52 Stories #4 – Sea Oak by George Saunders

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This week, Sea Oak by George Saunders. You can find it in the collection Pastoralia or online at The Barcelona Review.

They summoned me along with thirty or so other managers the day before the axe fell. At the head of the room stood a representative for the security department in a jolly primary coloured uniform. He was flanked by two crisp outplacement consultants wearing chinos and pastel shirts ironed to dangerous edges. The aircon had been turned down for the Spare the Air day, giving the room the atmosphere of a half-cooled kettle. There was a shiny presentation pack on each of our tables.

“This is your script,” said the leader who had introduced himself as Philip. He tapped his own document pack. “Please try to avoided deviating from it.”

They were to be escorted to each of the meeting rooms at intervals of twenty minutes. The work was to be swift and efficient. A decisive cut – no room for doubt – and then a tramway to an HR representative, their desks, and then the parking lot. Sympathy was to be shown, but only generically and from a marked distance.

“They’ll worry about work they have left undone, projects in mid-air,” said Larry, Philip’s assistant. “You need to reassure them that any unfinished business is no longer their problem.”

“Get them on to the benefits package as quickly as possible. Encourage questions about that.” Philip said.

“Do not, whatever you do, engage with any specific causal factors,” said Larry. “Even if there are some.”

“Yes. The reason is in the script,” said Philip.

“Do not agree with anything they say. Just repeat the reason in the script.” said Larry.

“Accentuate the opportunities available to them,” said Philip.

“And the benefits. Always the benefits,” said Larry.

“One of my staff will be available close by,” said the security guy. “Just call if things get… heated.”

Only a few months before that day a laid-off engineer had returned to an office at a company nearby and shot three people. Then he turned the gun on himself. On the brochure’s cover, though, everyone was smiling. The word OPPORTUNITY hung above their heads just beyond reach, coloured orange. Outside, as always, the sun was shining. The hillside smelled of wild fennel.

In George Saunders’ story Sea Oak we encounter a queasily familiar unfamiliar world in which there is no safety net whatsoever. If you’re part of the unlucky majority you’re really only a misfortune or two away from a spiral into poverty. An accurate satire, then on the trajectory of life on both sides of the Atlantic – proved prescient by administrations bent upon redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich and removing as much security from the lives of their people as they possibly can – lying all the while.

Before teasing out a theme or two, let’s do the synopsis. Our narrator works in Joysticks, a novelty aviation-themed restaurant as part waiter part beefcake table dancer. The waiter-performers – all men – must titillate for tips. They are issued ‘Penile Simulators’ as part of their uniforms.

Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker. At least I’m not a Stinker like Lloyd.

Everyone is inevitably on the slide and everyone is judged according to alienating criteria. The narrator lives in a dangerous neighbourhood in a crappy apartment block named Sea Oak – with his sister Jade and his cousin Min – who both have babies – and with his tragically forbearing Aunt Bernie. The apartment is overcrowded and noisy – a twisted brand of reality TV drips neverendingly into their lives and seeps into the story.

After a break-in, the selfless Aunt Bernie is found dead. The family rally and place themselves in debt to purchase a burial ceremony at Lobton’s Funeral Parlour.

Later, the priest, Father Brian calls and summons them to the graveside. Aunt Bernie’s body is missing, leaving only a mound of dirt and a pair of shoes. This mystery is solved – after a fashion – when Aunt Bernie appears back at the apartment – still dead but animate (seeing a pattern here? If not, read back to The Juniper Tree). She has been transformed by the magic of story into a foul-mouthed martinet – determined to restore the family’s standing and to claim for herself the pleasures she missed in life. This last, at least, is a forlorn hope since her body steadily deteriorates throughout the rest of the story. The force of her new personality, though, spurs the younger generation to reluctant action. The narrator is to ‘show his cock’ at work for better tips. Jade is to get a job, and Min to look after the babies.

When all does not go according to plan, Bernie introduces leverage. She demonstrates that she can predict the future and that they are heading for disaster

Troy’s gonna get caught in a crossfire in the courtyard. In September. September eighteenth. He’s gonna get thrown off his little trike. With one leg twisted under him and blood pouring out of his ear. It’s a freaking prophecy. You know that word? It means prediction. You know that word? You think I’m bullshitting? Well I ain’t bullshitting. I got the power.

The mission to escape Sea Home becomes suddenly more urgent. Bernie inevitably disintegrates (in the literal sense of falling apart), but she leaves behind a legacy of determination.

In its twisted way, unlike The Juniper Tree and The Labrador Fiasco, this is a hopeful story. It ends not with resignation but with agency.

This story – like many of George Saunders’ stories – suggests an uneasy boundary between speculative and literary fiction. Satire forms a kind of bridging gloop between the two. This is the world of the TV show How My Child Died Violently, of Penile Simulators, of the foul and addictive Stars-n-Flags.

For dinner Jade microwaves some Stars-n-Flags. They’re addictive. They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets. I think also caffeine. Someone told me the brown streaks in the flags are caffeine. We have like five bowls each.

