George Saunders on the Emotional Realism of Bobbie Ann Mason
Her Fiction is a Scale Model Where People Wander Beautiful, Hostile Dreamscapes
When I was a grad student back in the 1980s, Bobbie Ann Mason was considered one of the Southern reps of the so-called “dirty realists” or “Kmart realists.” Her work was praised for its frank, unabashed inclusion of elements then supposedly unusual in American literary fiction—television, brand names, pop culture, apartment complexes, malls, etc. Although she was rightly considered a master of the short story in this mode, reading her work again, I see what a short-sell this view was. Bobbie Ann Mason is a strange and beautiful writer indeed, and if she is a realist, she is that best kind of realist: an emotional realist. Her stories exist to gently touch on, and praise, even mourn, what it feels like to be alive in this moment, or in any moment, and her representations of American life are beautifully compressed and distorted, as all great art must be—to purpose—and that purpose is to embody an organic beauty that melds sound, sense, and substance.
The first book she ever wrote was an unpublished riff on Barthelme’s Snow White, on the subject of the Beatles. To my ear, even her more realist stories—the ones that began appearing to great acclaim in the New Yorker in the early 1980s—retain that essential postmodern energy. Though they concern ostensibly real people, often working-class, from Kentucky, and don’t include any overtly po-mo elements, their shapes are new and odd and truthful. (Also ornery and funny.) Like the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, Mason seems to reflexively reject the compunctions of Freytag’s Triangle, that creative writing chestnut that would divide stories into Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax. Especially her stories seem averse, in their endings, to the too-easy solution of the existential problems they have worked so hard (in their beginnings and middles) to construct.
A Mason story quietly builds to a point of tension (a tension often sorrowful), and then, in a move that feels courageous and culminant, the story refuses to explode falsely. The characters are often left right there on the hook, or on a nearby, similar hook. (“The goal,” she has said, “is to leave the story at the most appropriate point, with the fullest sense of what it comes to, with a passage that has resonance and brings into focus the whole story. It has to sound right and seem right, even if its meaning isn’t obvious.”) Even when a character takes action, the reader may not be convinced that this new direction will lead to real freedom or happiness. Mason’s is an approach devoid of falsification. She is OK, it seems, with the notion that American lives (and life in general) may be fundamentally sad, at least upon first examination.
An early influence was Nabokov, and Mason’s stories contain some of the most precise and therefore poetic descriptions of nature in contemporary American literature. There are beautifully real gardens in her work, the kinds of gardens people actually have, and descriptions of fruits and vegetables and fields and flowers and weeds that will make you want to go sit in your own neglected yard and try, for once, to observe the way Mason does, which is to say, with all the senses engaged and the language center set on wide-open. These descriptions are the result of awareness-of-world, and that awareness extends even to the non-agrarian, reminding us of how pleasurable it is to read depictions of actual human noticing. (In her first New Yorker story, “Offerings,” for example, there appears this zinger: “Later, with a perverse delight, she sees a fly go by, actually trailing a wisp of cat hair and dust.”)
These reminders of the freshness and immanence of the natural world are all the more moving because we feel that the more complete and organic relation to the land that, say, the grandparents of these characters might have had is coming to an end, and that the knowledge these descendants retain of nature is vestigial and fading.
In Mason’s work people are often struggling under that particular form of contemporary distress brought about by paucity of resources, both material and spiritual. Distant forces seem to be conspiring to make these people peripheral, inconsequential. The stories are full of divorces, separations, marriages barely holding together; and the characters take up hobbies to fill the void, including minor fascinations with pop-cultural figures, those tentative mini-Gods. True religion has moved away from these people, or they from it, and where religion exists, it seems to share some taint of the material: it serves as a cudgel, or a social marker, a way for one person to assert superiority over another. (When someone, in a Mason story, invites someone to church, it is often a way of saying, “I feel there is something wrong with you” or “I know something you don’t.”)
“She is OK, it seems, with the notion that American lives (and life in general) may be fundamentally sad, at least upon first examination.”
So you could say, as critics have, that Mason is writing about a particular form of late-20th-century American sadness, a moment during which something has fundamentally shifted in the American ethos. The way I would say it is that she is bearing witness to our descent into a new era of pure materialism. This, for me, is the essential energy of Mason’s work: the sense of loving, vibrant human beings stymied by the systemic rebuttal of their vitality.
But ultimately she is writing about something bigger and more universal, which is that, here on earth, in these human bodies, it is hard to be happy. We suffer from that eternal sorrow that Buddhists call samsara: the cycle of futility that comes from believing that happiness will be found in the satisfaction of our desire.
These stories are full of sorrow and loneliness and the human heart pushing back against these.
Although I don’t know if Mason would agree with this assessment, I feel, reading her work, that her prose is guided by a sense of musicality—sound in cahoots with meaning. Her stories are language-forms, and proceed that way—a fact that was, I think, missing in the early rush to understand her stories as simple representations of some exotic (Southern, working-class) Other. Of course, no good story is ever strictly realistic—the stories of Raymond Carver are full of distortions and compressions, as are those of Flaubert, Munro, et al.
