George Saunders’ “Sea Oak”

Please address the following questions in your response.  Remember to keep this brief–about a paragraph or so.

This piece incorporates elements of genre fiction (the zombie/horror story), but goes in unexpected directions with it.  Does it work?  Why/why not?

What are Saunders’ obsessions?  What would you say is his writerly project, and how does he go about exploring it in this particular piece?


25 responses to “George Saunders’ “Sea Oak”

  1. 1) I was caught off guard when Aunt Bernice came back as a zombie. Her after life personality contrasted her living personality big time. Does it work? Yes, I believe the zombie genre works. Saunders was trying to teach the reader a lesson. I have learned a valuable lesson from “Sea Oak.” A person is either alive or dead. I am still alive, so it is important to make the most out of it. Aunt Bernice was the epitome of the overly optimistic person who gets taken advantage of all the time. Unfortunately, Min and Jade are right. Aunt Bernice died without living her life. She worked at a minimum wage job, she’s never been married, and never owned anything. Yes, Aunt Bernice came back from the dead and her personality was completely different. Conversely, zombie Bernice was the epitome of the overly pessimistic person. She was pissed off because she never took any risks in her life. She ordered the girls around and swore a lot.

    2) Initially, I thought the story was going to be about two dumb blonde girls who were going to end up in prison for doing something stupid. I was completely wrong. I think Aunt Bernice is definately the focal point of the story. Saunder’s obession is very perverse. He writes about the dead, zombies, and guys showing their cocks to eager women. As I said before, I think his project is to teach a lesson to those with self-esteem issues. Aunt Bernice never took any risks her life and look what happened to her in the end of the story. She came back to life as a zombie and regretted the fact that she did not live her life to her fullest potential. Overall, this was well written and funny.

    • Thanks, Klaus! I agree that Aunt Bernie regretted the way her life turned out. Others, it might be interesting to consider how Aunt Bernie’s regret plays out in this story (ultimately, what happens to her?), and what that might suggest about Saunders’ project.

  2. 1. The unexpected zombie genre was definitely a twist in the story. I did not think Aunt Bernie was going to come back to life, especially in deteriorating pieces, but I can see how the author uses it to make a point that one must work hard to get somewhere in life. The zombie genre did somewhat work for me in terms of trying to get the family out of the slums. However, since the story was so dramatic in the beginning I do not think Aunt Bernie coming back as a Zombie was necessarily the best choice as a story line. I can see the lesson/theme behind the story, but it did not really catch me.

    2. I think Sauders’ obsessions have to do with living a troubled life and trying to get out of it. He goes about exploring this by using the unmarried mothers with babies, the brother who strips for a living, and an Aunt that works for minimum wage. I really saw the struggle that Sauders was trying to paint, especially describing the neighborhood that the family was living in. Overall I liked what he did what that part of the story, it was just when the zombie came into the picture it just threw me off a little bit. I suppose I was expecting more out of the story than the Aunt coming back to life ordering her family what to do.

    • Thanks, Paul. I wonder if the zombie element was chosen to add humor to what otherwise could have been a *very* bleak story. Others, along these lines, what else might Saunders be suggesting about hard work?

  3. The genre fiction element that Saunders incorporated into this story worked on a few different levels. Her “resurrection” not only provided humor to keep the story from being too morose, but it served as a wakeup call for the siblings. I like that an Aunt Bernie zombie (the antithesis of an alive Aunt Bernie) had to come back and be the family’s “savior” but some aspects to me felt superfluous, like the use of Bernie’s thumbprints. I would’ve liked to have seen more change (or at least the beginnings of one) amongst the siblings—like if the story had ended with the three of them signing a lease for a better apartment. I wanted to read more about how Bernie’s visit affected them and what it inspired in them.

    After reading another Saunders short story (“Puppy”) I think his obsession is fighting to create a hopeful future that contradicts a messed up past or present. I think Saunders uses this theme to show us that no one is trapped in a miserable, unfulfilling and unsuccessful life and that there is always a way out—we just have to work towards it. In “Sea Oak” the characters are all living in a pretty crappy present without many aspirations or much hope. He employs the zombie Bernie as the catalyst for change amongst the siblings. Through her character we see that she regrets the life she had while living and how determined she is to do it right the second time around. Aunt Bernie’s aspirations as a zombie juxtapose the absence of aspirations of her living nieces and nephew. Her second death emphasizes the fact that she can’t have that second chance at life (because she’s dead) and serves as a wake-up call to Min, Jade and their brother that they need to turn their pathetic lives around.

