George Saunder’s “Sea Oak” is a horrifically satiric perspective on some of the idiosyncrasies of human beings. The comments, circumstances and dialog that occur in the narrator’s mind, in his conversations with others and in his dealings with the difficult world he lives in, feel unrelentingly despondent, a characteristic that’s accentuated by the dark comedic quality that these phenomena exploit.
The very title of the story reveals a human self-defense mechanism: that of wanting to pass something off as something it’s not. “Sea Oak” is the name of the living complex that the narrator, his sister, cousin and their children live at. The name of the place supposes an ethereal living arrangement that’s nothing like the reality of “an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room” and “brass knuckles in the kiddie pool.”
The mechanism is pervasive throughout the story. Min and Jade entertain themselves with macabre television shows that are passed off as entertainment, such as How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen. When the paramedics arrive to diagnose Bernie’s condition following the shooting, the entire episode is matter-of-factly summarized in a bunch of papers that need signing. When the narrator and his relatives go to Lobton’s Funeral Parlor, Lobton tries to sell them a cardboard box coffin as a “Sierra Sunset” fiberboard, as if ignoring the “writing about Folding Tab A into Slot B” that’s on the box. Lobton’s own parlor is just “a regular house on a regular street,” even though it services relatives deeply and momentously moved by another’s death. When Father Brian calls the narrator about Bernie’s grave having been defaced, the narrator is supposedly restless but he tells the Father that he’s sitting down. Following Bernie’s death, the narrator is expected to carry on like usual at his job, as per Mr. Frendt’s harsh commands, for something even as momentous as the death of a relative finds no room to breathe in the results-oriented nature of the narrator’s workplace. The sorority girls at the restaurant sing “intelligent nasty” songs that are euphemized expressions of their sexual desires, built to fit their identity as righteous sisterhood members. Finally, when Father Brian speaks with the narrator outside the narrator’s home, the Father tells him that he suppressed his true emotions and desires to beat the crap out of someone who defaced the Virgin Mary, but felt that honoring such fantasies offended his belief system.
That mechanism is also applied to an
animal larger than a sole human being: Americancapitalist society. The motivation behind every thought process in the story is guided by the demands of a market economy that stipulate a precarious balance between one’s own desires and the things that one “has” to do. The last thing Min and Jade want to do, for example, is study for their GED. It takes a zombie to convince them of the importance of doing so. That zombie, though, had herself erred in her response to societal demands. Instead of capitulating upon her own understanding that the life she led was as bad as the smell and appearance of her zombified reincarnation, she chose to reject such notions in favor of blissful optimism. Bernie’s constant suggestions that even her and the narrator and the narrator’s relatives should be “thankful” for living in the crap hole they live in reveal Bernie’s frailty in the face of an economy that she couldn’t really satisfy.
When smug Freddie talks about picking oneself up by the bootstraps and how the American way of life is to continually increase the safety of the craphole one lives in, he delivers a cheat sheet on how to do things properly in this society but also portrays his own calmness and satisfaction at having beaten the game. He’s done things correctly enough that he actually has the mental space needed to be smug and arrogant and full of himself. His spiel at the Italian restaurant now owned by Vietnamese folk prompts Min to say “Thank God for small favors”, which is a paraphrase of her refusal to study when Zombie Bernie tells her to do so. Min and Bernie appear to be one and the same archetype in this exchange because they both fail to give in the nature of the society they live in. Bernie refused to give in by being grossly while Min did so by feigning ignorance and acting crassly, thereby acknowledging the negatives of her living arrangements but being unable to put two and two together and getting to work.
She may dismiss Freddie’s luck and accomplishments as being “small favors”, but they’re really not, because for being so small, they’re hard to attain. Freddie, therefore, can take first place for “best American society member”.
The only character that may have it all down pat is Mr. Frendt, who owns a successful business and exists in a mental space that allows him to ridicule the come-and-go dynamics of his employees, such as when he compares Lloyd’s demise to how some in other countries must supposedly “color their faces or don some kind of distinctive headdress upon achieving menopause.” Mr. Frendt tries to romanticize Lloyd’s departure in favor of making capitalism seem a little friendlier, when in reality (and Mr. Frendt knows this), Lloyd and his family are screwed now.
Saunder’s story comments on the idiosyncrasies of both human beings and American capitalist society as a whole, describing the latter as inclusive of a group of extremists that, one way or another, choose to ignore the demands of the same. He does not explain why this is the case, however, as epitomized by the narrator when he explains how he doesn’t know what to tell Bernie when he appears in his dreams and asks him why she never had anything.