by George Saunders published in The New Yorker
Read original on The New Yorker's website
A haunting story of a society confined to an under...Show description
Posted 851 days ago
Saunders wrote Ghoul as a dark story peppered with humor. While the main concept of the story is grotesque, the narrator emits a levity that keeps us off-balance. Similar to his other stories that have recently appeared in The New Yorker, this one is just as bizarre and intriguing.
A group of humans live in an underground bunker, disconnected from the rest of society. It's unclear why, only that they are effectively stuck down there. They have all assumed roles as actors in some sort of live theatre (imagine a haunted house). Their lives revolve around practicing their roles until the Visitors come to see their theatre.
(Please note: whenever Rolph and I engage in our fun ritual, no Visitors are present. As if! As if Rolph and I would risk providing our Visitors a subpar experience in that way. No, we engage in this warm friendship exchange only when no Visitors are near...
Apart from having a single-minded goal of pleasing Visitors, they also abide by a strict set of rules that, when broke, have serious consequences. The narrator is trying to abide by these rules while enacting his own free-will.
Rules are rules, friends are friends. But now rules and friends urge differing courses of action upon me, and which shall I choose?
The set of rules are extremely arbitrary; as he walks around the underground bunker, he often sees people having sex in random places. These are not supposed to be some sort of traditional rules given by our society, but rules formed by some goal within this underground bunker. I think that Saunders is trying to create a metaphor to say hey, our social norms are really just set by the situation we design them in; different circumstances, especially life-threatening ones, will bring a different set of norms that society agrees to.
The main conflict of the story comes when the narrator refuses to Report on one of his friends (Reporting others for breaking the rules means that they are beaten to death without any sort of trial or contemplation - the first Reporter is saved even if they are lying). His friend gets pushed to the wall, however, and Reports on the narrator to save himself. Fortunately, the only person who has heard the report is a woman who likes the narrator, and she turns it around on the reporter. He is beaten to death and the narrator is saved. They then become romantically involved. Their lies get bigger and bigger and they have to report on others to continue saving themselves.
Oh, Gwen, I think, why did you not do what I have so often done upon overhearing someone saying something I wished I wasn't overhearing, namely, pretend I wasn't hearing it?
During the funeral of the people he had essentially had killed, the narrator listens to another talking abou thow "sad it is to live out one's whole life honoring certain timeless pricniples, then throw that all away in one ill-advised moment."
Have we found this life pleasant? Mr. Regis asks. Have we found people to be fond of, things that give us pleasure? Have we generally felt, getting up in the morning, that, if we lived within Law 6, our days would go well? Is it too much to ask that certain false, negative things not be underscored? Is it totally crazy that those who, for their own selfish reasons, insist on underscoring certain false, negative things shall be rebuked?
The narrator then discovers that the principles and very structure of the society they live in is all false. But he's not alone; there are others who know it too but going on living their lives. Instead of fitting into this group, he plans to fight back.
Sometimes in life the foundation upon which one stands will give a tilt, and everything that one has previously believed and held dear will begin sliding about, and suddenly all things will seem strange and new.