Aside from all the formal invention and satirical energy of Saunders’s fiction, the main thing about it, which tends not to get its due, is how much it makes you feel. I’ve loved Saunders’s work for years and spent a lot of hours with him over the past few months trying to understand how he’s able to do what he does, but it has been a real struggle to find an accurate way to express my emotional response to his stories. One thing is that you read them and you feel known, if that makes any sense.
I know what Lovell means by that, because it's how I felt about Sweet Tooth, but I think Saunders' unique virtue is something different, and that Lovell gets closer to the heart of the matter later, in discussing Saunders's idiosyncratic professional trajectory. Saunders says that he wasn't even really a big reader until he was an adult, working in oil exploration in Sumatra, and happened to pick up a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. Only after he came back to the United States did he start writing. (Incidentally, this sentence, from Lovell, deserves a medal: "Eventually he got sick from swimming in a river infested with monkey feces and came home."):
For the last couple of years he’d been working on what he described as a “disastrous novel” — “La Boda de Eduardo” — but he realized, with the force of epiphany, that the attempts to graft his life experience onto a Hemingway-Carver framework were foolish. There was an experience he was living that hadn’t adequately been represented in fiction yet. Not a Kafkaesque existential deadness, but something else, something that captured “not the endless cycle of meaningless activity but the endless cycle of meaningful activity.”
A typical Saunders story: the premise is absurd, the framing is ironic, the tone is comic, and you still care how it works out, maybe because you've framed your life ironically too, and yet you still care about that.
Proof of Saunders' empathy is that several years ago, when asked to explain the point of an MFA, he did so:
...it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist. . . . Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”
This is my favorite of Saunders' stories, called "Jon"; I think I've linked to it before, but it's worth reading again.