- George Saunders and the Postmodern Working Class
George Saunders peoples his stories with the losers of American history—the dispossessed, the oppressed, or merely those whom history’s winners have walked all over on their paths to glory, fame, or terrific wealth. Among other forms of marginalization, Saunders’s subject is above all the American working class. In the last twenty or more years, however, for reasons that include the fall of the Soviet Union, the impact of poststructuralist theory, conceptualizations of identity that more and more take race and gender into consideration alongside class, and the general cultural turn in class analysis, it has become increasingly difficult to write about class and unclear what value the “working class” has as a concept for social and cultural analysis or for literary representation. Saunders’s fiction not only reflects these changed ways of conceiving class but also challenges us to reconsider basic questions of class representation. “Sea Oak,” from Pastoralia (2000), is perhaps the most effective expression of Saunders’s class constructions and representative of his approach to the formal representation of class. “Sea Oak” attempts to represent the realities of class in an era when the concept has lost its objective determination and has become one coordinate in a differential field of experience and identity that includes race, gender, sexuality, and culture. Moreover, while constructing working-class identity as a complex, differential field, “Sea Oak” intervenes in enduring debates concerning literary form and working-class representation. Subscribing wholly to neither tradition nor [End Page 437] avant-gardism, “Sea Oak” provocatively suspends the techniques of realism and postmodernism in tense differential relation. This suspension creates productive incongruities that allow Saunders’s fiction to undermine class ontologies, often through powerfully affective moments of formal collision.
While few still privilege social class in ways traditionally encouraged by strict economic determinism, critics have fruitfully built upon E. P. Thompson’s well-known definition of class as “a relationship, not a thing” (11). As Wai Chee Dimock and Michael T. Gilmore describe, critics now “entertain a range of interactive relations—class and culture, class and race, class and gender—without making causality a one-directional phenomenon, and without attributing to the first term a determinative weight” (3). The result has not only established class as a complex “differential field” but may also expose “varying relays between the economic and the social, and therefore also with multiple points of action, and multiple registers of experiential effect” (8). “Class has been queered,” Cora Kaplan observes, because “[i]ts desires, its object choices, and its antagonisms are neither so straightforward nor so singular as they once seemed” (13). If class as a concept has lost its objective appearance and fixed structure, it has gained by becoming a differential coordinate in a system of human relations that also considers other key contributors to identity. One result, Dimock and Gilmore imply, is that class is acknowledged to be a relationship both complex and complexly experienced.
This conceptual shift raises with new urgency the question of representation. How can class as a differential field find critical or literary expression? How can class be represented as a crucial, but by no means solely determinant, dimension of individual or collective experience? Such challenges, moreover, revivify old but enduring questions about literary form and class representation. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet critics and other Communist Party members debated the relation between literary form and efficacious working-class representation. Could realism, a literary form inherited from the bourgeois novel, be appropriated for working-class representation, or was it finally compromised by its bourgeois origins and individualist conventions? [End Page 438] Could literary experimentation or avant-gardism help to shatter the conventions of realism and effectively represent working-class concerns, or did experimental techniques fail to fully represent people as “social animals,” as Georg Lukács accused modernism of neglecting to do (19)?
More recently, this debate has been extended in certain poststructuralist critiques of realism. Barbara Foley concedes to a common poststructuralist view of realism:
[T]he tendency of realistic narrative to dissolve contradiction in the movement toward closure; its characteristic opposition of the social to the personal...