“Briefly less of a dope than usual”: On George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

Cover image by Deepali Rose Foster

Against my better judgement I bought into the “So long, 2020!” hype. Why not? 2020 sucked and, despite there being no evidence that it would be otherwise, it was nice to think 2021 wouldn’t.

On closer reflection, it seems unsurprising that it took just six days before an unprecedented political crisis struck America, as political upheaval, looming climate catastrophe, and the pandemic all failed to end when our 2020 planners did.

It feels as though decisive action and unwavering beliefs and ideals have never been more essential; that now is the time to plant our feet, dig in, and champion our points of view with as much gusto as we can muster.

Yet George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, published on January 12th of this year, reminds us that we are almost always at our best when we do not do that; that approaching our precarious relationships with the world and the people around us with compassion and consideration is essential now like rarely before – and does so through a writing masterclass-style exploration of a handful of 19th century Russian short stories by some of the masters of the form (Chekhov, Tolstoy, etc.).

Most people who have spent time writing, or thinking about writing, have likely read one of the hundred thousand click-baity articles promoting So-And-So’s 10 Tips for Consistently Superfantastic Writing, or stumbled upon collections of pithy writing advice from canonical authors (Hemingway’s problematic “Write drunk, edit sober” springs to mind, as does Jack Kerouac’s slightly baffling “Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind”). Such people might question why we need another one of these right now, while those unfamiliar with the genre of self-help solutions for aspiring authors probably wouldn’t pick up a book detailing the inner workings of six short stories written by aristocratic Russians in the 19th century.

I’ll admit to some scepticism myself. After the way Saunders captured (and, in a humble way, maybe even applied a little soothing balm to) the divisive zeitgeist of our age in Lincoln in the Bardo back in 2017, this new project felt a little… navel-gazey. But in my newfound Saunders fandom, I went out on a limb, picked it up, and found a book that was not only a joy to read but seemed to be about joy – and about many other things besides. Far from being a niche masterclass for aspiring writers, here was a book for readers, in the broadest sense of the word: readers not only of old Russian short stories, but of the world around them.

This, I think, is where the heart of this book lies and how A Swim avoids becoming another banal how-to:  forgoing all irony, Saunders believes that the part of the mind that reads a story is the same part that reads the world around us – and that learning to be more careful readers of stories can, as he writes, “urge us back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.” Untended, however, that same mind can fall into disuse, running on autopilot and becoming more susceptible to what he elsewhere calls the “lazy, violent, materialistic forces” around us.

In a way, it’s incidental that this book is about short stories; what it’s really about is paying attention, sustaining uncertainty and wonder, and keeping our minds humble. Short stories just make a great medium for thinking about that because they are so intentionally and minutely crafted: everything is there for a reason, and everything points a way to understanding a situation or a character who, within a few short pages, can go from a stranger to an intimate acquaintance – an understanding we are seldom afforded with the strangers we find ourselves so vehemently disagreeing or agreeing with on social media and in our communities. 

In the end, A Swim in a Pond is, at worst, like attending a book club with an exceedingly charming and funny host; at best it could be a spark for a modest but definite change in the way we read the world around us – hopefully, in a gentler and more compassionate light. Not a replacement for action and belief, but a check and balance on it.

The disconnect between stories and life is a sure thing, and the ideals of a book do not map happily onto the reality of the world in this year or any other. But, in the words of the author, it is a pleasure to work to put aside some of our limits, opinions, and pettiness, even temporarily, and “to have been, on the page, briefly less of a dope than usual.”

Article by Chris Margeson