It is recognisably our world but inflated and exaggerated.

he leads us to something that looks like a moving box.
“Prior to usage we’ll moisture-proof this with a spray lacquer,” he says. “Makes it look quite woodlike.”
“That’s all we can get?” says Jade. “Cardboard?”
“I’m actually offering you a slight break already,” he says, and does a kind of push-up against the wall. “On account of the tragic circumstances. This is Sierra Sunset. Not exactly cardboard. More of a fiberboard.”
“I don’t know” says Min. “Seems pretty gyppy.”
“Can we think about it?” says Ma.
“Absolutely,” says Lobton. “Last time I checked this was still America.”
I step over and take a closer look. There are staples where Aunt Bernie’s spine would be. Down at the foot there’s some writing about Folding Tab A into Slot B.

So penises are hidden beneath replicas, food is replaced by drug- and sugar-laced junk calories and even coffins are ‘quite woodlike’ – not quite the real thing.

There is a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of many interactions too. When the narrator’s colleague, Lloyd Betts, is let go for becoming a ‘Stinker’, the hard calculation underlying his dismissal is smothered in platitudes

“There are times,” Mr. Frendt says, “when one must move gracefully to the next station in life, like for example certain women in Africa or Brazil, I forget which, who either color their faces or don some kind of distinctive headdress upon achieving menopause. Are you with me? One of our ranks must now leave us. No one is an island in terms of being thought cute forever, and so today we must say good-bye to our friend Lloyd. Lloyd, stand up so we can say good-bye to you. I’m sorry. We are all so very sorry”

Mr. Frendt too, it seems is a fake. Despite frequent recourse to pop anthropology, he is transparently a false friend. And Lloyd himself is not immune from bad faith:

“It’s been a pleasure!” he shouts desperately from the doorway, trying not to burn any bridges.

Later we encounter a leaving party at the restaurant

a tableful of MediBen women seated under a banner saying BEST OF LUCK, BEATRICE, NO HARD FEELINGS.

Matt Merton, the presenter of How My Child Died Violently is ‘always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain.’

The transformed Aunt Bernie does not challenge any of this hypocracy of course. Like an undead Horatio Alger, she advocates adherence to the system’s unwritten rules.

“You, mister,” Bernie says to me, “are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it, I’ll make a thumbprint on the forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask. I’ll try to get you five a day at twenty bucks a pop. So a hundred bucks a day. Seven hundred a week. And that’s cash, so no taxes. No withholding. See? That’s the beauty of it.”

This thumbprint intervention may seem unlikely but Aunt Bernie already has the supernatural on her side. She is, after all, a talking corpse with a proven track record as a seer.

Sea Oak offers at least two clear structural moments. Firstly a transition into a transformed world – a point at which both reader and characters realise that the game is afoot (and that near-pun in is not unintentional – there are several jokes relating to detached body parts to enjoy in this story). That moment comes well past the halfway point when the narrator arrives home and discovers Aunt Bernie reanimated:

At home the door’s wide open. Min and Jade are sitting very still on the couch, babies in their laps, staring at the rocking chair, and in the rocking dhair is Bernie. Bernie’s body.
Same perm, same glasses, same blue dress we buried her in.
What’s it doing here? Who could be so crue? And what are supposed to do with it?
Then she turns her head and looks at me.
“Sit the fuck down,” she says.

A second key moment is the final pinch point – the story’s climax and also the end of Aunt Bernie. She is, by this stage, reduced to a head and a scatter of disconnected parts.

“That’s it for me. I’m fucked. As per usual. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Although come to think of it I was never even the freaking bridesmaid. Look, show your cock. It’s the shortest line between two points. The world ain’t giving away nice lives. You got a trust fund? You a genius? Show your cock. It’s what you got. And remember: Troy in September. On his trike. One leg twisted. Don’t forget. And also. Don’t remember me like this. Remember me like how I was that night we all went to Red Lobster and I had that new perm. Ah Christ. At least buy me a stone.”
I rub her shoulder, which is next to her foot.
“We loved you,” I say.
“Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?” she says. “Why? Why was that?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Show your cock,” she says, and dies again.

This moment performs multiple duties. There’s dark humour, of course. It’s also the point at which the narrator commits implicitly to his new plan – if only to avert Troy’s fate and fulfil Bernie’s last request. And it spells out the story’s main theme – the incomprehensible nature of inequality – the great con trick that keeps so many on the margins (and has always done so – back to panem et circenses). This sense of disappointment and incomprehension is so important to the story that Bernie returns to the narrator in his dreams at the story’s end and asks the question again.

“Some people get everything and I got nothing,” she says, “Why? Why did that happen?”
Every time I say I don’t know.
And I don’t.

But I have a sneaking suspicion.

None of the engineers in my team were laid off that time round. I was not summoned to dispatch anyone. We all stayed at our desks and read about the sackings in Valleywag. One engineer live-tweeted his own exit. A chorus of fanboys on the internal mailing list insisted the carnage was sad but necessary. Everyone agreed that the new CEO’s plan would transform the company’s fortunes.

“We know what we’re for now,” said a front page engineer.

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