Once again I am indebted to my fellow PBR Bookclubbers for pointing my gaze in a necessary direction, as I was also introduced to Haruki Murakami through his latest work (master work "1Q84") and to Roberto Bolaño the same way ("2666").
I was hooked at the first story "Victory Lap" by the easygoing stream of experience flow and casual effortless breaking of the language rules while demonstrating a masterful grip on the narrative and dialog from underneath. In this respect, I'm reminded of Brautigan and his making up words and creating sense out of seeming nonsense in works like "In Watermelon Sugar". Then he switches persona viewpoints and the landscape shifts underfoot. Then he does it again. Yep, hooked.
The second story "Sticks" was more or less an interesting little poem for me but then with the third story "Puppy" Saunders had me hook, line and sinker with his Escherian narrative reflexivity built around a dog. Or, a boy. Or, both. A family held up in juxtaposition to another family (a common theme throughout this collection). I put the book down at the end of this story and thought "This guy's a friggin' genius". Later, intrepid fellow clubber Abby told me that in fact Saunders had won a Genius Grant somewhere along the way
Probably the tour de force here is "The Semplica Girl Diaries" as Nog has previously mentioned - it's long enough to really sink into and is subversive, creative and wryly humorous all at once. Well, all of these stories are that way but this has the room to stretch out in and really pound it home on all levels.
"Escape From Spiderhead" packed so many commentaries about society at once that it makes your head spin but made it such a fun ride with the sci-fi overtones and suspiciously adept articulations of mental states under the influences of a variety of neurotransmitter-manipulating high-tech pharmaceutical recipes.
While I literally liked every story included here, I would have to say that other than perhaps Semplica Girl my favorite was probably "Home". It just works on so many levels and demonstrates deep levels of understanding, questioning, compassion, frustration, and love. What could be more central to all of us in the biggest picture than what "home" means to us?
Generally speaking, in addition to the themes and techniques already mentioned above, what really draws me to this author is his ability to weave humor and poignancy into a single mesh in a playful yet calculating way. In the same way a comedian might set up his final punchline with what comes before, Saunders does exceptionally well what many great writers do (including the Coen brothers in their movies) - by feeding us a bit of information at a time, with judicious timing and sequence, he allows our minds at each step to fill in details based on our natural inclinations, assumptions we automatically make, and tropes we are accustomed to and then leverages those to drop the next bit of information in that radically alters our understanding - sometimes in humorous ways, sometimes in horror-inducing ways.
We see this on the larger narrative level in "Victory Lap" where it is amplified by the cycling through character viewpoints, but we see it within short stretches of description and dialog, as well.
I'll end with a bit of the opening to "Home" which captures the kind of understated humor which produces an overstated smile on my face as I consume it. The person telling the story has just arrived home to where his mother lives after being gone for a long time and not only is the place still a trashy mess, he notices new water stains on the ceiling in the kitchen, and so forth. His mother notices him standing outside and tells him to "get in here, you":
"Still ain't no beeping cleaning lady," Ma said.
I looked at her funny.
"'Beeping'" I said.
"Beep you, " she said. "They been on my case at work."
It was true Ma had a pretty good potty mouth. And was working at a church now, so.
We stood there looking at each other.