Comic naivety in George Saunders’s ‘Ghoul’

The pleasure we find in naivety is complex: it’s partly superiority at a lack of social sophistication or adroitness about social conventions, and partly relief at the failure to maintain those norms – a chance to vicariously share in a momentary respite from the ceaseless self-consciousness and responsiveness required of us as social creatures. There’s a long lineage of comically naïve characters to be traced in literature – Winnie the Pooh, Huck Finn, Bertie Wooster, but two more recent instances can be found in Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi and George Saunders’s short story ‘Ghoul’. Alongside the comedy (and perhaps inseparable from it), both authors use naivety as the means to effect a fresh and newly poetic response to the world, unhampered by sophistication. While Piranesi features a recognisably poetic register, Saunders’s work offers a more radical conception, going beyond our limited ideas of both beauty and the lyrical.

Saunders has long used the sweetness of his protagonists as a way of creating a sense of readerly attachment, and Clarke’s eponymous narrator similarly delights us with his artlessness. His sweetness, undefended by norms about irony and self-preservation, acts as a foil to the duplicity of other characters, as when he proclaims: ‘I consider the possession of such a friend as you to be one of the greatest happinesses of my Life!’ (64). (‘I do my best’ is the dry – and appropriately ironic – response). Both authors use capitalisation as a way of expressing naivety, and for both writers, their characters’ use of capitals bestows a full hearted, unironic quality to their speech and thought, an inherently respectful and unquestioning approach to the world. But while for Clarke, that respect is a way in to celebrate the abundance of her narrator’s world, for Saunders it initially seems to reveal a radical impoverishment. Clarke’s narrator’s reverence is spontaneous, untutored, – a way of celebrating the Tides, Clouds, a Star etc. – but the unquestioning ways in which Saunders’s characters assign value is generally the result of both corporate brainwashing and a chronically reduced world. Rather than the elemental beauty of Piranesi’s world, the capitalisation in Saunders’s world venerates the simulacrum: Ventilation Units and Food Chutes. For Clarke, Piranesi’s respectful attitude is largely to be cherished (despite the drawbacks of his tendency to accept things at face value) whereas for Saunders, it marks an inability to critique the dominant discourse, with his characters so deeply emmeshed that there’s little chance of escape. But despite this, we should not be too quick to see Saunders’s approach as one confined to a bleakly satirical vision of aesthetic impoverishment and cramped personhood.

Brian, the narrator of ‘Ghoul’, submits entirely to the strictures of the underground theme park in which he lives and works, trying conscientiously to perform as best he can: ‘Once, filling in as Screaming Doomed Cleric, though I had strep, I screamed for eight straight hours, even providing all six Optional Dread Whoops.’ His earnestness is both ludicrous and deeply endearing: demonstrating that even in an utterly reduced world the human need is to strive for some kind of creative satisfaction and some form of recognition or approval. Brian’s willed belief in the ordinances of his underground world begins to crumble, however, as the evidence emerges that the Visitors he and his colleagues perform so eagerly for, have never and will never come. The analogy with late capitalism is obvious: in a system that requires endless consumers (or Visitors), what happens when there aren’t any? And, in a reference to capitalism’s ravages upon the environment, with increasingly frequent floods and electric outages, the basic functionality of the world is also in doubt. But Brian’s hope in some kind of benevolence – albeit one that is massively compromised – continues:
‘Fresh air is constantly coming to us via Ventilation Units 1 through 26, and fresh water via our various Spigots, and food via the narrow Food Chutes that feed into our many Kitchens, and electric power, albeit sporadically, via those big green wires up there, bolted into the ceiling. None of that crap can be cheap, right? Hence there must be someone up there who still cares about us?’
There’s an almost Miltonian marvelling at a godlike provision at work in this farcically reduced version; and it’s partly Saunders’s play with that older, more lyrical form of ardent wonder that makes the passage so funny and so dark. The sheer ugliness of the utilitarian language: ‘Ventilation Units 1 through 26’, ‘Spigots’, ‘Food Chutes’ and even that ‘albeit sporadically’ and the clunky repetition of ‘via’ – it’s the antithesis of the passionate lyricism of a writer like Milton. But the impulse to praise is still there in the pride at the many Ventilation Units and the many Kitchens, and the emotion is still there, in that cri de coeur: ‘None of that crap can be cheap, right?’ It may be an unholy jumble of jargon and slang with the occasional attempt at a more formal register (‘Hence’), but the passage is perversely poetical in the completeness of its anti-lyricism. The comedy is produced by the incongruity of that deliberate mess of registers and enhanced by the implicit contrast with the lyrical homogeneity and grandeur of Milton. That same contrast marks the vision and the language of Brian’s world as reduced or impoverished (in ways that chime with the bleakness of other aspects of Saunders’s satire), but it’s important to see that the language is not only that; it is also something else – hugely funny certainly, and with an energy that is closer to the actual and the everyday. Saunders’s own comments are useful here in building a case for the particular beauty or poetry of this passage, and others like it: he wonders if ‘our previous definition of beauty was a little bit dusty’ and suggests that new forms of beauty might be found when ‘something is intense enough, or refined enough, or exaggerated enough’. He goes on to suggest that even when conventional linguistic resources are not available, ‘halting imprecision is [still] a mode that we can perfect.’ ‘[P]oetry is just any diction that gets overfull’. In these terms, then, the passage is a kind of poetry: and it’s our definitions that need attention. Saunders’s mention of limited linguistic resources is significant: comprehensive resources – which include lyrical expression – are a crucial part of class privilege, and the comic burnishing of the everyday is a hugely important part of his commitment to reclaiming a space for working-class voices.

