Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Stink of a Human Heart - #16

STORY: "Winky" by George Saunders

FROM: PASTORALIA (Riverhead, 2001)

BASICALLY: Neil Yaniky attends a self-help seminar to determine how to overcome the person who's the source of all his problems. Meanwhile, Winky, his nutso-religious, oblivious sister bumbles around the house, thinking about how much she loves him.

George Saunders is the most hilarious man who'll make you sob uncontrollably. There are several great parts to "Winky," though the story ultimately leaves me sad and deflated—deliberately, I think. Saunders likes to set up all the grief and vagaries of the world, but give his reader with no tools to deal with them. His mordant humor doesn't provide a way out so much as it makes clear that we are all equally pathetic. …Yay!

What makes this story interesting is the way that it sets up two competing loci for our contempt. Just on its own, Saunders' lampooning of a self-help seminar is pure gold. He starts the scene with a third-rate guru's literal pageant of cheap Types with paper labels (You longing for Inner Peace, almost thwarted by Whiny, Self-Absorbed, Blames Her Fat on Others, Insecure, Disappointed, Too High-Strung to Function, etc., until they're thrown in the Pokey for Those Who Would Keep Us from Inner Peace). Neil Yaniky, like the rest of the crowd, is mesmerized. Then the founder of the Seminars, Tom Rodgers, gives a rousing, ludicrous, spot-on speech about how everyone started out in a pure, unsullied state like oatmeal, happy and nourishing, but there's a problem: people are constantly wanting to come and crap in your nice warm oatmeal! 

"Let me tell you something amazing: I was once exactly like you people. A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless, was doing quite a bit of crapping my oatmeal, and simply because he'd had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply, because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold while he crapped in my oatmeal by demanding round-the-clock attention, this brother of mine, this Gene, and whoops, there goes that cat out of the bag, but does this maybe sound paradoxical? Wasn't he the one with the crap in his oatmeal, being in a wheelchair? Well, yes and no. Sure, he was hurting. No surprise there. Guy drops a motorcycle on a gravel road and bounces two hundred yards without a helmet, yes, he's going to be somewhat hurting. But how was that my fault?" 
Then Rodgers goes on to explain how he dumped the problem of Gene on his sister Ellen, and so Rodgers is now free of Gene's oatmeal-crapping ways, though, "'as for Ellen, Ellen still has some issues, she'd take a big old dump in my oatmeal right now if I gave her half a chance, but guess what folks, I'm not giving her that half a chance, because I've installed a protective screen over my oatmeal.'" Saunders is a master at simply standing back and letting his characters show, through their own conflicting, hypocritical speech, exactly what kind of people they are.

Neil Yaniky has a personal session with Rodgers to determine the source of Neil's problems, and the source is easy to locate: it's Neil's sister, ugly and crazy and hyper-religious. She needs to move out of his house, and Neal leaves the session gathering his strength and repeating his mantra: Now Is the Time for Me to Win! Now Is the Time for Me to Win!

But Neil's sister is also a piece of work. As idiotic as the self-help session was, and as pathetic as Neil is for buying into it, we do sort of want his life to get better. And when we see Winky, we understand what he's up against. The story shifts into her point of view and her thoughts flit from topic to nonsensical topic, sometimes alighting on a funhouse version of Jesus, or a memory about her and "Neil-Neil's" childhood with their alcoholic father and miserable mother, or the time a vagrant outside Rexall Drug told her she was "too ugly to f—." She's not likable, but she's too pitiful to hate. It's clear that if Neil kicks her out, Winky will have absolutely nothing to hold onto in this world. The story closes on Neil's recognition that he can't give her the boot, but ironically, he's no better for it. There's no redemption.

In the end, whether we're dealing with a modern religion like the self-help movement, or an older religion like Christianity, Saunders shows that we are equally self-deceived and equally ill-equipped to find our way out of the irrational holes into which they thrust us. He makes this more profound—and more damning, and more depressing—by lampooning not just one mindset, but all the mindsets that intersect with it. Tom Rodgers, who has divested himself of responsibilities by pawning them off on others, has made a career of inspiring others to take control of their lives. The poor slobs who listen to him, like Neil Yaniky, are grasping at straws. And the hideous idiot sisters like Winky who depend on them, and smile at mirrors as they pass them to thank God for the trial of their suffering, have no understanding whatsoever.