If something funny comes my way — an article about dog whisperers, let’s say — I am sometimes reduced to responding with the shorthand “LOL,” though the truth is few stories make me Laugh Out Loud. The exception: a piece by George Saunders. His work unmasks me. Everything that I feel — good and bad — beams outward.
“The Incredible Buddha Boy,” from GQ, has that panoptic effect. Published in May 2006, it’s a story about Ram Bahadur Bomjon, a 15-year-old Nepalese boy who had been meditating for seven months, supposedly without food or water, inside a hollow tree. Sent there to check it out, Saunders returned with a story bearing his trademark grooves: wide-eyed glee and an exaltation of the not-altogether-commonplace counterbalanced by dueling self-flagellation and penance. We get this right from the start, first with his conflicting emotions about whether to accept the assignment, and then on the plane to Katmandu:
I’m mad at myself for eating two roolz during the last Round of Roolz, roolz that seem to have instantaneously made my pants tighter. I’ve already read all my books and magazines, already stood looking out the little window in the ﬂight-attendant area, already complimented a severe blond ﬂight attendant on Austrian Airlines’ excellent service, which elicited an oddly Austrian reaction: She immediately seemed to ﬁnd me reprehensible and weak.
On the bright side, only six more hours on this plane, then two hours in the Vienna airport and an eight-hour ﬂight to Katmandu.
… I want my legs to stop hurting. I want something to drink. I even kind of want another hot roll.
Seven months, I think? The kid has been sitting there seven months?
An approximation of the divine, of grace just beyond reach — faith, to put it plainly — are part of the geography of Saundersland, though Saunders elides mention that he is a practicing Buddhist. Knowing that (which you would, if you read the reverent profile of Saunders in last December’s New York Times magazine) might help a reader wrestle with the assumption that glib spirituality will register throughout the story. It does, and it doesn’t.
At one point, there’s a short dream sequence, in which the shaggy-haired meditating teenager, rumored to be the iterative Buddha, is poking Saunders’ chest with a stick:
“Don’t go for the heart,” he says.
I don’t get it. “Should I write about you?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says, “go ahead, just tell the truth, doubts and contradictions and all. I don’t mind.”
The contradictions are the conceit. Saunders’s short stories and reams of cultural essays all hinge on Major Realizations. You won’t just get writerly exposition but also Moral Import, Aphoristic Snap, Compassion. There will be several opportunities to break from the page and dwell on the material beyond it. If you’re in a crowded place, you’ll begin to generously consider the interior lives of those around you.
In theory, this is presumptuous. Superficial, even. On what basis are we to “consider the interior lives” of anyone, however noble it makes us feel? Shouldn’t we first ungenerously consider ourselves? That’s what “The Incredible Buddha Boy,” and everything Saunders writes, does. It’s why such detours on the page are not detours at all, but rather a close surveillance of his deracinated self, in transit. He writes:
The mind is a machine that is constantly asking: What would I prefer? Close your eyes, refuse to move, and watch what your mind does. What it does is become discontent with That Which Is. A desire arises, you satisfy that desire, and another arises in its place. This wanting and rewanting is an endless cycle for which, turns out, there is already a name: samsara. Samsara is at the heart of the vast human carnival: greed, neurosis, mad ambition, adultery, crimes of passion, the hacking to death of a terrified man on a hillside in the name of A More Pure and Thus Perfect Nation — and all of this takes place because we believe we will be made happy once our desires have been satisfied.
I know this. But I’m still full of desire.
Reviewing David Foster Wallace’s “Both Flesh And Not” for Bookforum, Gideon Lewis-Kraus contended that Wallace (the “great writer-worrier of his time”) felt uneasy about the artifice of “magazine writing.” Saunders, like Wallace, appends self-deprecation and humility to the logorrhea of reporting. It doesn’t mean their writing forgoes truth; but it feels like a different and more urgent sort. Their moral truth might seem softer than the sharp, satisfying crack offered by political journalism, but to ignore it would be dangerous.
A few dozen paragraphs pass before Saunders finally lays an eye on Bomjon, who has apparently remained affixed, for months, to the roots of a fig tree, so that one day he may summon George Saunders:
Does he recognize me, in me, something special? Has he been, you know, kind of waiting for me? In the midst of my final prostration, I realize: His hand didn’t move, dumb ass. It was wishful thinking. It was ego, nimrod: The boy doesn’t move for seven months but he can’t help but move when George arrives, since George is George and has always been George, something very George-special?
Though I’ve been LOL’ing for pages, this LOL is the clearest transmission to my own heart. There’s always that narcissistic sensibility, emboldened by the crummy rhetoric of social media, that we are our very own brand of special. That our individuality — the multitude of our needs, our amplified snark, our clever missives — deserves purchase in real time. But how often do we curb that impulse? How often are we implicitly encouraged to ramp it up?
Saunders’ entire story humanizes that impulse, and a few others. His writing isn’t a diagnostic on what you should be, but how. “How not to revel in shame” or “How to laugh at yourself” or “How to detect your own bullshit.”
Yes, there’s plenty of the goofy spectacle. The Nepali capital of Katmandu is a “sprawling Seussian city where prayer flags extend from wacky tower to strange veranda to tilting spire-of-uncertain-purpose,” where the people include a “woman with a goiter the size of a bowling ball,” “guys inexplicably beating the crap out of what looks like purple cotton candy,” “a harried Western woman with several mouth sores,” and the “Nepali Robert Downey Jr.” He writes:
A woman whose face has been burned or torn off walks past me, running some small errand, an errand made heartbreaking by the way she carries herself, which seems to signify: I’m sure this will be a very good day! Here is a former Pepsi kiosk, now barbed-wired and manned by Nepalese soldiers armed for Maoists; here a Ping-Pong table made of slate, with brick legs. I cross a mythical bleak vacant lot I’ve seen in dreams, a lot surrounded by odd Nepali brick high-rises like a lake surrounded by cliffs, if the lake were dry and had a squatting, peeing lady in the middle of it. Averting my eyes, I see another woman, with baby, and teeth that jut, terrifyingly, straight out of her mouth, horizontally, as if her gums had loosened up and she had tilted her teeth out at ninety degrees. She stretches out a hand, jiggles the baby with the other, as if to say: This baby, these teeth, come on, how are we supposed to live?
But a caution against mistaking these excerpted quotes and passages as summary. They’re no good that way. What they — and Saunders — ask, rather, is that the reader inject himself into the story fully, the way its author has. The idea is to be attentive, inquisitive, and very, very still.