George Saunders is on somewhat less sure-footing in non-fiction, if only because his impulses aren't primarily journalistic, so to speak, but are rather, in a sense, impressionistic: he is attuned to the way life feels, sounds, smells, the way people speak and lie to each other; his best work reflects this, and it seems almost unfair to judge his essays and non-fiction without taking this into account: his forays beyond fiction are, in many ways, reflections and reassertions of what and how much of the world seems to him. I think that The Braindead Megaphone is still, largely, a very good work, the lapses of which are primarily in the areas in which one might expect something more distinctly journalistic, or where he attempts to editorialize without the artistic gauze of his fiction that make his sardonic sensibilities and moral, ethical, cultural, or artistic intentions less blunt. This video is of a reading and discussion he held at Google Headquarters in California, in which he discusses some of his non-fiction, his considerations of writing, and how the MacArthur Fellowship has a contractual regulation preventing its recipients from buying 90 jet skis.
Here he reads from two works – the first of which, "Nostalgia," is available on the Art+Culture website here and The New Yorker website, where it was first published, here; it is a wonderful experimentation with the borders of non-fiction – and then spends a significant amount of time very thoroughly, intelligently, and graciously answering several very intelligent questions. He is a terrifically articulate speaker, his mind so well-honed toward creating generalizations and then finding means of dissecting those generalizations. In discussing his approach to researching what would become "The New Mecca," about Dubai, he discusses the effect of arriving in Dubai with predetermined notions of what he would encounter, and the value in and excitement of dismantling these notions: “The anxiety takes the form of massive conceptualizing on the front end, right? You want to know exactly what you’re going to do before you actually do the trip. So, for me, the thrill was to have this sort of packaged story – haves, have-nots, and all the things – and then go there and see the way it’s disrupted in reality.” This goes not just for writing; it goes for how people interpret the world. He says as much: “To the extent that we can imagine the world, we always imagine it smaller than it actually is. So, when we imagine the world small and then act boldly, we often make terrible mistakes.” It's so pithy and conceptually simple that it seems it cannot be accurate; but I think, after much time spent trying to take it apart and prove how foolish the statement is, that it bears tremendous truth. And his ideal means of crafting a story – his great and off-the-cuff description of the comedy behind satire is that it is about "being honest quicker than expected" – serves, to me it seems, as an ideal way of living: it is in the embrace of contradictions: “I think the highest form of human existence is to be able to have [contradictory beliefs] vibrating in your mind and then hold off on action until it’s absolutely necessary. To me, that’s what wisdom is. So, for me, writing is to try to contradict myself constantly, as sort of energetically as I can.” I'd first considered Saunders' stories, when it was initially introduced to me, as essentially just fun and inconsequential; turns out they ended up being the product of one of the wisest writers alive.