Stories are scale-models for the world that benefit by willful exaggeration. They are like model railroad towns whose construction is guided by delight—the things the author likes to do and is good at doing, which, in turn, produce a distorted-but-fun little place. The doorways of this writer’s town are full of quarreling couples; this writer’s town is perpetually snowbound; this one’s has more flowers than any real town could possibly sustain (growing on the roofs of cars and up the side of the bell tower); in the streets of this writer’s town, everyone walks happily arm-in-arm, but there are plastic mini-dragons situated in the alleys. And yet, somehow, actions occurring within these distorted towns produce heightened, meaningful representations of the real world. The distortions help us see, in extremis, parts of our everyday lives that normally remain submerged. (Everyone behaves fairly normally in “The Metamorphosis,” but that big bug in Gregor’s room causes us to re-examine the notion of “normal behavior.”)
These offsets can be slight but are always present, even in the most ostensibly “realistic” work. There are the first-order offsets caused by the necessary compression and omission. (Think of all the things omitted by the simple utterance “Jim sat down with his cup of coffee.” The clouds overhead! The thousand bugs in the bushes just outside! The scandalous thing just uttered by a drunk in the church next door!) But the most important offsets are the ones the author applies via her sentence-to-sentence habits of thought and preference, actualized through the process of revision. The best writers—writers like Mason—steer not by convention, or a desire to teach us something or export some worldview, but by this inner sense of preference, in a spirit of exploration, asking, through the enactment of a highly personal artistic method: What is it, after all, that I believe?
So: what does the universe look like, refracted through the distortive preferential principles of Bobbie Ann Mason?
First, I note that the calm richness of the language produces a difficult-to-achieve fictional effect: that of nonjudgment. It is easy enough for a writer to be harsh. It is equally easy to be reflexively anti-harsh—to be sentimentally oversupportive of one’s characters. But to make a character about whom we feel an ongoing engaged ambiguity, or an expanding hopeful curiosity, is the hardest thing. The preferred relation of reader to invented world should mimic the relation between reader and actual world, in those moments when the reader is most fully alive to that actual world: befuddled, confused, engaged, brought to the edge of her seat, so to speak, by the vagaries and infinite variety of reality. When a writer puts us in that relation to her subject, that is real writing.
“I find myself thinking of her fictive world as a scale model in which good people . . . wander through a still-beautiful, yet somehow hostile American dreamscape.”
This quality of nonjudgment is one that Mason shares with the Chekhov of the two masterpieces “In the Cart” and “In the Ravine.” Mason, like the Russian master, is comfortable standing in the face of sorrow and loneliness. She does not have the reflexive aversion to these sentiments that might cause a writer to mock her characters or provide too-easy solutions, but, rather, through the calmness with which she abides there, collecting and sharing their (perhaps sad) data, she communicates a sense of compassion. Sorrow and loneliness are real, she seems to say, and much more common than we like to admit, but maybe not so terrible or unusual after all; haven’t we all felt these? Don’t we, in fact, feel them nearly every day? Mason refuses—structurally, I would say—to participate in our familiar American business of cloaking ourselves in denial. Is there unhappiness? Let it be so, she seems to say. This is the comfort Mason offers: the comfort that comes when we see someone not in denial of an evident darkness. This quality comes to feel, a few stories in, like a form of kindness: courageous and hopeful. There is, in my reading, a sort of motherliness about this: we come home hurt, terrified of what we might have done to ourselves; and what a comfort it is to have someone quietly look at the wound, no flinching, no gasping—just calm regard, a regard that offers its own form of healing.
Fiction, at its best, is not mere depiction, but effects a change upon the reader so as to prepare her for more enlightened living in the world—as Kafka famously says, it “prepares us for tenderness.” This is not to say that fiction should preach, or offer some canned, simple solution. On the contrary: fiction often simply lays out the difficulties we face; underscores the challenges presented to human happiness. The work of Bobbie Ann Mason, it seems to me, does this in a particularly loving fashion, full of truth, characterized by a refusal of the sentimental and an embracing of a muscular form of hope.
These are, to my ear, radical stories. That which we so ardently seek, these stories say, may not save us. Of her youth in Kentucky, Mason has said, “Primarily I rebelled against apathy and limited education. I was rejecting a whole way of life that I thought trapped everyone.” This strikes me as a pretty good starting place for understanding the body of her work, which includes five short story collections, five novels, a memoir, and a rich bounty of personal and critical essays. Here, if I may briefly project my politics onto Mason’s work, I find myself thinking of her fictive world as a scale model in which good people—the longing-filled descendants of settlers and dreamers—wander through a still-beautiful, yet somehow hostile American dreamscape: a system of aggressive banality, constructed to serve distant capital, that thereby short-changes the individual and denies her celebration and sensuality and true liberty.
What is the antidote? Well, for starters, a lively and fearless awareness of the affliction. Art, Chekhov claimed, does not need to solve problems, only to formulate them correctly. The stories of Bobbie Ann Mason formulate the problem of living this way: people, even good, kind people, will sometimes find themselves suffering, lonely, and frustrated, especially, perhaps, in an age like ours, where we have misplaced certain key values, become obsessed with things, and grown selfish. But then again, these stories say (and demonstrate, through their perceptivity and humor and what I believe used to be called “sass”) that there are ways back, and we are always trying to find them—ways back to happiness, to more authentic selves, to happier times, to love. Within that dreamscape, there is beauty. The beauty of friendship, and wit; the beauty of continuing to try. And stepping back, then, to include the creator of that work, we find more grounds for hope: we see an artist, equipped with her lovely heart, prodigious powers of observation, and a lean-but-lush American poetic tendency, gazing down at these imaginary people as she creates them, her eyes full of tenderness and genuine concern.
From Patchwork: A Bobbie Ann Mason Reader. Used with permission of The University Press of Kentucky. Copyright © 2018 by George Saunders.