  4. 1.) Though Saunders uses a horror story element of Aunt Bernie coming back from the dead, it’s not really as horrific as it is funny. Sure, if you think about it, it would be disgusting to have a talking corpse in your living room, smelling of “a combo of wet cellar and rotten bacon.” But when Saunders has her speak the way she does – cursing, urging her nephew to “show his cock”, complaining about how awful her life was and how she died a virgin (and her plan to have sex with movie-star-like men) – it such the exact opposite of the Bernie that she was in real life that it’s just funny and sad. It also betrays Saunders background as a Catholic because he’s clearly playing with religious ideas like Jesus returning from the dead (what would that smell like, look like or play out if he were human?) and the beatific role of the Virgin Mary with her paralleled experience of defacement as Father Brian’s statue and Aunt Bernie’s grave. Aunt Bernie, returning from the grave, falls apart whereas Father Brian’s statue, with his scrubbing, is soon as good as new. And the distinction he makes that the statue becomes as good as new whereas “She herself of course is always good as new” is important. Aunt Bernie was human even if her life was one of sacrifice and she can’t be as good as new no matter how Virgin Mary-like she lived her life.

    2.) I LOVE this story! Saunders presents a surrealistic invented version of the future of American life. And not such a far-off imagined future life. He uses recognizable names – FedEx, Mayflower (the moving company), and, though not a known name today, Roy Clark (that Ma and Aunt Bernie went to see on the one trip of her lifetime) was born in 1933 and is still alive at this moment according to Wikepedia. But against those current real things and person, he has DrugTown, FoodKing, FoodSoQuick, Stars-n-Flags for dinner, etc. These are lampoons on where he sees our society going. Aunt Bernie forcing Min to make food is a lampoon (as is tearing the door off of the microwave). The main character (whose name I couldn’t find even after a reread) being a sex worker is a lampoon. The story is rife with jokes about our current culture and where it seems it is going. This story is so fun to read because of them. But, despite all that fun, the real focus is on unfairness and the class divide that has, once again (assuming it ever left), this country.

  5. I apologize…I have to add the TV show lampoons and the GED “studying” the girls do during commercials. Hysterical! “Man, what an optometrist.” Okay, I think I’m done now. Next time I won’t be so long-winded, I promise.

    • Thanks, Kris! I agree with you–the story is really funny, and very fun to read. And I think you’re correct in that Saunders is using all this exaggerated humor to illustrate certain things about social and economic class. Others, what are your thoughts on this, and where do you see it played out in the story?

  6. 1. I definitely was not expecting Aunt Bernie to come back as a zombie. I don’t think that it was very successful because the entire time I was reading it, I was just thrown off. I couldn’t wrap my head around the story once Bernie was resurrected. Before her death the story was pretty believable so when her ear and arms were falling off I just couldn’t take the author serious. So for me, “Sea Oak” didn’t work. I think the author could have achieved the lesson in the story without introducing Aunt Bernie as a zombie.

    2. I think Saunder’s goal was to make the reader aware of living life to the fullest and not regret anything. I do think he made his point with Bernie coming back so unfulfilled, but I think the story would have been more successful if the Min and Jade changed their ways. I would have liked to see them earn money and get a new place. I think the author stopped short of completing the story. His goal would have been clearer if he didn’t end so abruptly.

    • Thanks, Michelle. Others, I’m interested that so many are bringing up “living life to the fullest” (while you’re alive!) as a theme of the story. Considering the circumstances of Aunt Bernie’s life (while she was alive, before she was a zombie), what do you think she could have done differently? Do you think Min and Jade will change their ways?

  7. This story goes in a completely unexpected direction. It was a complete shock when Aunt Bernie comes back as a zombie. It did not work for me. I felt the same way as Michelle when I was reading the story. It was just too strange and unrealistic. The thought of my Aunt coming back from the dead to sit in my living room, use vulgar commands, and end up with body parts all mixed up was not an appealing story line for me. I see the theme and messages that the author was trying to convey, but overall, I just did not really connect with or have a great interest in the story.

