Monday, June 23, 2008

George Saunders on Relatable Superheroes

One of my favorite contemporary prose writers is George Saunders. He's a direct literary descendant of Donald Barthelme, another one of my favorite writers, who, himself, was a direct literary descendant of Samuel Beckett--who I admire, but don't necessarily enjoy when it comes to his longer works.

But Saunders is great. You should go out and buy his recent essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone, and while you're at the bookstore, check out his first story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, or his most recent story collection: In Persuasion Nation. All of which get the GeniusboyFiremelon seal of approval. In fact, I've bought some of his books twice--because I lent them to people and never got them back, which tells me that the books are pretty great or my friends are dicks, or both.

Anyway, in last week's New Yorker, Saunders has a satirical piece about an idea for a superhero TV show, about people who don't really have any powers, but they do--sort of. And the whole thing--it's only two pages long--culminates in this bit: TV show is like life, where people's abilities always fall short of their hopes and aspirations and the extent of their love. This will be great for ratings. It will make my show relatable.

The first season ends like this: We zoom down, into a lonely room. There sits a guy who has lost an ability he's always had: can easily find a pithy way to end a comic piece of writing.

Saunders goes on to explain the metafictional scenario at the end a bit more, but what I like about the piece isn't the metafiction--although I'm always up for metafiction--it's the notion that everyone falling short of their "hopes and aspirations" is relatable and therefore good. It's kind of the Marvel philosophy in a lot of ways, and DC has fallen victim to it as well. I've been deeply obsessed with Elliot S! Maggin's writing for the past week--reading both of his novels and much of his Superman comic book work (my thoughts on that stuff will be turned into a CBR column later this summer)--and the thing about Maggin was that he believed in keeping Superman as a cosmic-level character and using his god-like presence to exemplify difficult moral choices. It doesn't matter the power of the hero--the moral decisions are still equally difficult. And that makes the stories relatable. They don't have to be about Clark Kent working with kids at the YMCA.

Since all that Maggin stuff is out of print--except for a few Superman tales in a couple of anthologies--go out and buy some Saunders. He will make you look at the world a bit differently, and that's a good thing.


Matthew E said...

I think the first two Maggin novels (there's actually a third, kind of: the Kingdom Come novelization) are freely available online somewhere... the page, if I recall correctly.

His take on Superman in Miracle Monday is my favourite of all takes on Superman.

Timothy Callahan said...

Who the hell wants to read a novel online?

(btw, I bought my copy of Last Son of Krypton for one penny--plus shipping. Miracle Monday cost me a couple of bucks. So, they are really cheap and easy to find.)

How is the Kingdom Come novelization? Worth a read? (Seems like a strange book to novelize, since the draw of the comic is the Alex Ross art.)