Dilettante's Diary

SEPTEMBER 16, 2021

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Reviewed here: "The Mom of Bold Action" -- Short Fiction by George Saunders

The Mom of Bold Action (Short Fiction) by George Saunders, The New Yorker, August 30, 2021

You know you're in for something extraordinary with a George Saunders story. This one can be a bit difficult to get into, though. It starts with a lot of gobbeldy-gook about things like a tree that wanted to come inside and a cookie that wanted to be eaten so that the rest of the cookies in the box would be saved.

Turns out we're in the mind of a young mom who is trying to think up some children's stories that could be published. As a sort of running-gag throughout, there's the repeated note that, while thinking of herself as a writer, she doesn't actually ever sit down to write.

But we turn to the real world around her when her little son returns home from a foray into an area of town that's out-of-bounds for him. Seems he's been roughed up a bit by a stranger. From that point on, the woman and her husband plunge down a rabbit's hole of fear, suspicion and worry, fuelled by notions of revenge and vindication. At first, it seems that what the story shows most vividly is how parents' concerns about their kids spin wildly out of proportion, losing touch with any rational perspective on reality. These parents find themselves contemplating -- and even committing -- "bold actions", as per the title -- that they'd never have thought possible. While this is going on, the woman is second-guessing herself, wondering how she's finding herself in this state. Her thoughts and her husband's comments range wildly into judgements about relatives, the cops and humanity itself.

After a while, you realize this isn't just about parenting. All of us go through tailspins of thoughts about recrimination, about guilt, justice, forgiveness and fairness, about whether or not we're good people, about whether we can live with some lying and conniving.

It's all so convincing and familiar because Mr. Saunders has hit on a writing style that is flip, casual and absolutely contemporary. And the nightmare scenario is made all the more horrifying by the thread of comedy running through it. (We never quite lose the quirky tone of the voice that was trying to concoct kids' stories for publication.)

To my mind, though, there may be one slight weakness to the story: it's the fact that the crux of the story depends on the nearly-identical appearance of two strangers. That seems a little too coincidental for the most believable kind of fiction. However, it doesn't in any way diminish the astonishing impact of the story.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com