George Saunders: Upping the Volume a Notch
--A Belated Reading of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline—
By Eric Mader, February 2006
As an American who's lived in Taiwan nearly a decade, I sometimes feel a disconnect from what's going on back in my home country. That I spend only a handful of days there each year doesn't help either: America seems to be getting weirder all the time--ever more unhinged with each passing, climatically altered season. Is what I see maybe just my country's true colors beginning to bleed in the general heat and mayhem of the new century? I hope not. Is it possibly just me that's gotten weirder? Many of my old friends would argue that it's so--but then, they make their arguments from right there in the Belly of the Beast, so how can they be expected to judge?
Recently again I managed to spend some time back in the Homeland's Secure Embrace. While there I picked up a copy of George Saunders' CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It was a spot-on choice: Saunders' tales are the perfect reading to help a confused, overly liberal expat like myself readjust. The man writes the best and most American dystopian satire I've read.
Of course in the real America the Wendy's aren't yet burnt out shells, the WalMarts aren't occupied by teen militias, and the theme parks aren't as horribly elaborate as the ones in Saunders. But we're getting there. A bit more unhinging and it'll all fall into place. Saunders' America is only the current America with the volume turned up.
The familiar idiom of these tales--the sales pitches, self-improvement jargon and confident self-justifications of the myriad scammers at work--gives them an immediate, palpable truth entirely lacking from the State of the Union Address which I also, very forgettably, took in during my time home. I certainly wish I could write like George Saunders. [The closest I've come might be here.] And I certainly wish that other George had stuck with managing baseball teams.
Saunders published CivilWarLand in 1996. The perfect pitch of the collection makes me eager to read what this master satirist has penned since the dawn of our New Millennium. I've only read one recent tale in The New Yorker, which showed the writer in the same brilliant high fever and which led me to pick up CivilWarLand in the first place. I believe that tale was entitled "CommComm."
As the Library Journal review put it: "Saunders' surreal depiction of a bleak future for the country is both startling and believable. Here's hoping he is not a prophet." In the strict sense of the word prophet--namely, one who warns of pending disaster unless people mends their ways--Saunders is already one. And a trenchant one too. I wholeheartedly recommend CivilWarLand. Available while there are still books.
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Post-script 2008: I've since read Saunders' other two collections, and have taught nearly a dozen of the tales to a class of literature enthusiasts here in Taipei. My mostly 20-year-old Taiwanese students are in stiches as we work through Saunders' dystopias page by page. I--we--await a fourth collection. The books after CivilWarLand are:
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