If you have yet to visit the environs of George Saunders’ first two short-story collections, here is some of what awaits you: entrepreneurs with gimmicks such as “Burn ’n’ Learn,” where patrons tan in a fully-stocked library; a corporate memo drafted in garbled syntax defending the company practice of charging employees for disposing of their poop; and the ghost of prudish, doting Aunt Bernie who returns foulmouthed to her tenement, insisting that her abashed nephew give the full monty for extra cash at work and racing time to lose her virginity before her limbs fall off. Other attractions in Saunders’ postmodern theme parks include simulated trout streams, recalcitrant nuns, cows with see-through stomachs and a toeless barber.
These days there is a lot of Saunders in the air, and we can expect more in the future. Last month he published his first stand-alone novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, and in April 2006 In Persuasion Nation, his third collection, consisting of stories published mainly in The New Yorker and Harper’s over the past five years, will appear. Working with Ben Stiller, Saunders, who was a visiting writer at the University of Montana in spring 2003, has also completed movie scripts for “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” the title story from the first work, and “Sea Oak,” Aunt Bernie’s tale from the second collection, Pastoralia.
Six years in the making, his latest, Phil, tells the story of a border war between Inner and Outer Horner. A tiny plot with an apple tree and a stream, Inner Horner can hold one resident at a time. The other six wait in the Short-Term Residency Zone in Outer Horner. When the land spontaneously shrinks, forcing its lone resident across the border, Phil, a bitter coffee-house loser, incites the bored Outer Horner Militia, implements a relentless system of taxation, hires bodyguards and thereby rises to power.
If they are at all recognizable, the characters appear to be muddles of internal organs, foliage and mechanical parts. One Inner Hornerite, Cal, resembles a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot in the center that’s been stapled to a tuna can. Another, Old Gus, looks like a bald letter C with two decaying antlers. For his part, Phil transports his brain on a tremendous sliding rack. When it dislodges, he gains confidence and, in a stentorian voice, issues cruel orders and makes bizarre proclamations.
Does Phil sound like any president you know?
Though the book is not an allegory of the war in Iraq, its most poignant moments recall the lunacy of the invasion, both within the oval office and among the media. Shortly after Phil’s henchmen filch the palace dome and bring it to his apartment, drunken Outer Hornerites gather there for the Inaugural Party and sing the National Anthem: “Large, Large, Large Beloved Land (If Not the Best, Why So Very Dominant?).” Phil then presents his “Border Area Improvement Initiative”—a plan to annihilate Inner Horner—along with a “Certificate of Total Approval,” declaring, “My only obsession is the safety of my people.” Falling over themselves to prove their loyalty, Phil’s cronies sign the document facing backward with their eyes closed.
The media quickly fall in line. Depicted as three short, headless men with detachable megaphones issuing from their chests in addition to mouths located near their rear ends, the journalists blare jingoistic headlines upon learning of the war. One such headline shows Saunders’ gift for unmasking the deceit in political euphemism: “NEW PREZ TO NATION: YOU SHALL KNOW PEACE.” Another offers a clever remark on the farce of embedded journalism when a reporter booms, “WHAT TIME SHOULD WE BE THERE?” Realizing his indiscretion, he resubmits the question, this time from the mouth at his butt.
Phil is intentionally darker than Saunders’ other stories, and it suffers from a want of zaniness. Most of Saunders’ underdogs end up losing and endure unspeakable humiliation as they do. In Saunders’ earlier work the underdogs have a voice, and there is something delightfully loony about their experience. They are not completely demoralized from the outset of the story; even if it is just for a moment, things look like they might turn out okay, and this optimism, no matter how slight or misguided, gives his previous stories their narrative energy.
In Phil, we see almost nothing of the inner lives of the story’s losers, and because we barely know them we feel little empathy when they are disassembled. What’s more, the Inner Hornerites appear doomed from the start, and there is no balance to the absurdity of their plight. The story is never wacky or free-spirited, but rather criminally insane from first to last.
When Saunders is at his best, he goofs off more, and risks potentially corny sentiment, as he does in his first two collections. Here in the real world we still have three more years of our version of Phil, and somehow the kooky older stories, with their guilt-ridden, lovelorn narrators, reveal more about what’s wrong in George Bush Land.