First published by the New Yorker in 1998, and subsequently included in the collection Pastoralia, “Sea Oak” is a tale of the bottom rung of contemporary American life, but with a twist.
There is a story that when Ben Stiller read “Sea Oak”, he laughed his ass off, and wanted to secure the rights to the story for a film treatment. Indeed, the humour, subtle and otherwise, in this story is one the most praised elements of the tale. A number of reviewers, having taken to “Sea Oak”, saw within it a biting satire of contemporary American life, especially in the way that Saunders takes on and mocks corporate brands. At times it felt that Sea Oak was placed alongside Dawn of the Dead in it’s attack on consumerist society.
Or so they say. Personally, I didn’t really read it the same way. For me, “Sea Oak” represents a different message, a different ethos which can only be properly summed up by the decrepit, dissolving Bernie – to succeed in life, you have to show your cock.
Now, before we get too carried away here, and before you get to wondering why I seem to be reviewing one short story rather than getting on with the presentation, I want you to know that there is a point, and though the road may be long and winding, there is a destination.
So, where were we?... Ah yes, that’s right. Show your cock.
In “Sea Oak”, Saunders creates a world that is just different enough from our own that we readers can effectively step outside the fictive universe and look down on the events as spectators who recognize the symbols, but are otherwise removed from the world of the story. A key reason for creating this distinct environment is that it better facilitates what the author needs for the story to function – the smooth and willing suspension of disbelief. As readers, when reading stories set in our own, known reality, we tend to notice and unfairly focus on the smallest details that intrude upon our sense of veritas, and in the real world, characters as breathtakingly stupid as Jade and Min would come across as caricatures (or as a misogynist projection), which would make the reader’s ability to understand and assimilate the author’s message much more difficult.
But in a world that is not our world, a world that is just slightly off enough to seem somewhat like our own, but clearly distinct and different, then the author has far more leeway to establish norms of behaviour and the rules of the environment, and, conversely, the reader has more leeway to accept those norms and rules.*
A very powerful and literarily awarded example of this is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let You Go,” where the unreality of the world is enough to keep the reader from being frightened off by the concept, yet enough like our world that the pathos and tragedy can flow through the soul.
All this is well and good, but the question still begs – why? Why would a writer dip into magic and the fantastic? Generally, or at least the reason I have found, is that they do so because they got something to say. That is, they have a message.
All stories contain themes or overarching messages. The difference is the focus. Where in literature a story might address broader themes such as “growing up gay in southwestern Wisconsin”, or “nostalgia, loss, and sisterhood,” stories that delve into magic and the fantastic tend to have far more focused themes. In the case of “Sea Oak” the message is not “corporate/consumerist America sucks, dude” but “dude, corporate/consumerist America sucks, so what are you going to do about it?”
In “Sea Oak”, Saunders elicits the fantastic by slightly caricaturizing every aspect of the story. The characters are extreme (a bit too stupid, a bit too passive, a bit too timid), and the actions and events likewise. At the beginning of the story, in the club “Joysticks”, a worker, with a family and limited prospects, is summarily fired with a callousness that is rare in the western world. In the real world there would be labour laws, or even a sense of decency to draw upon. By opening up with this symbolic summary execution, Saunders is able to illustrate that we’re not in Kansas City anymore, Chief.
Saunders peppers the text with brand names that are clearly made up, but generic enough that what they represent is recognizable. This adds depth to the slight feeling of otherness the text evokes as the story progresses. At first glance, the message that seems to be developing is that this world (which is a lot like our world) traps the people in it (as, I suppose, our world is supposed to also do). Jade and Min are uneducated and stuck at home, too ignorant to care for their kids, too unskilled to have any hope of bettering their lives. Bernice is a caregiver and a doormat, she takes things as they come, and has let life just piss all over her, and did it with a smile. Then there is the narrator, who’s very timidity traps him in perpetual mediocrity. But then something changes.
So far we have the fantastic, the otherness that sets the scene. In “Sea Oak” the fantastic manifests in the oddness of the world. But the other factor, which is what will drive the story forward and the point home, is magic. In stories of magic and the fantastic, magic is the deus ex machina, the big dumb object, the macguffin. In every fairy tale or folk tale with a magical element, magic is what brings about the resolution, it is what allows for the change needed for the story to resolve, or for the point to be made. In “Sea Oak,” Bernie coming home for one last weekend is the magic that drives the story to its conclusion. Bernie’s rage and shame at letting life walk all over her has propelled her from the grave and briefly into the arms of her family, her poor, useless, stupid, deluded family, with a singular purpose in mind – to tell them to get off their asses and get a move on.
The message that Bernie so colorfully and emphatically communicates is that the world is as it is, and nothing is going to change that. But how you take on the world can, and must, change. This very Ayn Randish exhortation is accompanied by decisive action. She shows them how their inaction will directly result in the death of Troy, and in their slow living death in the Sea Oak tenements.
When Bernie sends her thumbprints onto patrons ho would be willing to pay for “extra services” from the narrator at his job at Joysticks, the intent is to show the narrator that the world is full of all kinds, and that there is no upside to being timid when you are stuck on the bottom.
Though the narrator does not follow Bernie’s instructions, by the time Bernie crumbles into mush pushed into a hefty bag and dumped into the back of a K-car, the narrator has his epiphany and finally understands.
Had this story been set in our real, known world, it would have come off like an after school special, or a Sunday sermon - something you would nod your head to, but otherwise not listen to. However, by anchoring this story in magic and the fantastic, Saunders is able to pull us up close and whisper something in our ear -
The moral, the message in this tale of magic and the fantastic is that in life, even if you don’t have much, you have to use what you have. Or, as Bernie would say, you have to show your cock.
* It is a very common, and very effective technique that is most often employed by literary writers who want to go slumming in the genre district, yet be able to hold their heads up high and claim they have done no such thing.