Sunday, December 03, 2006

In Persuasion Nation (George Saunders) by Guest Reviewer Jim

Way back in the Dark Ages of 1996 (visionary me, age 18: “This Internet thing is totally lame”), my dad got me a new book of short stories by a guy neither of us had ever heard of or knew anything about—CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders. He bought it purely based on the interesting-sounding blurbs from Garrison Keillor, Tobias Wolff, and (particularly) the notoriously reclusive and not-given-to-spreading-effusive-praise-for-just-anybody Thomas Pynchon.

The first time I read it, I didn’t give it much thought. But when I picked it up again a year or so later, almost at random, it absolutely floored me. How I had missed this the first time, I don’t know—the stories were funny and weird and moving all at the same time, and not like anything else I’d ever read, featuring, among other things, an unfortunately chosen security guard run amok in a Civil War theme park, hapless resentment taken out on cows with windows in their sides, a guilt-ridden wave maker, and a mutant in the future making his way across an irrational American landscape trying to save his sister. I think I may have read it straight through two more times, and I’ve gone back to it at least five or six times since then.*

I’ve been an avid follower of his over the last ten years, even getting my hands on his children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, just because I had to see what a George Saunders children’s book would be like. (Answer: Very funny and very weird. And, I might add, outstandingly illustrated, and just nicely designed and well put together as a whole.) Which is a roundabout way of getting to In Persuasion Nation, his third short story collection and fifth book overall, released earlier this year.

Although it carries the familiar “stories” description on its cover, In Persuasion Nation also includes pieces more classifiable as humor or straight satire than fiction (for example, “I CAN SPEAK!™” is a letter written from a product service representative to a customer complaining about the title product, a computerized mask that lets parents pretend their babies can speak, and “My Amendment” outlines a proposal to outlaw not only same-sex marriage, but also “samish-sex marriage” when a somewhat effeminate-seeming man marries a somewhat masculine-seeming woman). In addition to some classic Saunders lunacy, full of the kinds of guilt-ridden losers and hilarious bureaucrat speak that populated his first two collections (see “CommComm,” in which an unfortunate government PR flack becomes enmeshed in a fellow employee’s failed attempt to cover up historical artifacts at a dig site) (and also there are ghosts) (and a department called Odors), the book also includes some surprisingly straightforward narratives (see “Christmas” and “Bohemians,” both set in reasonable approximations of the real world) alongside a few that charge full speed into satirical unreality (both “Brad Carrigan, American” and “In Persuasion Nation” are set in a sort of TV dimension inhabited by characters from sitcoms and advertisements, struggling against the limitations of their existence).

The sheer variety of material and approaches, and his forays into what might understatedly be called wildly imaginative absurdity, make this book less coherent than either CivilWarLand or Pastoralia (his second collection); it feels like what I suspect it is, which is a sort of jumble of different kinds of work he’d done over the last five or six years while also working on Gappers of Frip and his terrific semi-allegorical short novel The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. That’s more of an observation than a criticism—he’s clearly given his imagination free reign to lead him wherever it wants, and I’m happy to follow. But for anyone who hasn’t read him before, it also means that I’d recommend either of his other two collections as a better place to start. But if you’ve already jumped on the Saunders train (as, incidentally, the folks over at the MacArthur Foundation did earlier this year, handing over one of their $500,000 no-strings-attached, keep-up-the-good-work "genius grants"), you won’t want to pass it up—even if the strange meta-landscapes of stories like “Brad Carrigan, American” and “In Persuasion Nation” aren’t your thing, it’d be worth it just for stories like “Bohemians” and (a favorite of mine that I’d saved from the New Yorker back in 2002) “My Flamboyant Grandson.”

And then you can start doing what I do, which is keep a keen eye out for news of his next book.

* Side note: I went to see him give a reading a couple years ago, and took along my battered old copy of CivilWarLand to get it signed. When I handed it over he looked at it and said, “Oh God, you’ve got the one with the ugly cover.” Hehe.

No comments: