I came across CommComm while trawling the internet for amusement during a particularly tedious day in my job as an editor at a daily newspaper in Thailand. Saunders is a master of the short story (not to mention a self-aware and kind-hearted individual – have a look at his speech to Syracuse University graduates in 2013, link below).
CommComm was my introduction to his dizzying world. Reading it awakened me to the short story’s potential to be more than just profound, but to offer a glimpse into a new dimension; to be hilarious, an adventure, to peel the rose tint off your eyes so that they see the world raw and anew.
Reading CommComm was like receiving a pleasurable electric shock. The story jolted me from the mundanity of my surroundings, and its effect remained for the whole day and lingered into the rest of the week. As a writer and avid reader of shorts, I already knew how electrifying the form could be, but CommComm moved the benchmark with its ability to excite me, scare me and stimulate my curiosity.
This is a story steeped in paranoia. In it, Saunders creates a landscape of such uncertainty that his reader is constantly unsettled by a sense of persistent threat. He expertly manoeuvres the tectonic plates of the narrative, never allowing his readers a firm footing; expectations are repeatedly built up and broken down.
Before we’ve even read the story’s opening sentence, its title has given us a taste of the confusion awaiting us. ‘CommComm’ – an abbreviation of ‘Community Communications’, the faceless state department the story’s narrator is employed by – doesn’t say anything, it smacks of meaningless management-speak, an abbreviation that forgot why it was ever shortened, and, even in its full-form, still lacks meaning: it is just two pointless words rendered more pointless in contraction.
Compound words – SmallCows, ThermoTab – suggest in the world of CommComm, anything with the potential to be made into marketing speak and monetised probably already has been. These techniques are the nuts-and-bolts of the story’s unique lexicon, which for the reader, evoke sensations of having stumbled upon a secret world of intrigue and darkness.
Saunders’ writers toolbox is well-equipped with grammatical and syntactical techniques, but they aren’t gimmicks, they are explosives that strip away the potential predictability of the form down to its bare bones.
Saunders employs grammar and syntax to dislocate his readers the way a master craftsman uses his most delicate finishing tools. Acronyms are abundant – many of them are never explained as a way to compound their futility. Unlikely proper nouns – Closure, Disasters, Produce, Odours – are deployed with disorienting frequency to demarcate the boundary between the official and the unofficial, which, in CommComm’s world, can be the difference between life and death.
By reinventing the nuts and bolts of the story, Saunders marks his territory over its landscape. When you read Saunders, you enter his world, and if you don’t like it, you can just leave.
Like Orwell’s 1984 and Gilliam’s Brazil, CommComm uses bureaucracy as a foil for dystopian chaos. Meaningless abbreviations, pointless form-filling, privacy violations, cover-ups, disaster mitigation – these are the backbone of the tale. They are the shadows of the things they seek to represent or protect, and are therefore neutered and powerless: forms can’t keep loved ones safe; spying to protect freedom is counterintuitive; abbreviations dilute significance rather than increase it. In CommComm’s world there is nothing firm enough to cling to; the walls are papier-mâché and the food is plastic.
The story takes place in a technologically-advanced yet spiritually-bereft landscape: dystopia’s bread-and-butter. Here, technology and bureaucracy have evolved exponentially, but microwaveable meat is the dish of the day. Corporate mindfulness techniques are relied upon for respite from the pressures of a demanding office job and an elderly couple relive their assassination as evening entertainment.
The modernity of technological innovation and the language of pseudo-spirituality in the workplace stand in contrast to the old-fashioned colloquialisms used by the narrator’s parents, reminiscent of the husband and wife in Beckett’s Endgame. The opposing forces of old and new further dislocate the reader, as does the interplay between familiar and unfamiliar; Puerto Ricans are still go-to men for affordable manual labour and foreigners are viewed with suspicion, yet the dead re-appear as holograms and heady visualisation techniques are standard coping strategies for even the squarest office drone.
Dystopian stories can often be dark, and CommComm is no exception, but at its heart is an edifying call: Whenever humans limit the potential for interconnectedness – whether by hiding beneath the mask of bureaucracy or destroying nature and culture in an insatiable quest for innovation – they move further away from their most fundamental resource: Love.
Underneath the unsettling imagery and narrative trickery, CommComm is a love story. It is about the narrator’s love for his murdered parents; a misanthropic employee’s dedication to his disabled wife; a Christian zealot’s acceptance of another man’s child as his own. The importance of love is CommComm’s destination, but the journey is a rollercoaster of paranoia, fear and deception.
What better measure of the power of short fiction can there be than for its deftly curated atmosphere to leave the page and enmesh itself in the machinations of daily life? It is as though in its brevity short fiction gives the reader a more concentrated dose of its mood, and CommComm exemplifies this ability.
I love this story because it made me see the world with new eyes, and for a series of letters placed in a particular order that is really something.
The NY Times reproduction of George Saunders’ speech to graduates of Syracuse University in 2013.
Read the story CommComm in New Yorker