As a rule, I don’t consume audiobooks or listen to podcasts of authors reading their work. But I’ll pay money for a recording of George Saunders reading his story “Victory Lap” last night at the Folger Shakespeare Theater. On the page, the story asks the reader to spend a little time puzzling out how it ought to be read. It concerns two awkward teens and a sinister adult, shifting perspectives from character to character, with various other voices rattling inside their heads; brackets, italics, and interruptions abound, and quotation marks are absent.
Sorting all that out involves a little work. But he trick to the story, Saunders made clear last night, isn’t to fuss with it but to go through it fast. As his rapid delivery made clear, “Victory Lap” is largely about what it means to be an adolescent sorting out your own moral code while being mindful of others’—you’re processing, processing, processing. Add the facts that one character’s life is in danger and that another is on the track team, and the rushed pace captures the kind of anxiety Saunders is concerned with. Of course, it helps that Saunders is a tremendous ventriloquist for his characters; the opening section of the story introduces a host of voices, from Mom to a teacher to a baby deer, and he captures all of them as distinct, comic, and slightly strange, like Disney voice artists who were just a little too off-kilter for Uncle Walt’s purposes.
Saunders wasn’t slickly performing the story, the way some writers do when they read their work. He’d just found a way to fully inhabit the characters he’d imagined; if the audience happened to be entertained at the same time, so much the better. Fiction always tends to come off as funnier when it’s read in front of a crowd—you don’t take wit, even subtle wit, for granted in the everyday world, so it catches you short when you hear it out loud. But it’s still hard to be entertaining. Case in point: George Saunders. In a 2007 New Yorker podcast, he gives an engaged but flat reading of Isaac Babel‘s story “You Must Know Everything.” It may be that Babel’s work doesn’t quite lend itself to the kind of extroverted style that can make a story sound good, but Joshua Ferris didn’t have an easier time of it reading Saunders’ “Adams” for the same podcast last fall. It’s easy enough to sound colloquial as Saunders does, but hard to sound like the characters are living through you. That’s a gift.