    Saunders obviously like the use of zombies and coming back from the dead to show the lesson that you only live once. He is trying to use Aunt Bernie as a way to tell the readers and characters that they will have regrets when life is over, and to try to minimize them as much as possible by taking action as soon as possible. However, I think that something was missing from the story near the end. It could have gone into more detail about whether or not the characters really learned a lesson from their dead Aunt or not.

  8. I agree whole-heartedly with Kris that this story very smartly and justly uses humor to convey subject matter that could easily become pitiful and sad in the hands of another author – that notion of wasted lives, of living without really living. It was, of course, an odd moment to discover zombie Bernie sitting in the living room, and I agree with some that it caught me of guard. But once past the initial surprise of it, I think from a technical standpoint, it was such a smart way to round-out Bernie’s character, to allow the reader to reflect upon her life through her own eyes. Before her resurrection, it was easy to feel sorry for her, both because her life felt so limited and sad, and because, perhaps more importantly, she seemed not to recognize it as such. As the narrator stated “sometimes she’s so nonbitter it gets on my nerves,” and to some extent, I agreed. Despite her optimism and selflessness, which are naturally likeable attributes, I found it difficult to fully like a character that doesn’t appear to want more for herself, who doesn’t appear to want to “live life to the fullest” as people have pointed out. Her return as this vulgar, controlling, opposite woman makes her dynamic and complex. Somehow in this unreal state, she became much more realistic for me. I liked that we didn’t have to reflect on her life through the eyes of the other characters, who don’t even know what to say at her funeral. Instead, she gets to tell us. She gets to be the one to give her death meaning for the others. “The world ain’t giving away nice lives.” I thought that was such an important line for her to come back and tell the rest of them.

    I really liked Julia’s comment above that “I think Saunders uses this theme to show us that no one is trapped in a miserable, unfulfilling and unsuccessful life and that there is always a way out—we just have to work towards it.” I agree. I think Bernie’s insistence as a zombie that the others get their lives together, start working toward something was the key theme of the story. But I also like that the ending lines are bittersweet, that there is also this part of the story that expresses that being “good”, working hard, staying optimistic, doesn’t always get you what you want or need or deserve. Life isn’t always fair that way. Elyse commented that she would have preferred learning if the other characters changed their ways after this experience, but I almost preferred not knowing. I liked that it sort of made me ask myself, would it even matter if they did? Was Freddie right about the progression from the “dangerous craphole” to the “mansion”? Or is life more complicated than that?

    • Thanks, Frankie! I agree that there’s a very bittersweet ambiguity at the ending–and very good pint that “zombie Bernie” allows Saunders to more fully round out the character.

    • I agree with you, Frankie, about the way Aunt Bernie’s death alone would have been, basically, meaningless. That’s the point of the whole burial passage, I think. A cardboard box? A vow by the two girls that they’ll go visit her grave? (And we know enough about their characters to know that they wouldn’t.) That would be a pathetic end. Aunt Bernie coming back to life and scaring them is the only way they could possibly change. They didn’t appreciate her benevolence in life so Saunders has her come back from the dead to scare the lazy complacence (and bullshit) out of them. Sounds a little familiar to me…

      : )

  9. 1) This story was pretty awesome. The zombie/horror thing came out of nowhere, and it was pretty interesting and well done. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of something remotely like this. The reason it works, I think, if because the aunt comes back completely changed from what she was before. She becomes how she probably should have/wanted to be, making sure she did everything to change her circumstances instead of just shrugging everything off and settling for less.

    2) His obsession, I think, is probably making sure you do what you need to do to improve your situation. If Aunt Burnie never came back they probably would have lived the same lives as before and never worked hard to move out of their place. He took an interesting look at regret though, making Aunt Burnie come back and having a completely different attitude to everything, and having her tell them that you live down in the grave with your regrets, and how horrible it is. This was a very interesting piece of fiction.

  10. This genre works well because the beginning is a little depressing. Its explaining their horrible situation and how they really aren’t doing anything to help themselves get out of it. The Aunt blocks out her “reality”. No matter what happens she remains optimistic and it really doesn’t encourage them to make an effort to better their lives. I think the zombie/horror theme works because it’s purpose was to serve as a wake up call for them. She came back angry at the way she lived her life. She tried to encourage them to be productive, to get yourself out the bad situation your in. The story line came together really nicely.

    His obsession is to relay an important message to the reader. To live your life to the fullest and no matter what situation your in you can help yourself out. He displayed this when Aunt Bernie came back to life. She hated how she lived her life. I think the biggest wake up call to them was when she forecasts one of the babies would be caught in a crossfire. It makes you realize that when your allow yourself to stay in a bad situation your not really giving much hope to your offspring.

  11. I have to agree with Klaus that the zombie genre twist really works. It contrast nicely to her living personality, and tell the lesson of live every day like it your last, and life is too short. Also I agree with Deborah that the zombie character was used to serve as a wake up call to the family, to better their lives. I really enjoyed this piece, I thought it was very creative and original, and also very entertaining. Saunder used the horrifying twist of Bernie’s character to shock me and engage me as a reader.

  12. Yes, the zombie/horror story works… but i didn’t like it. i didn’t particularly enjoy when all of the aunts’ body parts were just falling apart… kind of creeps me out… but I guess thats because i’m not a big fan of zombies! I think that Saunders could’ve done a better job and “taught” the kids a lesson without having their aunt come back from the dead.

    I think the saddest, yet most intriguing thing was that their aunt wanted a completely different life after she came “back” from the dead, but she couldn’t have it and I feel like that is Saunders’ obsession. He is giving a very clear message when he has the aunt say “So many wonderful things in life and where’s your mind? You think with your lazy ass. Whatever life hands you, you take”… that line had me thinking for a moment and its sad that a lot of people live that way. We never truly DO the things we want to do, because…. well, i don’t really know why. I guess Saunders is trying to be the “wakeup call” and telling people through his stories that life… does not last forever.

  13. Saunders having Aunt Bernice come back to life as a foul-mouthed, sex crazed zombie in order to fulfill the dreams and desires she left behind in her previous life was amazing. The story also gained a lot from Saunders’ ability to build a scene with character dialogue and humor. His descriptions were extremely imaginable and imaginative. Probably one of the more entertaining short stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

    Aside from wanting to see some cock, Saunders obsesses over the definition of a meaningless life. I believe his writerly project was not only to entertain but to show how a life un-lived could be powerful enough to haunt you even after death. If he has a mantra it would be “live life without regret.” As for his exploration of this mantra, he used Aunt Bernice as a character who has such regret about her life that she comes back to life in order to indulge in her carnal urges she had suppressed for the betterment of her family. However her second life was short lived but even living for herself she tried to help those she loved. She used tough love the second time around, as opposed to tender love.

  14. I thought George Saunders’ inclusion of zombie-Bernie was an awesome touch to the story. Besides brightening up an otherwise bleak story I thought the surrealism of the situation (a zombie aunt returning to tell you to live your life to the fullest) was there to show that no one is going to force you to straighten out your life. I did find it strange the way she instructed them to move up in the world. Instead of respecting himself and trying to make an honest dollar zombie-Bernie tells whatever the male stripper/waiter’s name is to basically whore himself out to get some extra cash. I think the desperation of zombie-Bernie shows that you can’t live your life through other people and that there is no second chance for most aspects of life.

    I’m not exactly sure what Saunders’ obsession is, but his depiction of his characters and setting throughout the story is pretty hilarious. The conversations and cussing of Min and Jade is pretty funny, the GED conversation in particular. I also like the names he gave for the stores and businesses in the story. The “How My Child Died Violently” description also showed a satirical viewpoint of America television and American culture in general. Another aspect prominent in the story is the plight of the lower class. The last few lines “‘Some people get everything and I got nothing,’ she says. ‘Why? Why did that happen?” reminded me of a philosophy I learned in a sociology class about equality. I don’t remember the sociologists name but he said something along the lines of: If there is true class equality you can be thrown into any neighborhood into any area in the world and be satisfied with your situation and role in the world.

  15. sorry Im late on this my book just got delivered yesterday.
    1. Id say the super natural element worked to an extent. It was an interesting way to add a guiding voice to the characters obviously miss-managed lives. add added an extra element to the already strange place that the story took part in. It wasn’t so much a horror or zombie story as it was a story that used an undead person as a plot device.

    2. I would say that his obsessions are the world that we live in. the world he describes seems almost to be a parody of the poorer sides of humanity. while the places and things in the story could exist there was just enough off about them to make you question where exactly this was taking place. It was more of an alternate reality, which also lent credibility to the whole zombie thing.

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