Liberation Day: Stories
Liberation Day is inventive, provocative, difficult, interesting, and annoying. Saunders does not make it easy for his reader to grasp the nub of his stories due to misdirection and inadequate language.
The first story, “Liberation Day,” a novella that takes up a quarter of the book, starts:
“It is the third day of Interim.
A rather long Interim. For us.
A day we wonder: When will Mr. U. return? To Podium?”
Not for many pages does the reader figure out the speaker is a slave in a Company of disenfranchised poor owned by Mr. U. to perform for his guests, or what the physical layout is. But by persevering through the dystopian world Saunders has created, about a third of the way through the story, the Company creates an enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn. In these passages Saunders brings the history and the tragedy of those two days to life portraying the Native Americans and the soldiers, their movements, and their feelings. “No one will ever know. But now they are all dying, in the dust, amid the sound of shouting, cursing, wailing, delirious laughter.” And the slaves/actors mirror the event, “For, whatever Mr. U. may in the future give me to Speak, I will never enjoy it again, any more than would a puppet, picked up off the floor, enjoy the suddenly manipulating hand.”
The book is worth it for this story alone. The reader only wishes the artifice had been pared back or used in some fashion to amplify the tragedy of Custer and the Sioux.
The next stories, “A Mom of Bold Action,” “Love Letter,” “A Thing at Work,” and “Sparrow” are more traditional in their structure and telling.
“Mom” features a narrator who wants to be a writer, has bad ideas for stories, but when her son gets roughed up by a homeless guy, she goes on the warpath—or rather, sends her milquetoast husband on the warpath. It all ends badly, she doesn’t get revenge, and she doesn’t get a good story out of the episode. In the last scene she’s getting ready to make cookies. “That was something good she could actually do.” An issue with this story is the rat-a-tat language that doesn’t seem natural to the characters.
“Lungs still going? Keith said.
Far as I can tell, Derek said.
We just worry, she said. We love you so much.
Right back atcha, Derek said.”
“A Thing at Work” is an annoying story of two women in an office, a typist (down on her luck) and a professional (degreed) with a weak boss. The professional manages to get the typist fired for ratting on the professional’s affair with a client. Again, the staccato prose makes it blend with other stories and doesn’t give the dialogue, spoken and interior, a role in defining the characters. “Did that bastard think he was being funny? Helpful? To this nice lady? Who found herself in a great, lonely struggle? Both her parents were dead . . .”
In contrast, “Sparrow” is a sweet story where the reader thinks that at any moment the mother is going to interfere in the romance between the shopgirl and her son, but doesn’t. And here the sentence structure builds to reflect the feeling of the girl. Look at the following passage and how it builds in sentiment. “So, imagine you are a woman who, all your life, people have shied away from and avoided, and whenever you said something it went out into the world and just hung there, causing a neutral or slightly adverse reaction and every time this happened, you felt it, and so behind you, in your life there accrued a series of light but painful little blows . . .”
“Love Letter” is a letter from a grandfather to his grandson who has written about a girlfriend who has probably done something illegal in the name of political justice. The grandfather lays out all the reasons, very rationally, why his grandson should not get involved, “stay out of it, you can only come to harm.” It is an understandable letter from an older man—but an easy one and not an interesting one.
With the exception of the first tale, the stories in this collection seem to be experiments in style or in strange worlds that that author might have easily set aside as “Not quite there yet.”