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George Saunders

"Victory Lap"

October 5, 2009

"Victory Lap" is the most naturalist story by George Saunders that I have come across. Nothing happens in the story that couldn't happen anywhere; there are none of the surprising post-modern social arrangements that make the stories in Pastoralia so quietly shocking. A boy watches from the deck of his house as the girl next door is dragged off to a van by a brute. After a spell of understandable dithering, the boy takes action, and things work out well the brute gets what's coming to him, and then some.

All this surface ordinariness, however, is perceptible only in retrospect; looking back, we find that we can account for everything without having to resort to as-yet un-metastasized corporate growths for explanations. As a reading experiencing, the story is a parade of weirdness that approaches but never quite crosses over into surrealism. Make that two parades, one for the girl, Alison Pope, and one for the boy, Kyle Root. (The brute has neither a name nor a parade of personal weirdness that amounts to very much, although he does have some unlikely thoughts.) Alison and Kyle are not so much weird in themselves as stuck in the essential weirdness of adolescence. Kyle's parents, who never appear but who are heard from quite a lot, are not so much weird as rational to an unusual degree. Alison's parents, in contrast, appear only in negative outline, as permissive vacancies. Neither child had siblings.

Mr Saunders is not painting a weird backwater of American life; his intent appears to be to show how essentially weird, especially as a result of disconnections, American life is, at least at the level of streets where all the moderately comfortable homes are built to the same plan, a detail that Alison notes with pleasure. "If you had a friend on Gladsong, you already knew where everything was in his or her home." This might sound like a source of (unwanted) connections rather than the reverse, but the "If" at the beginning suggests (as does the rest of the story) that Alison has no friends on Gladsong. In fact, her remark sounds more like wishful speculation than actual observation. She is unaware of how awful it is to live in a place where you know all your neighbors' business, and they know yours, without anybody's wanting the information. Alison thinks that it would be cool to know where to look for the Scotch tape. Nothing really unpleasant has ever happened to her, until today.

Kyle, in contrast, lives in a Stalinist nightmare of cogent planning. The note is struck the moment we follow him into his house.

Kyle Boot dashed through the garage, into the living area, where the big clocklike wooden indicator was set at All Out. Other choices include Dad Out; Kyle Out; Mom & Kyle Out; Dad & Kyle Out; and All In.

Why did they even need All In? Wouldn't they know when they were All In? Would he like to ask Dad that? Who, in his excellent, totally silent downstairs woodshop, had designed and built the Family Status Indicator?


Ha ha.

On the kitchen island was a Work notice.

The Indicator does not allow for the possibility that Mom and Dad might be out, leaving Kyle at home although this happens every day. Kyle is not allowed to be outside when there are strangers in the neighborhood and his parents are not in the house; this is their way of papering over the hole in their protective scheme. 

Taken together, Alison and Kyle remind me of what my friend Eric Patton calls the Last Emperor approach to child-rearing: preposterous overprotectiveness coupled with untrammeled indulgence. Only, here, these elements have come apart. Alison is unprotected, and Kyle is not indulged. In order to save Alison from the brute (who has come to rape her and carry her off, having seen her from the parking lot of a church across the street at the baptism of a chum's child), Kyle will have to break countless "directives," from being outside barefoot to being outside at all. He will also violate the rule against killing other people, but since it's the brute that he kills, it's okay. Except, of course, it's not. While he's finishing the brute off, Alison runs back inside her house to call the police. She sees Kyle through a window.

For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down. She was on the deck trying to scream his name but nothing was coming out. Down came the rock. Then the guy had no head. The blow just literally dissolved his head. Then his body tumped over and Kyle turned to her with this heartbroken look of, My life is over. I have killed a guy.

What is weird about Alison and Kyle, finally, is the language of their thought. It isn't weird at all, of course; it's the verbal contortioning of poor kids trapped in the airlock that lies between childhood and adult life. It is also, this language, the fount of the story's pleasures. Alison's rampant narcissism is not unattractive, because she loves everybody: "Everyone was so nice. Plus the boys at her school." The boys at her school aren't that nice though; she's hoping that her Prince Charming will "hail from far away." Among her countless affectations is a smattering of French to herself, and a familiarity with that pig-Latin classic, "ixnay." Just the same, though, "like" is Alison's number one word and why not, given her  longing to like everything.

Likes and dislikes don't come up much for Kyle.

If you want the privilege of competing in a team sport, Scout, show us that you can live within our perfectly reasonable system of directives designed to benefit you.

Life with the designer of the Family Status Indicator has induced a sort of mild Tourette's Syndrome. 

Mom and Dad would be heartsick if they could hear the swearing he sometimes did in his head, such as crap-cunt shit-turd dick-in-the-ear butt-creamery. Why couldn't he stop doing that? They thought so highly of him, sending weekly braggy e-mails to both sets of grandparents, such as Kyle's been super-busy keeping up his grades while running varsity cross-country though still a sophomore, while setting aside a little time each day to manufacture such humdingers as cunt-swoggle rear-fuck

As a result, when Kyle takes action against the brute, his consciousness is the last to know. Watching the brute drag Alison toward his van, Kyle agonizes, immobile, on the deck, as he hears the brute punch Alison in the stomach. Soon, he knows, they'll be gone.

Then he could go inside. Call 911. Although everyone would know he'd done nothing. All his future life would be bad. Forever he'd be the guy who'd done nothing. Besides, calling wouldn't do any good. They'd be long gone. The Parkway was just across Featherstone, with like a million arteries and cloverleafs or whatever sprouting out of it. So that was that. In he'd go. As soon as they left. Leave, leave, leave, he though, so I can go inside, forget this ever

Then he was running. Across the lawn. Oh god! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating!

Although completely plausible, "Victory Lap" is a charged with Mr Saunders's trademarked blend of wordsmithy humor and deadly development. Once again, he pushes jocularity so far into menace that we, too, feel "the lush release of pressure that always resulted when he submitted to a directive." Only, for us, it is the soul-saving directive to strike out against a domestic tyranny  that, sadly, requires no leaps of the imagination.

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