Erin Somers in The Nation:
Early on in “Sea Oak,” a short story from Pastoralia, the second of five collections by George Saunders, the characters watch a TV show called How My Child Died Violently. The show is hosted by “a six-foot-five blond,” Saunders writes, “who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain.” The episode they’re watching features a 10-year-old who killed a 5-year-old for refusing to join his gang.
Later in the story, the narrator’s Aunt Bernie dies of fright, then comes back undead—judgy, pushy, visibly rotting, incensed at what she suffered in her lifetime.
Saunders does not explicitly connect the dots between these two deaths, but the story does ask its readers to consider the meaning of Aunt Bernie’s suffering. Are people sainted by their pain? It would seem to be a throwaway line delivered by a TV presenter on a ghoulish reality show, but it’s also the central question not only in “Sea Oak” but in nearly all of Saunders’s writing.