At the end of the story, Brian resolves to break free of the prison he is in and liberate others by spreading written proof of their absolute aloneness. One proof is a letter from his girlfriend who has discovered that ‘no one is coming. To see how good we have done/are doing. It is just us. Forever. Until a flood gets us or the air or food stops coming.’ In this sense, Saunders’s anti-lyricism is not just a formal counter to the Miltonian lyrical mode, but a substantive counter to the ideology behind that mode, the lyrical labour of celebrating God’s work, by suggesting that Christianity has engendered a fatal dependency or passivity, and insisting instead that there is no God, that we are alone and must take responsibility for ourselves and our actions.
But Saunders’s beef with Christianity – and with our limited ideas of both beauty and poetry – doesn’t mean that all religious or lyrical notions must be lost, and the story’s ending is characterised by the kind of ecstatic sweetness recognisable from elsewhere in his work (‘Escape from Spiderhead’ in particular), as Brian commits himself to self-sacrifice. It’s all tempered by comedy, however, and the final passage is a rather amazing fusion of lyricism and humour:
‘Upon my release, I will rise, go to Copy Services, make Copies of these, go forth, leave Copies on every fake stump in the Room, each chair in Dining, in the Coat Check of DISCO, the stables of NOW WE JOUST, the saloons of WEST, on the seats of the Tram, as it speeds in its unceasing arc, from LOVEFEST, CALI CREEK, in the north, to DREAMY MAINE SUMMER, in the south, so that all may know the truth and be moved to ask, perhaps in some quiet moment, Is this world that we have made (which, for the soundest of reasons, we made, along the way, quite harsh) a world in which lovers may thrive?
Though I will not live to see it, and dread the kicking that must come, may these words play some part in bringing the old world down.’
The lyrical expansiveness of ‘I will rise’ and ‘go forth’ contrasts comically with the plodding detail of the subsequent clauses (as Brian works out the specifics of his plan – never conducive to soaring rhetoric), while the vocabulary of the theme park – locations like NOW WE JOUST and DISCO – and elements like ‘fake stump’ continue to clot and slow the passage as the cadence of Brian’s phrasing grows in confidence. By ‘CALI CREEK’ and then ‘DREAMY MAINE SUMMER’, once ludicrous elements no longer register as comic, but lend their poetry to the sweetness of the ending. In a lovely piece of alchemy, the supposedly reduced language – the debased theme park names and the impoverished slang – becomes beautiful.

Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Saunders, George. ‘Ghoul’, The New Yorker, 2 Nov 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/11/09/ghoul

Saunders, George. Interview by Sophie Elmhirst, New Statesman, 11-17 Jan 2013.

© Emma Sullivan 2021.

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