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The George Saunders Guide to Compassion, Forgiveness, and Finding Hope Amid Dystopia | GQ

The great American writer and avuncular genius offers some wide-ranging advice on how to channel your ambitions, manage your anxieties, decide who to marry, be your best self, and find hope in strange times.

By Clay Skipper, October 19, 2022

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

At 63, George Saunders, a one-time geophysical engineer who emerged, in middle age, as perhaps America’s most celebrated fiction writer, finds himself navigating questions about who he really is. “There’s so many different selves bouncing around and they come to the microphone at different times,” he said recently, over the phone from his house in California. “At this point in my life, I look back and go, okay, what was the self that I most liked? And how did I encourage that self to come forward? And when am I at my worst? And why does that person show up? That idea that our moral presence in the world has to do with urging these better selves forward.”

This question of evolving selves is one of the threads holding together the stories in Saunders’s newest collection, Liberation Day. As in his past collections—including CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award—his characters often find themselves inhabiting absurd fantasy worlds (this time around those include an underground amusement park, a dystopian human entertainment system, and a dark political protest organization) while navigating an all-too-real question: Why do we so often fail to be our best selves?