George Saunders is one of the few writers I’ll read anything by, whose new books I’ll go buy without knowing anything about them except that they’re by George Saunders. His short stories has always been terrific (if lately gone from a little weird to a lot weird), and The Braindead Megaphone, his first collection of nonfiction, has the same eye for the absurd and gigantic heart that made those previous books so good.
The book includes several long travel pieces—exploring Dubai (first section head, “Put That Stately Pleasure Palace There Between Those Other Two”), staking out the Mexican border with a group of Minutemen (“I announce myself as an Eastern Liberal, and am thereafter treated like a minicelebrity or lab specimen, a living example of a rare species they’ve heretofore only heard about on Fox”), and visiting a Nepalese boy who has supposedly been meditating without food or water for seven months (“At 7:20, oddly, a car alarm goes off. How many cars in deep rural Nepal have alarms? It goes on and on. Finally it dawns on me, when the car alarm moves to a different tree, that the car alarm is a bird”)—as well as essays on politics (the title story, comparing the state of modern American media to a pretty good party that unfortunately includes a guy shouting things into a megaphone at everyone else; and two essays revolving around the “fluid-nation” People Reluctant To Kill For An Abstraction), writing (“Thank You, Esther Forbes,” about Saunders’s young love for Johnny Tremain; “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” about his slightly older love for Kurt Vonnegut; “The Perfect Gerbil,” a nice piece on story structure examining Donald Barthelme’s “The School”; and “The United States of Huck,” his introduction to the Modern Library paperback of Huckleberry Finn), plain weirdo-ness (“Ask the Optimist!,” in which a ludicrously upbeat advice columnist gets into a fight with one of his readers), and the British, in front of whom he conducts a reading with Margaret Atwood:*
Margaret Atwood is a famous Canadian genius. Our crowd consists of approximately three hundred Margaret Atwood fans, with the remainder of the crowd being my fan. After the reading, Margaret and I were overrun by our fans, crowding around her to get her to sign our books. It was at this point that my fan (Larry) changed his mind and became Margaret’s fan, and, in a fury of conversion, scribbled out my autograph and thrust my book at Margaret, while unfavorably comparing my work to Margaret’s, leaving me with zero (0) fans! (Thanks, Larry! To hell with you, Larry! I may not be as talented as Margaret Atwood, but I am less funny, and it has taken me a lot longer to write a lot fewer books! So there! Do I come to your work and disavow you, Larry?)
The cover may be among the most garish of all time (see left, but don’t look too long unless you have a ready supply of ibuprofen), but what’s inside is, as usual, inventive, insightful, generous, and hilarious, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
And George, even if we see you read with Margaret Atwood, we promise to be your fans too.
*Not sure how I ended up with a 260-word sentence there. Yeesh.