Liberation Day and the Prisons We Create

George Saunders's recent short story book is an exploration of “the slowly boiled frog”

Mallika Vasak

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Image from The Sydney Morning Herald

This book is a rollercoaster ride straight to hell, a rickety drop through a nightmare factory of the prisons we create for ourselves. Performers in a theme park withstand dystopian degradations. A grandfather grapples with the regret of inaction in an epistolary piece to his grandson. A mother sits at a moral crossroads after practicing a life of benevolence. The time she spent “deciding if some plastic tofu tub was recyclable” or “hit[ting] a squirrel and circl[ing] back to see if she could rush it to the vet.” Do a million good acts outweigh one of sin? In Liberation Day, George Saunders reminds us that in the prison of the self, “you are trapped in you.”

But these characters don’t seem trapped in themselves. Not really. They’re creators: writers, reenactors, performers operating in the economic, political, and social landscapes they’ve acclimatized to. The rollercoaster ride we’re boarded onto is a lazy river for them, floating into authoritarian societies with little discomfort. As Anne Enright metaphorizes it in her review for The Guardian, “the slowly boiled frog.”

There’s little resistance, a direct contrast to the title, these characters are submissive in their resolutions. Their liberations are unsatisfactory: no uncaged birds taking flight, no grandiose victory of war, just small steps towards unsettling ends. “What she had to do now,” the mother muses, is “reach over, pick up the bag, open the car door, drop one foot into the grey slush.” In Mother’s Day, a character dies, and finds liberation in the fact that, finally, she can “stop being who she is.”

But are bigger acts, those of defiance and temerity and guts, futile in the hyper-capitalist framework they find themselves in? Are they futile in ours? I remember the disconcerting, eerie ending of Love Letter, in which the writing grandfather advises his reading grandson to remain passive. Earlier in the story he notes past attempts he took to protect democracy: writing “two letters to the editor of the local rag.” Neither made any difference, however. “Those who agreed with [him] agreed with [him]. Those who did not remained unpersuaded.”

There’s little hope to find in the ambivalence he has towards action. But there’s an endemic uncertainness throughout the letter: apprehension that emailing is the best mode of communication, paranoia marked in each codified initial. “Yes,” he tells his grandson, “I have regrets.” Could one more email have made a difference? “There was a certain critical period,” he realizes. “I see that now.”

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Mallika Vasak

Turtleneck wearer, art-gallery starer. Find me in bookstores someday