Monday, April 19, 2021

Book Review: A Swim In A Pond In the Rain by George Saunders

 review by Michael G. Vail

 An acclaimed short story author and novelist, George Saunders also conducts a course in the 19th century Russian short story at Syracuse University. In his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders shares what he teaches his students about seven stories by Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoy.

 His pupils are aspiring authors, “some of the best young writers in America,” according to Saunders. I mention this because his book is very much about the nuts and bolts of what makes a story work. He compares the “mystery” of how a story gets written to a guy constructing a model railroad town in his basement. “The aim of this book is mainly diagnostic,” he explains.

 The casual reader may find much of this to be heavy sledding. For writers, though—and would-be writers—there’s much that is valuable.

 Saunders notes, for instance, that “all a story is, really” is “a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is escalating.”

 He uses the term “meaningful action” instead of “plot” in describing why the appearance of a story’s main character makes it “restless”. And notes: “Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.”

 According to Saunders, every part of a story must be entertaining in its own right AND must advance the story in a non-trivial way. “Don’t make things happen for no reason,” he states. “Having made things happen, make it matter.”

 It’s surprising that a book like A Swim in a Pond in the Rain has been released by a major publisher, considering that its potential readership will never be large. Those of us who will treasure it can only be thankful.

Previous books by George Saunders include Lincoln On The Bardo and Tenth of December.

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Michael G. Vail is the author of the novel The Salvation of San Juan Cajon, and the short story/poetry collection High Desert Elegy.

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