and the wind, and nobody knowing what nobody is meaning?
Which I think is the crux of the story and the reason why Jon was included in My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. This is another story about two people in love yet are facing seemingly insurmountable odds. It has been a classic plot in fiction, one that has been used over and over again and yet never seems to lose its appeal. This is where skill comes in which is to take something that borders on cliche and then make it something that feels new by using style and playing with language.
But really all this style and craft will be for naught if we aren’t left with some sort of message. And in Jon, George Saunders is using his skill in sending his readers a message about the dangers of consumerism by letting us view a possible scenario of a dystopian future where the degradation isn’t only an external trait but an internal one as well. Yet love can survive, love will survive, which is another trope delivered beautifully by George Saunders that he might as well have invented it.