Kill the tuna can

Christopher Tayler

  • The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil and In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders
    Bloomsbury, 358 pp, £10.99, June 2006, ISBN 0 7475 8221 1

George Saunders – whose semi-official website carries a reminder that the man who played Addison DeWitt in All about Eve was called George SANDERS – was born in Chicago in 1958. A schoolteacher got him interested in literature, but having been exposed at an impressionable age to the novels of Ayn Rand he ended up studying geophysical engineering: ‘I didn’t want to be one of those life-sucking parasitic artists,’ he recalled last year. During the 1980s he worked for an oil company in Sumatra and did various dead-end jobs before finding his vocation and winning a place at Syracuse University, where he studied creative writing under the auspices of Doug Unger and Tobias Wolff. After finishing the course, he worked as a technical writer and environmental engineer until 1996, when he published his first short-story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. This was praised by Thomas Pynchon as well as Wolff, and since then Saunders has been about as successful as a scrupulous writer of offbeat stories can be. He has returned to the writing-school circuit as a teacher and collected numerous National Magazine and O. Henry Awards. Each story in his second collection, Pastoralia (2000), was first published in the New Yorker.

Saunders’s employment history is worth sketching out because his vision of America and the American workplace could easily be mistaken for something worked up in a university library. Many of his stories are set in odd theme parks or otherwise simulated environments: mechanical pseudo-beaches, a fake medieval castle, a mocked-up caveman’s den. Sometimes, as in ‘Bounty’, the mini-novella that closes CivilWarLand, there’s a sharp divide between prosperous visitors and serf-class theme-park workers. Usually, though, the visitors are scarcely less zonked and befuddled than the unfortunates who serve them, and the number of visitors tends to be falling away. As a result, the machinery rarely runs smoothly. The managers try to keep their businesses going with a mixture of bullying, divide-and-rule tactics and relentless empowerment-speak. And things are little better in the outside world – usually a cheerless urban landscape ground down by petty crime and racial strife. ‘At Sea Oak there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidised apartments and a rear view of FedEx,’ one character explains. Artificial streams are a popular feature. Heavy pollution is commonplace and there are fast-food outlets and lurid advertisements everywhere.

Some of the stories in CivilWarLand and Pastoralia also have science-fiction elements – robotic animals, memory downloads, an enslaved underclass of mutants. But Saunders’s writing doesn’t have much else in common with J.G. Ballard-style dystopianism; nor do you sense that he spends a lot of time reading Baudrillard. The busy satirical backgrounds of the stories don’t dominate the action, which frequently centres on a morally conflicted, low-level corporate drone. Though complicit in questionable business activities – a fraudulently ‘humane’ raccoon-disposal operation or the hiring of a wacko Vietnam veteran to kill off teenage vandals – these drones and yes-men would like to do the right thing. But they have children or demanding wives to provide for, or else are temperamentally ill-equipped to make an effective stand. Whether or not they succeed in holding on to some integrity, however, Saunders doesn’t give his characters the snootily ironic treatment their general haplessness seems to set them up for. The only exception is a would-be writer called Cummings in a story called ‘The Falls’, ‘an odd duck who, though nearly forty, still lived with his mother’. Cummings sees his neighbour as a business-world stooge who wouldn’t understand the artist’s lot if it ‘bit him on the polyester ass’:

Morse, ha, Cummings thought, I’m glad I’m not Morse, a dullard in corporate pants trudging home to his threadbare brats in the gathering loam, born, like the rest of his ilk, with their feet of clay thrust down the maw of conventionality, content to work lemminglike in moribund cubicles while comparing their stocks and bonds between bouts of tedious lawn-mowing, then chortling while holding their suckling brats to the Nintendo breast. That was a powerful image, Cummings thought, one that he might develop some brooding night into a herculean proem that some Hollywood smoothie would eat like a hotcake, so he could buy Mom a Lexus.

In the end, naturally, it’s Morse who makes the quixotic moral gesture when the two men see some children smashing their canoe into a rock at the top of a waterfall. Morse is a bad swimmer, and before anyone can reach them the children will probably be dead, ‘as dead as the ancient dead’. And Morse is ‘needed at home, it was a no-brainer, no one could possibly blame him for this one, and making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water.’

Saunders’s stories unfold very quickly. Despite the acronyms and brand names and slightly futuristic stuff, they sometimes seem at first to put a more satirical spin on the compressed, highly crafted vernacular style associated with writers such as Wolff. Before long, though, they start moving in unpredictable directions. Ghosts sometimes turn up in a matter-of-fact way and re-enact their deaths or offer foul-mouthed advice while absentmindedly shedding body parts. The narrator of ‘The 400-Pound CEO’ – which starts out as a rather poignant tale of loneliness and pointless workplace cruelty – ends up murdering his boss, taking over the company and trying to usher in a wildly generous regime before being carted off to prison, having failed to dispose of an incriminating Porsche. Saunders likes parodying self-help routines and motivational speeches. He’s particularly obsessed with injecting bland menace into the word ‘super’, as in ‘“Super!” said Tom Rodgers’ or ‘Loyalty – it’s super!’ or ‘Robust Economy, Super Moral Climate!’ ‘Tonight he’s muttering optimistic slogans in his sleep and occasionally screaming out in abject terror’: this line sums up many of his characters’ predicaments.

