George Saunders works short, but he doesn't work small. Author of two acclaimed story collections, Saunders writes prose that is playful, pressured, and often stripped to the bone. Many of his characters are, too, as they struggle in the face of economic and spiritual collapse. But their problems tend to be symptomatic of larger predicaments; they are the flesh and bones (or sometimes just the ghostly presences) behind the national statistics. Though victims, they also often become reluctant victimizers in their efforts to save themselves and the ones they love. Their conflicts initially seem circumscribed by familiar worlds: bleak break rooms, strip-mall start-ups, run-down condos, chain theme restaurants. The first page or two of a typical Saunders story presents a stunning talent mining the realist/minimalist vein for whatever gems are left, which, judging by what this former geologist unearths, are plenty. Here's the opening of "Sea Oak," from his second collection, Pastoralia:
At six Mr. Frendt comes on the P.A. and shouts, "Welcome to Joysticks!" Then he announces Shirts Off. We take off our flight jackets and fold them up. We take off our shirts and fold them up. Our scarves we leave on. Thomas Kirster's our beautiful boy. He's got long muscles and bright-blue eyes. The minute his shirt comes off two fat ladies hustle up the aisle and stick some money in his pants and ask will he be their Pilot. He says sure. He brings their salads. He brings their soups. My phone rings and the caller tells me to come see her in the Spitfire mock-up. Does she want me to be her Pilot? I'm hoping. Inside the Spitfire is Margie, who says she's been diagnosed with Chronic Shyness Syndrome, then hands me an Instamatic and offers me ten bucks for a close-up of Thomas's tush.
Do I do it? Yes I do.
This is practically a clinic on how to enter into a certain kind of story, and like any gifted stylist who spawns imitators the way Saunders does, he makes it look easy. Everything is adroitly poised, from the jumpy repetitions to the concise and slightly skewed descriptions ("long muscles," from a lesser writer, would have led to further explanation) to the music of "Our scarves we leave on." Finally, the narrator's precarious position is slyly announced by the request that he, a stripper, photograph another stripper's ass. These may be tiny maneuvers, but taken together they suddenly create a world and a voice we can trust to guide us through it. Some of it may be familiar terrain, but it's conjured with exceptionally vivid strokes. And then Saunders blasts the familiar ground right out from under us.
By the time the narrator's dead decomposing aunt is importuning him to "show your cock" at Joysticks in her back-from-the-grave attempt to motivate her broken family, we realize we have no idea what a strange, dangerous, and hilarious world we've entered. It's as though an armada of space cruisers has landed in the middle of a Raymond Carver story. But the odd thing about all the ghouls and sci-fi mutants lurking in the shadows of Saunders's post-Kmart realism is that they only seem to enhance the quotidian poignancy. Saunders may launch us outward into the grim fantastical, but we always boomerang back to the quiet horrors and joys of decidedly non-fantastic lives. The spaceships fly away, and we are left alone at the kitchen table or on the subdivision terrace. Our only salvation is whatever kindness we've managed to secret away from the crush of the world.
The supernatural abounds in Saunders's work, but he doesn't seem too troubled by questions of what exactly it means to be human. The "flawed" hero in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline's "Bounty," Saunders's novella of genetically based slavery and oppression in a slightly futuristic United States, exhibits the necessary traits throughout his quest to save his kidnapped sister. Being human in the best sense, Saunders suggests, is going forth fueled by some admixture of courage and compassion. The tough part is maintaining this balance in the midst of so much cruelty and indifference, and not letting bitterness and grief swallow you whole. "Some people get everything and I got nothing," says Aunt Bernie in "Sea Oak." "Why?" Her nephew has no answer, though it would seem from Saunders's newest book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, it's a question the author fervently believes deserves one.
Many critics refer to Saunders as a satirist, and though the term is often used in conjunction with names like Swift and Twain, it can also be a trap. The world a satirist creates, some charge, is only a prediction or, at best, a distortion, as though all successful art isn't about distorting, or bending, reality. Another word that gets fastened to Saunders is moralist. These two terms are often intertwined, of course. At the core of much satire is some kind of prescription. Still, even if correct, these two labels, the limitations of the first and the taint of
the scold in the second, don't do justice to Saunders. His bleak but merciful stories contain a great deal more than satire, or at least the toothless send-ups that often stand in for satire, and they are never preachy.
The allegorical nature of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a departure from previous work, but perhaps not from his best-selling children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. Like Frip, Phil is illustrated (by Benjamin Gibson), and if the former is a book for kids that adults can enjoy, Phil is a book for adults written in a style for kids. "It's one thing to be a small country," the tale begins, "but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner."
Standing around day after day in Outer Horner Short-Term Residency Zone, the Inner Hornerites must bear the resentment of the Outer Hornerites, who despite the great size of their country feel threatened by incursion. While the Hornerites all have names like Elmer, Leon, and Freeda, many possess a strange physicality. One Inner Hornerite is described as resembling a "gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it, if a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it had been stapled to a tuna fish can." Though the level of characterization doesn't run much deeper than this, it is a testament to Saunders's storytelling skills that one begins to empathize with this particular tuna fish can.
This fable's villain, as one might infer from the title, is Phil, an Outer Horner "nobody" who seizes the presidency from a senile blatherer with several bellies and mustaches. Phil rallies his country around xenophobic and oppressive policies designed to degrade and even destroy the Inner Hornerites, not to mention extract their paltry resources. His oratory, which turns "stentorian" whenever a bolt slips and his brain slides off its rack, is a brilliant hodgepodge of old-time jingoistic cant and corporate doublespeak. More telling than Phil's resemblance to some of our current leaders is the slimy way policy is forged in Outer Horner. Edicts are enacted, then polls conducted. Depending on popular opinion, the administration decides precisely how to lie about its actions. Saunders isn't always very subtle with his parallels, but there is no denying the noble rage at the heart of this book.
The message of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, delivered with great wit, isn't overtly political. One could spend hours debating whether Saunders means to illuminate a particular horror show, be it Iraq, Israel and Palestine, the Balkans, or Rwanda, but probably Saunders is excavating the deep grammar that underlies all these conflicts: "Sir, the nation is tense," announces an adviser to the president of the third national entity in this story, Greater Keller, an enlightened country deliberating a possible rescue of Inner Horner. "It is asking itself how it can possibly stand idly by drinking gourmet coffee when an entire race is about to be disassembled."
Unlike Animal Farm, to which this book will be compared, Saunders isn't taking
a recognizable stand against a specific ideology; maybe the post–Cold War era
is too fluid and unrecognizable for such conviction. Though progressive political fury informs a good deal of his writing, Saunders's prescription here is more an offshoot of the golden rule than anything grounded in an official talking point.
This is a good thing for the very valuable art of George Saunders. The United States isn't Outer Horner or Inner Horner or Greater Keller. It's all three of them, depending on the context, and it must save itself. Rescue, however, is far from guaranteed. Even the seemingly happy ending of Phil is mitigated by a creepy coda. The hope and tenderness we've come to expect in Saunders's work, usually emanating from a single wounded heart, isn't so available on a world-historical level. Phil's reign may be brief, but he's not the first Phil, nor will he be the last; for Phil is us on our worst days, and our worst days seem to be a hell of a lot of our days these days.
Sam Lipsyte's novel Home Land was published this year by Picador.