Pastoralia by George Saunders

Pastoralia‘ is a short story by George Saunders published in ‘The New Yorker’ in the year, 2000. George Saunders won the prestigious O’Henry Award in 2001 for this short story.

It is the unexpected setting of this story that captures your mind from the beginning. A portrayal of our lives in 21st century in the truest sense. We are having our share of problems but I will not complain because ‘I’m Thinking Postive/Saying Positive’, with pun intended. The first few paragraphs zap you round in understanding the context.

To begin with, we are in Pastoralia, a sort of theme park where people come to see a depiction of life from Days of Christ to the Cavemen period in a realistic setting located in an isolated mountainous area.

It is rather absurd that in Pastoralia, humans are real but the animals grazing in the pastures are robots. The employers are strict and do not allow the actors/ employees to deviate from the set rule (even when it may seem inhuman or unnecessary). So, we have a dedicated employee and a not so perfect employee to take the story forward. 

The story begins with an unnamed narrator inside a cave, pretending to be a caveman. He starts the day by bringing goat from the big slot, that he flints while his partner, Janet lights the fire to cook the meat. Their day is spent pretending to play the part of cavemen which ends with the dimming of lights working as a signal. At the end of each day, the narrator has to submit a ‘Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form’ via fax. The narrator continues to send a positive response to the questions, almost as a routine despite the shortcomings of Janet.

The narrator has an ailing child who is undergoing medical treatment, requiring huge expenditure. The fax is the only medium that serves as communication between him and his wife, getting an update on his son’s health.

Janet is about fifty years old, not very attractive and working as a cave lady at Pastoralia for the last six years. She is dependent on this job, as she has an infirm mother at home and a grown-up substance abuser son at the rehabilitation center. Janet cannot play her part with sincerity.

The rules of the cave require the two inhabitants to follow the routine: wake up at the set time, dispose of their waste, collect food for the day, make fire and cook the goat and spend the day pretending to catch some bugs and mime or grunt instead of having a comprehensible talk. Their failures are immediately punished by withholding food and the inhabitants survive on reserved crackers. On the other end, they are provided with delicacies and additional food when reckoned by the management. 

Once, a couple comes to visit the cave. The husband suggests to his wife on looking at the caves on how their place of living is better than the cramped up cave quarters. Then he says that probably in future someone might be representing his lifestyle in a similar way as the caveman is doing in Pastoralia. It gives an angle on how people perceive the past. The wife is disgusted by looking at the goat roasted inside the cave. In the modern age, we see the packaged meat and forget about the barbarity at the slaughterhouse. As the woman says, “When you ate meat, it was like you were eating actual meat, the flesh of a dead animal, an animal that maybe had been licking your hand just a few hours before.” The juxtaposition of modern versus ancient and then the present-day grinds of life is a constant theme.

There is a family running a little shop for the employees at the theme park. Marty, the owner of the shop expects his son to bear the burden of the family expectations. He is able to send him to boarding school with the money earned at the theme park. There is a heart-touching section on this little, poor boy’s predicament in rich children’s school. The rich children get enrolled in camps and have good food, clothes and shoes. While this boy’s shoes split up. A decision by the management leads to the closure of the shop and puts an end to Marty’s dreams for his son.

At Pastoralia, there seems to be an imminent management decision to be taken towards staff remixing. Here, it is the nuance of the writing that brings forth the modern corporate functioning at the higher management level and their relation with the field level or lower rank employees. The narrator is informed by Greg Nordstrom (presumably higher executive of Pastoralia) about the staff reshuffling and coaxes him to report honestly about the shortcomings of Janet. According to him, it is negative to withhold the correct feedback or as he puts it, ‘valuable info.’ I really liked how Nordstrom pecks in to say, “You’re like the opposite of that little boy who cried Wolf. You’re like that little boy who cried No Wolf, when a wolf was chewing on his leg, by the name of Janet.” Now, it is upon the narrator whether he chooses to tell about his subpar colleague to get his position stronger in Pastoralia.  

George Saunders incorporates the section on human waste disposal and not the environment angle but the employment management issues. Initially, we are told that the narrator takes the human disposal in the refuse bags which is discarded at the specified area of the park premises. Later a letter arrives from the management that points out on the tussle between calling the financial deductions from pay as ‘Disposal Debit’ versus ‘Shit Fee’, the latter term being insisted by some employees. The question before the top hierarchy is, “Does it provide benefit to us when you defecate?” The pun is superbly placed and ends with the austerity measure being taken, by sending less food. Instead of real goat, the narrator gets a fake goat with a message to treat it as real!

Another family visits the cave and things go overboard with Janet. Janet is having her share of personal difficulties with her son entering the cave unauthorized, running away from the rehab and then being caught by the police. There is a verbal spat between the visitors and Janet. And, this time, the narrator sends the true feedback report. Based on the report, Janet is replaced by Linda, the new cave lady who seems to be a dedicated worker and authentic in her enactment.

The end leaves you with the feeling of having the same life as the narrator. It is as if we are all playing the part of caveman isolated from our family and happiness, with the drudgery of our professional lives. There is so much wrong with our present world, in such an apparent form and yet we continue.

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