In Persuasion Nation, Saunders’s new collection, is being published in the UK disguised as an appendix to The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a novella published in the US last year. Presenting the two books as a package probably makes sense from the publisher’s point of view, but readers new to his work might be put off by Phil, a whimsical political fable in which a border dispute triggers a genocidal conflict between the nations of Inner and Outer Horner. Inner Horner is so small that only one Inner Hornerite at a time can fit inside it while the others wait their turn in a Short-Term Residency Zone. When Inner Horner shrinks, forcing them all into the Zone, the Outer Hornerites’ confusion is exploited by Phil, a nationalist demagogue who asks what will happen to the ‘super dignity’ of ‘the Outer Horner way of life’ if shiftless illegal immigrants aren’t controlled. As the Inner Hornerites bicker about procedural issues, Phil, cheered on by the spineless press, crushes all internal opposition and builds a concentration camp. Mass killing begins, but Phil’s forces are scattered by some liberal interventionists from nearby Greater Keller, and the former victims set about massacring their former oppressors.

Phil is narrated in twinkly storybook fashion, with lots of sentences starting ‘Now . . .’ and lightly humorous dialogue. It’s rapidly made clear that the characters, who are called things like Melvin and Freeda, aren’t human. Part-animal, part-vegetable, part-mineral, they resemble abstract sculptures or Dr Seuss illustrations. One looks ‘something like the letter C, if the letter C was bald and had two grey withered antlers’; another looks like ‘a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it . . . stapled to a tuna fish can’. The contrast between the self-conscious kookiness and the subject-matter seems to be the point, but the characters’ see-through stomachs, detachable brains and ‘torso foliage’ are so lovingly developed that Saunders loses his nerve when the time comes for things to get nasty (though he does kill the tuna can). The waters are also muddied by a series of flagrant but non-systematic allusions to the Balkan wars, Clinton’s intervention therein, the Bush administration and the Democrats’ disarray, which detract from the fairytale atmosphere without landing many solid satirical blows. There are a few good jokes and the strange pay-off involving God is neatly done, but the novella comes across as a side project that got out of hand.

Some of the stories in In Persuasion Nation have allegorical touches too. In these, though, the satire is more sharply focused and the comedy is darker. ‘The Red Bow’ allegorises the political exploitation of 11 September, ‘Adams’ the decision to invade Iraq. Both establish their parallels obliquely and stand up as stories rather than editorial cartoons; ‘Adams’ is also very funny in a slightly disturbing way. Along with ‘My Amendment’, a riff on the fuss about gay marriage, and ‘Christmas’, which details the casual ripping-off of a black roofer by his colleagues and was originally published as an autobiographical essay, these stories make up the most explicitly political section of the book, which is organised under rubrics drawn from an imaginary ‘Taskbook for the New Nation’. The opening section (‘Our enemies will first assail the health of our commerce,’ the Taskbook says, ‘and thus our freedom’) develops grotesque high-pressure salesmanship scenarios. The third (‘Our enemies will set among us individuals whose primary function is to object’) describes some doomed rebellions, while the fourth and final section is chiefly concerned with truth-telling. Apart from them-and-us rhetoric, persistent themes include patriotism, insularity, guilt, and the cruel and violent aspects of popular culture.

In ‘I CAN SPEAK!™’, a representative of KidLuv Inc tries to persuade a customer not to return their product, a high-tech mask that makes babies appear to talk. Faced with a peach, its ‘twin moving SimuLips™’ say ‘something like: “I LIKE PEACH”’; and if the baby rubs its face very rapidly on the carpet, the more expensive models shout: ‘FRICTION IS A COMMON AND USEFUL SOURCE OF HEAT!’ ‘Brad Carrigan, American’ and the title story are fantasies in which television characters become conscious of their plight. Brad, in particular, has a terrible time as his formerly wholesome sitcom comes under offstage pressure to attract a younger demographic. TVs appear all over his house, advertising such reality shows as Kill the Ho and FinalTwist (‘five college friends take a sixth to an expensive Italian restaurant, supposedly to introduce him to a hot girl, actually to break the news that his mother is dead’). His wife pretends to cop off with the neighbour, who tells Brad he’s ‘just been TotallyFukked!’ and makes him sign a release form. ‘An HIV-positive baby from sub-Saharan Africa’ materialises in the living-room. When Brad suggests looking after it, his wife throws him out.

In Persuasion Nation also features many parodies of bad writing and annoying habits of speech: ‘Because in your letter, what you indicated, when I read it? Was . . .’ and so on. ‘Jon’, the most effective story in the collection, is narrated in the kind of language you’d expect from a teenager who’s had a database of adverts connected to his brain at an early age, been pumped full of drugs and made part of a permanent focus group in a sinister corporate compound. It’s slowly revealed that this is what has happened to the narrator, who’s too frightened to go with his pregnant girlfriend when she stops taking the pills, leaves the compound and has the database removed from her neck:

Which my feeling was: Out? Hello? My feeling was, Hold on, I like what I have achieved . . . Plus furthermore (and I said this to Carolyn) what will it be like for us when all has been taken from us? Of what will we speak of? I do not want to only speak of my love in grunts . . . 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 34451) – 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! I want to possess all the articulate I can.

Jon eventually overcomes his fear of becoming ‘just some mere guy stacking lumber having such humdrum thoughts as thinking, Hey, I wonder what’s for lunch, duh,’ and heads for the outside world. Faithfully channelling his character’s maimed speech, Saunders makes the story of someone turning off his television set and doing something less boring instead seem plausible, suspenseful, hilarious and moving. Not everything in the book is equally successful: there’s some calculated goofiness and Saunders sometimes throws in too much homespun wisdom after the more dyspeptic passages. But his tendency to forgive his characters is a big part of his stories’ charm, and at his best – as his characters might put it – he’s super.