The narrator is a male stripper in an airplane-themed strip club called Joysticks. When he heads home to his apartment in the Sea Oak apartment complex, we meet the family: Min, his sister, and her baby Troy, as well as Jade, his cousin, and her baby Mac, and Aunt Bernie. The next day, there is a shooting in the Sea Oak courtyard as the narrator returns home. Sea Oak is obviously an unsafe place, but they don’t have the money to move.
The next day, the narrator comes home to find Aunt Bernie dead and the apartment robbed. The funeral is quiet not from silent mourning exactly, but from the lack of anything to say about Bernie, who never did much else besides work and end up with nothing to show for it. Later that evening they get a call that the grave has been defaced and Aunt Bernie’s body is missing.
The next day, when he gets home from work, Aunt Bernie is alive again, dirty and mangled. She tells the family that they are gonna get out of Sea Oak with her plan that will generate more money for the family. She realized that she wasted her whole life and this is her chance to start over.
The next day, the narrator goes back to work, coming across Angela, a girl he dated throughout senior year. Queue flashback. His dad died, Ma had to work more, Min stooped to drugs, and the family was in such shambles that a drunk relative peed in the dishwasher as the narrator and Angela were making out, which was the last straw in their relationship. The narrator went home. Aunt Bernie, not only a household dictator, but her body parts were gradually falling off her body. The next morning, Aunt Bernie is a pile of body parts. She questions why she ended up with nothing and dies again.
What makes it interesting?
One of the things that kept me interested was that the narrator seemed like the only member of the family that wasn’t crazy or deluded, and is in a potentially degrading line of work, but does it because he knows his dysfunctional family needs the money, so I root for him because of that I think.
When things take a turn for the worse when Aunt Bernie dies, the story turns into sci-fi in the middle of the plot. This added a completely new element to the story. It might be difficult to accept this supernatural addition to what seemed to be (possibly futuristic) realistic fiction, but it worked because Aunt Bernie’s character shifted greatly from being alive to dead, and also because George Saunders describes dead Aunt Bernie with having zombie-like features, and Saunders just sort of makes you accept this shift, because the story continues at full speed.
What can we imitate?
One of the things I focused on that I thought Saunders did really well was how Saunders made it very easy to identify inner conflict in the narrator when he was asked to perform and do certain things at Joysticks. The narrator thinks by presenting what is asked of him and if he does it or not. It is his job to do what is asked of him, just like anyone else’s job, but sometimes what is asked of the main character is too much for him. His job is to get bossed around, and he’s good at it, but at times when he is struggling with himself, he won’t be bossed around. For example, he is asked in the beginning of the story to show a picture of the hottest stripper’s butt to a client, and he does. But when he is asked to bend over a certain way to pick up a dollar, he can’t bring himself to do it, as he’s thinking about his late aunt. The specific technique of asking a question in the conscience of a character, and how the character responds is a great way tool for characterization, as well as showing concrete change in the character.
The other thing that I focused on while going through the story was the feelings toward Aunt Bernie, before death as well as after death, portrayed by the other characters. Before she dies, the narrator feels she is a loving woman, but is simply so positive that it is annoying when she refuses to look at the many downsides of living in Sea Oak. They seem to pity her for the uneventful life she is stuck in. After she dies for the first time and comes back to life, Min, Jade and the narrator are characterized by the progression of attitudes toward Aunt Bernie. First they are scared of zombie Bernie. Then, they resent her for what she is putting them through. Finally, they think fondly of how she used to be and the narrator pities her once more when she asks why she ended up with nothing. George Saunders completes the arc of the feelings toward Bernie by returning the narrator to a sense of pity for Bernie. So, we can use attitudes toward a certain character to characterize other characters, generate sympathy for the characters (I sure do feel sorry for Bernie) and also show that the characters changed.
How important was the flashback about Angela Silveri to your understanding of the story? Was it important?
What importance do the babies Troy and Mac hold in the story?
What literary device does George Saunders use to keep the story grounded?