Book Review

George Saunders veers from the loopy

CorrespondentMay 14, 2006 

George Saunders writes slim books that carry improbable heft. His collected works, from his startling, oddball and arguably brilliant first collection of stories, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," through the equally startling, oddball and arguably brilliant "Pastoralia," the children's book "The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip," up to last year's novella "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil," could be read in a single sitting. But the reader surfacing from an immersion in Saunders' peculiar stew of wit, rage and sometimes savage satire might never look at the world with quite the same eyes again.

In book after book, Saunders manages to be both a champion of the human spirit and a mocker of human society. No writer in America takes more accurate aim at, for instance, the silly excesses of self-help rhetoric, with characters chanting buzzwords about self-improvement while their lives crumble around them. At the same time, at his best, Saunders movingly depicts the insidious seepage of corporate American advertising into not just our habits, but also our thoughts. In the most frightening of his stories, humans are close to automata, their every perception shaped by the commercials piped at them from every corner of their existence.

Saunders' most notable work has focused on scrappy idealists blundering through a world both hilarious and horrific -- the well-intentioned worker at a disturbingly realistic theme park, for instance, or the lifelong ne'er-do-well forced into the role of savior. His new collection, "In Persuasion Nation," moves a step away from this odd psychological balance of his earlier collections. Jaunty cheerfulness has drained away, and characters are no longer so loopily determined to make lemonade out of the lemon their lives have become. In fact, many of the characters of "In Persuasion Nation" are close to despair, their spirits all but broken by the pressure of a consumer culture that threatens to engulf them.

In "Jon," for instance, the main character has lived in a kind of commercial bubble since babyhood, with every advertisement numbered and logged in his memory. As a young man, he can express his feelings only in terms of TV commercials. Explaining the workings of his mind to his girlfriend, Carolyn, he says, "If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor! If I want to say like, Carolyn, remember that RE/MAX one where as the redhead kid falls asleep holding that Teddy bear rescued from the trash, the bear comes alive and winks and the announcer goes, Home is the place where you find yourself suddenly no longer longing for home (LI 34452) -- if I want to say to Carolyn, Carolyn, LI 34451, check it out, that is how I feel about you -- well, then, I want to say it!"

The passage, like many in the book, is funny but melancholy, with its image of a man literally unable to express any emotion finer than what might be viewed through the lens of a real-estate ad.

Other stories are more direct and less comic. "The Red Bow" is a dystopic parable of a self-righteous community that bullies its members into a wholesale slaughter that is carried out, its perpetrators loftily insist, for the good of the community. And "93990" is an even grimmer fable about human indifference -- in fact, human amusement -- regarding the suffering of intelligent animals. These stories are memorable but far from pleasurable. Here Saunders replaces his signature zaniness with earnest, unmuted outrage. While the emotional heft of these pieces feels utterly authentic, so does their sermon-like quality.

Emotions so unmodulated, even dark emotions, can become cartoonish, and that danger is not entirely avoided in these pages. It's unlikely that many readers of "In Persuasion Nation" would enjoy the prospect of cruelty to animals, so it's easy to finish these stories feeling superior to their characters and comforted that we are better than they, a reaction that does not serve the work well.

Fortunately, the book also features nimble, ethically complex stories. The rowdy "Bohemians" concerns itself with the damage that results from violence, but its characters are sturdy survivors, and the story ends on a surprising, convivial note. "My Flamboyant Grandson" features one of Saunders' most tender portraits of family love -- one of his long suits -- along with one of his most intricate depictions of a commercial-obsessed future -- another long suit. The striking result is a story with the crack of satire and the deep wisdom of a parable.

In the end, many of these stories feel like parables, with clear, elegant movement and, often, equally clear morals. In the case of the less successful pieces, that combination creates tales that are predictable, but the most successful stories here burst with energy and glee and scope far beyond what the slim size of this book would seem to promise.

(Erin McGraw teaches fiction at the Ohio State University. Her most recent book is a collection of stories, "The Good Life.")

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