CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

  • George Saunders
  • Riverhead
  • 1997

Raising myself on my elbows to get out of the bath, I change my mind and slink back into the tepid water. I should get out of the bath but I procrastinate. I wash my hair again, condition, scrub my hairless torso, and poke at the blister on my left foot caused by sweat and the rub of flip-flops. It is raining. A storm has broken the humidity. It is 5:30 am and I am putting off doing things, chores, stuff. I feel a small polyp among the scant hairs of my left armpit. Nothing to worry about, an excess of cells. There is another. I could go to the doctor about it but I cannot be bothered. If I do not think about it, then I will not have to worry. I decide to put off going to the doctor, scrubbing the bath, hoovering the carpet, sorting out my bank balance. I decide not to see a friend for lunch, shop for food, and write that piece on Spalding Gray. Tomorrow, I will read that book on the New York art scene during the seventies, book an appointment with the dentist, and apply for that editing job. Today, I will finish William Leith’s The Hungry Years, and start another book — maybe from the pile on my table, or maybe Christopher Hitchens’ new book on Thomas Jefferson, or Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, or maybe re-read a John Updike or a V.S. Naipaul, or Douglas Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby which, for some strange reason, I have never read. I usually read a book as soon as I have bought it, if I do not, it may remain on the gulag archipelago of my bookshelves for months or years. What I definitely will not be doing… What I definitely definitely will not be doing, not if I can help it, not if you tied me to a tree and propped open my eyelids using cocktail sticks and barbed wire, not if you kept me awake by playing Abba at ear-splitting eye-socket-gouging volume, not if you stroked my cock while whispering the words of the text in my pink and waxy shell-like. What I mean is, what I will not be doing is reading George Saunders’ new collection of short stories In Persuasion Nation. I won’t be reading it in the Riverhead Books edition nor the Bloomsbury edition, both of which I own. No, sir. No, ma’am. No, Mr Blunderbuss and Mrs Milquetoast. Nuh-uh. Ain’t gonna happen. No way. Not in a month of sorbets, not in a blue noon. You wanna know why? Huh? Well, I’ll tell you why. Here goes. Are you ready? My confession.

Saunders subtly undermines and transfigures the way we see ourselves.

Sitting up to drink the remainder of my tepid tea, I ponder where to begin. Let’s start with the author. In the bio on the inside page of his first collection of short stories CivilWarland in Bad Decline, it states that Mr Saunders “is a geo-physical engineer in Rochester, N.Y.” That’s kinda apt. Geophysics (one word) in my dictionary means “the physics of the earth” — so far so obvious. Let’s look into it further. Physics is the “branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy” or “the physical properties and phenomena of something.” The engineered fictional worlds of CivilWarLand explore the physical properties and phenomena of a narrative earth slightly out of kilter; something is not quite right, but everything is oddly familiar. Saunders subtly undermines and transfigures the way we see ourselves, America, history, the world. From the opening paragraph of the title story:

“We’ve got a good ninety feet of actual Canal out there and a well-researched dioramic of a Coolie campsite. Were our faces ever red when we found out it was actually the Irish who built the Canal. We’ve got no budget to correct, so every fifteen minutes or so a device in the bunkhouse gives off the approximate aroma of an Oriental meal.”

Saunders gently refreshes our view of reality. Nothing is safe, nothing is sacred, and nothing is solid. He provides an approximation of the known world, one brought to us by manufactured essences, and lifelike images. Kurt Vonnegut (a natural precursor) remarked on his labelling as a science-fiction writer that he was merely writing about Schenectady. But then everything Vonnegut says, according to the man himself, is horseshit. Saunders could easily be tagged with the sci-fi label; ‘Bounty,’ the novella concluding this collection, is speculative fiction at its best; a look into a possible future in which the population of a ravaged USA is separated into Normals and Flaws (a flaw being any physical divergence from the norm — such as having no teeth), the narrative is replete with echoes of Auschwitz, the slave trade, and owes a passing nod, in subject matter and style, to the work of Mark Leyner:

*“Last thing I wanted to see was Earl in a poodle suit going woof woof under a big pile of naked pipefitters, but I had my instructions from Dad, the heathen. After I dropped off Earl’s bone I went back to my room and studied Bernoulli’s equation while sobbing quietly.

And this withered hag, this apparent octogenarian, had the body of a male Olympic swimmer. The long lean sinewy arms, the powerful V-shaped upper torso, without a single ounce of extra fat anywhere, a body that only comes after thousands of laps and speed training. I was flabbergasted — but before I could react to what I’d seen, Bob jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow, And you should taste her oatmeal!” he said, winking slyly.”*

Both Leyner and Saunders view the world comically. Leyner’s comedy is relenting and his prose experimental. Saunders’ style owes more to the pared-down short stories of Raymond Caver and Tobias Wolfe (who Saunders studied under). The story “Isabelle” is closer to Carver’s “Popular Mechanics” in its poignancy, compassion, and composition than it is to anything by Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Heller. This is not to say that Saunders isn’t a superb satirist. The title story is a hilarious take on amusement parks — think Max Appel’s The Propheteers crossed with the medieval theme park in The Cable Guy. The park is a take on America’s history and America’s present — almost bankrupt, traumatised by teen gangs, employing misfit and incompetent workers, and protected by a Vietnam war criminal. Saunders’ comedy lulls the reader into a false sense of innocence. His language — he uses words like “flaky” and “floozy” — leads us through the narrative in wonder until he plunges us into the history of violence and the violence of history, into America’s legacy of hate and mistrust and he does so without resorting to the visceral prose of James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard (not that I’m not a big fan of those writers — I am) but Saunders writes with humour and with enviable (even more so than Elmore Leonard) economy.

Saunders’ America, peopled by post-modern carnies, celebrity Jell-O wrestlers, alcoholic babysitters, child killers and 400-pound CEOs, mirrors and simulates the media’s obsession with outsiders.

Saunders’ America, peopled by post-modern carnies, celebrity Jell-O wrestlers, alcoholic babysitters, child killers and 400-pound CEOs, mirrors and simulates the media’s obsession with outsiders — the woman swamped by her own skin, the man with the 200lb tumour, etc. While Saunders’ corporations are absurd — CivilWarLand, the Center for Wayward Nuns, Humane Raccoon Alternatives — are they any more absurd than Enron or McDonald’s? His world of gentle paranoia is reminiscent of Philip K Dick, but the Dick of Confessions of a Crap Artist and In Milton Lumky Territory rather than that of A Scanner Darkly and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; although the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle in the short story “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror” (surely a forerunner to the title The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) has its precursor in Dick’s Perky Pat. If Saunders is the lighter side of Dick, he is the darker side of Tim Robbins of whom the story “The Wavemaker Falters” is reminiscent.

“At noon the next day a muscleman shows up with four beehives on a dolly. This is Leon’s stroke of genius for the Kiper wedding. The Kipers are thenatural type. They don’t want to eat anything that ever lived or buy any product that even vaguely supports notorious third-world regimes. They asked that we run a check on the ultimate source of the tomatoes in our ketchup and the union status of the group that makes our floaties. They’ve hired a blind trumpeter to canoe by and a couple of illegal aliens to retrieve the rice so no birds will choke.”

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