The ghost story “Sea Oak” presents George Saunders at his most biting and also most tender. The story takes place in a housing development, Sea Oak, and centers around the unnamed narrator, his sister and cousin (Min and Jade, respectively), and their children, Troy and Mac. Also present is Aunt Bernice (Bernie). The family tries to make ends meet with the narrator working at a strip club called Joysticks mostly for tips. Bernie is a tender, optimistic woman who is glad to have a roof over her head and thankful for what life has given her, which she acknowledges is not much.
The story takes a dramatic twist when Bernie dies of fright during a home robbery and returns from the grave as a swearing, smelly, violent woman. She also, however, returns with a plan. She is determined that the narrator, Min, and Jade will work to become successful and enable themselves to move out of dangerous Sea Oak. “Sea Oak’s not safe. There’s an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room and last week Min found some brass knuckles in the kiddie pool” (97). Bernie’s family is shocked less by her return from the dead than by her change in personality. Formerly an optimist, Bernie has a new personality that is brash and brutally honest. “You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are gonna have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me!” (115).
In an age of television and film violence, it seems clear that Saunders’s message is that the violence we either abhor or worship as a part of our daily routine has seeped into our lives and serves to identify us as a culture. Min and Jade are studying for their general equivalency diplomas (GEDs), but they spend more time watching shows called How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen, “a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that never actually occurred but theoretically could” (107). They are not content with their lifestyles, but they are too lazy to change their circumstances. The narrator shows promise, but he is forced to spend his nights stripping to earn money for the household.
Bernie’s return does not last long. From the moment she crawls out of her grave, she begins to decompose and eventually falls apart altogether. After returning her to her grave, the narrator continues to follow her plan for him (showing his penis to women for extra money), moves the family into a nicer apartment, and sets aside money for Bernie’s headstone.
The story’s setting is a slum, and its plot largely that of a dead woman rotting in her former living room; the characters are all symbols of the overall negative attitude that pervades U.S. culture written in Saunders’s trademark satirical style. Through all of this, however, the story ends with hope. The characters do move forward, and they do so of their own momentum. Saunders’s suggestion that no one, no matter how dire the situation, is ever without a chance to change and become productive leaves the reader with a feeling that Bernie’s optimism did not disappear with her death.
Saunders, George. “Sea Oak.” In Pastoralia. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001, 91–125.