As I read, I stopped worrying about “story” and “novel.” Instead, I wondered: How does a book as singular as this one even come into being? In our conversation for this series, Saunders suggested that fiction is about abandoning everything you think you know—especially ideas about what to write and how to say it. As we discussed Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” a story that seems to both assert and undermine the author’s most deeply held beliefs, the author explained how his process requires him to question his intellectual and aesthetic convictions, entering an ambiguous realm where almost anything is possible.
George Saunders is the author of the story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, In Persuasion Nation, and The Tenth of December, which won the Story Prize. A MacArthur fellow and Guggenheim recipient, he teaches at Syracuse University’s MFA program in Fiction. He spoke to me by phone.
George Saunders: I was a first-year grad student at Syracuse when I went to see Tobias Wolff, who was our teacher, do a reading at the Syracuse Stage. He was feeling under the weather that night, so instead of reading from his work he said he was going to read Chekhov. He read three Chekhov short stories known as the “About Love” trilogy, and “Gooseberries” is the middle component. It was a huge day for me because I’d never really understood Chekhov at all. I’d certainly never understood him to be funny. But when Toby was reading him, he captured this beautiful range of feelings: beautiful, lyrical sections and laugh-out-loud-funny things.
The story is an extended meditation on the idea of happiness. It’s basically a story of two friends who get caught in a rainstorm while they’re out hunting, and they go to a nearby house of someone they know named Alekhin. After they take a swim, one of the friends, Ivan, tells a story about his brother, who had an obsession with owning a small estate, and with eating the gooseberries that he grew on the porch. As Ivan tells the story of his brother it becomes a kind of a screed about how happiness—especially his brother’s happiness—disgusts him, how pig-like people who pursue their own happiness are.
Ivan’s story builds in intensity, and by the end he’s making this beautiful, passionate case for why happiness is a confusing, undesirable emotion. In his telling, it’s almost a delusion to be mindlessly happy when others are sad. The sentiment is so heartfelt that it’s almost as though it came right out of Chekhov’s journals:
At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him—illness, poverty, loss—and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of his life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen—and everything is fine.
I always come out of that passage feeling like it’s a beautiful piece of rhetoric, one that articulates something I really believe. I’ve quoted this line on book tours, trying to explain why I don’t mind writing dark fiction: One role of literature, I’ll tell them, is to be the guy with the hammer, saying, “Look, we’re all pretty happy right now, but let’s just not forget the fact our happiness doesn’t eradicate the suffering of others.” It’s a beautiful insight about the lazy nature of happiness—and, for a few minutes, I think we’re meant to think that this stirring speech by Ivan is the whole point of the story. In a way, it is. Except, on the next page, we see that Ivan’s audience is bored and disappointed by the story. They wish that he’d had something better to say, and the whole evening ends on a flat note.