On “Mother’s Day,” by George Saunders

I was hooked by “Mother’s Day” from the beginning, and I marveled at the clever, entertaining ride. I felt sad and moved at the end of it, which is nothing to sneeze at (and rare, for me), but I also felt slightly uneasy. I also felt moved by “Too Good to Be True,” another recent realistic tragedy by Michelle Huneven, but that one didn’t leave me with an unsettled feeling, and ultimately I think it’s the “better” story. But I’m slightly in awe of what I see in “Mother’s Day.”

In each of “Mother’s Day’s” six sections, the story switches perspectives and travels slightly backwards in time, to show how different characters approach, experience, and reflect on the same events. Saunders applies this technique consistently to each section, and it works well to build the tension.

More interestingly, though each section is told from a specific character’s point of view, it’s told in a third-person voice that verges on being omniscient. I found this a little confusing at first, especially when the narrator speaks in the third person about herself, but when I got the hang of it, I started to enjoy its power.

Check out how the story starts:

“The trees along Pine Street that every spring bloomed purple flowers had bloomed purple flowers. So what? What was the big deal? It happened every spring.”

The “so what” probably felt a bit jarring, but didn’t it get your attention? “Who is this person?” you might have asked, “and what’s his or her problem?”

Over the next few paragraphs I realized that the narrator was Alma, the mother of the title, talking about herself and her daughter, but omnisciently. So we have constructions like “Alma said” right alongside strange, God-like musings like “At least she didn’t have an old-lady voice,” which give the fundamentally realistic story a kind of surreal, psychological overlay that kept me intrigued.

Alma’s musings get more richly detailed as her memories introduce new characters, like her perennially drunken, late husband Paul, of the flamboyantly large words (Dare I say, sesquipedalian?). When the perspective shifts to Debi, activity in the imaginative plane gets wilder and more entertaining, becoming vivid, creative fantasies, such as Debi and Alma having a debate on sin while standing before the pearly gates.

What Bugged Me

I think it came down to this: Although I cared about Alma and Debi, and wanted to know what would happen to them, I also looked down on them, because they were presented as being clueless and ignorant. Mostly this is because of how they treat their kids.

Alma and her husband beat them in order to teach them lessons, and they think it’s funny to hide from them until they cry. Worse, she thinks that her kids were “bad” because they “cried and complained, … pooped at idiotic random times, … stepped on broken glass,” and had the audacity to wake up from their naps when their parents were trying to have sex. Her astounding stupidity, as a mother, is meant to be funny, and it is, but it also muddies any sympathy I might have for her.

Debi, who’s been introduced, through Alma’s thoughts, as a crazy hippie, substitutes strawberry yogurt for milk, in macaroni-and-cheese, and when her daughter and friend protest, she says that in ninety percent of the world, that would pass for a “fucking feast,” and then she scoffs that her daughter’s friend should be shocked by her use of “the F-bomb.”

True, this little faux-pas doesn’t sit in the same category of abuse that Alma and her husband dish out, but it belies a clueless lack of boundaries, and when we learn that Debi’s daughter up and leaves home, we imagine that Debi’s insensitivity is probably representative of a larger, broader cluelessness. I liked Debi, and I felt bad when I heard about her daughter, but I thought of her more as a clown than a sympathetic character.

Gratuitous Creativity?

In contrast, “Too Good to Be True” seems “honest,” or straightforward, in the sense that the characters with whom we’re asked to sympathize are also those with whom most people would feel comfortable identifying. It seems “dishonest,” or overly contrived, to ask readers to sympathize with characters that they also look down upon.

“Mother’s Day” has flash, imagination, and wit in just about every line, whereas “Too Good to be True” reads again more straightforwardly, as if it really were, perhaps, a true story. You might be inspired to think that the title of the story is commenting ironically about this, and it might be, but mainly it’s referring to the fact that the good-girl-turned-bad has come home, and intends to stay. I think this straightforward style works because the story itself is compelling without imaginative accouterments.

In “Too Good to Be True,” there’s a snicker-trigger or two, but very little actual humor, unless you count a tender moment when the daughter learns how to say “I farted” in Mandarin for the benefit of her little brother. “Mother’s Day” is a hoot, replete with snappy comebacks, over-the-top characters, and wonderful lines, one of my favorites being “And [the kids’ had] turned out badly. Worked dumb jobs and had never married and were always talking about their feelings.” It’s a funny line, because “always talking about one’s feelings” is not a very marketable trait, but this is rarely discussed in employment books, probably because it seems so obvious. And the line is also tinged with darkness, because of course her kids are always talking about their feelings; they have a lot of feelings to talk about, largely because of her neglect and abuse.

So “Mother’s Day” is entertaining, but to what end? To the extent that stories can “speak,” “Mother’s Day” might be saying, “See what happens to really stupid, clueless people? Isn’t it funny and sad?” whereas “Too Good to Be True” might be saying, “When daughters go bad, and run off, and then come home, and try to make good, and then leave again, etc., it’s heartbreaking.”

The difference is that “Mother’s Day” seems to be offering entertainment and diversion with a feeling of superiority, whereas “Too Good to Be True” is trying for catharsis through the sharing of trauma.

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