The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

  • George Saunders
  • Riverhead
  • 2005

Applying liberal amounts of anti-perspirant deodorant while simultaneously contributing to the ongoing destruction of the earth, I would argue that if Gappers is a moral fable aimed at children, then Phil is a political allegory for our century. Set in the lands of Inner Horner, Outer Horner, and Greater Keller, Phil satirizes democracy, war, and the media, drawing from Saunders’ previous themes of longing and loss. The prose is hard, clear, and proximal — by which I mean that it creates within its 130 pages a world as approximate to ours as is possible — the same but other. Is Phil (later Phil Monster) George Bush? This is Phil after his brain has fallen out.

Actually, Phil felt, he wasn’t feeling all that well. He was feeling totally devanced in terms of how good
he could think. Where was that stupid brain? Where dud he left it? That thing had been offen a long time. No wonder no salvation thoughts were come winging out of him. He wanted to communerate to
these idiotic circle-walking invaders they couldn’t know how it was like, forced to lived close to a national
of unhuman puny coveting your wide open, claiming to be just as human, giving those hostility look just
because you lived in a spacious total bounty of righteous plenty. Only suddenly he couldn’t seem to speak
so super.

The president’s address to the nation, anyone? Is the mirror-faced advisor Donald Rumsfeld or ‘Phil’s Special Friends’ Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This is satire at its most incisive, cutting, and unlike some satire — please don’t make me say it, oh God, I can’t help myself… argh!… no!… damn you… OK. OK. JOSEPH HELLER! There it’s out. It’s done. So, unlike some satire, Phil is very funny. Here are a few headlines from Outer Horner’s media:




And my favourite:


Pulling on my underpants, which snag on my ankle causing me to tip forward and fall toward the basin only to right myself by hopping on my left leg and using the bath to steady myself, saving me from concussion and possibly a sad death on the bathroom floor, forgotten by neighbours, friends, and girlfriend, I decide to look through my collection of The Believer magazine and McSweeney’s journals to see if there are any interviews or essays by Saunders with which to carry on this essay and further put off reading the new story collection, of which, for some unknown reason I cannot, right now, remember the title.

Sitting in the garden of The Steeles pub in Belsize Park, north London, I wince, not only because of the sunlight, but right there on the page in front of me, in an interview with Ben Marcus in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, is this sentence from George Saunders, “But one could argue that America has ghettoized itself by insisting on a self-reifying view (humanist/materialist)…” Bollocks. So, he would use the word. But it is an interview not fiction. Ben Marcus gives a good interview, teasing out sound bites — “realism is nonsense when you think about it.” Where did I read that Finnegans Wake is the most realistic book ever written and therefore unreadable as it would mirror our realism and create a double world — sounds like Dick (to coin a phrase). I do like — “all good fiction is moral” and “nothing is true and everything is true.”

Ben Marcus gives a good interview, teasing out sound bites — “realism is nonsense when you think about it.”

Drinking my first pint of beer, warming under the midday sun, I pull from my bag the eleventh issue of The Believer — the one with Amy Sedaris, Dominic Arou, Black Beauty, and George Saunders on the rather fetching air-force blue and chocolate brown cover, and open it to the interview and it’s the same freaking interview. Now I have nothing to read and I really want another pint but I don’t want to distract myself by reading any of the other interviews in the book or any other articles in this attractive eleventh issue of The Believer. Shit.

I go to the bar and order another pint of Stella Artois from the barman who looks like Liam Lynch — These Are My United States of Whatever — carry it back to the table and take out my small green Japanese notebook I bought (I actually bought two green and two red) in Something and Sugartown in Williamsburg the same day I bought In Persuasion Nation (I remembered the title — the beer must be kicking in) from St Mark’s Bookshop. The green notebook has Most advanced quality and Gives best writing features and, because of that, I decide on a summation.

I roll my pen between my teeth and tap the wooden table — I sat here a few weeks ago and after a few minutes I saw that the table was crawling with aphids and so were my arms and so was my book — and I ask myself why I cannot read the new collection of stories by a writer I consider one of the best writing today. Am I afraid of influence? No. I don’t think so. I’ve read Saunders’ other stuff without, I believe, it having an effect on my own writing — well, effect in an adverse way. It has helped me tighten my style (yes, it has). Is it because I am afraid it will disappoint me? Again, no. I have read the last story in the collection — ‘commcomm’ — I think it was in The New Yorker, although it could have been Slate — and voted it the best online short story of 2005. Georgie-boy disappoint me? Never.

Sipping my beer and eating bite-size Pepperamis, they’re so good and make you thirsty — am I a sometime-shmuck? — I come to understand why I can’t read the book. I have favourite authors who I re-read. I have favourite short-story writers who I endlessly dip into, as if their collections were warm pools inhabited by endangered coral, exotic fish, and erotic plants. Pre-Saunders, I’m thinking Donald Barthelme and Richard Brautigan. (I’ve just used my rather fetching eleventh issue of The Believer to swat away a noisy, persistent, and troublesome fly.) Of Saunders’ contemporaries, I’d say Jim Shepard and Lorrie Moore. (Hold on, that fly is back. It keeps landing on my left foot, the one with the blister, and I’ve just pranged my knee on the underside of the table in an effort to shoo it away.) Post-Saunders, I’d plump for Ben Marcus and er… er… Etgar Keret? The only other writer I return to (with a similar positive dread) is William T. Vollmann. But Vollmann’s produced something like 20 million pages of fiction and non-fiction (that might be a slight exaggeration — probably more like 15 million), whereas Saunders’ oeuvre (excuse me, pardon) amounts to five slim volumes.

After, finally, getting rid of the fly, I finish my drink, pack away my books, notebook, and pen, heft my shopping bag containing five steaks, various cheeses, Polish bread, beef jerky (which later that night, while watching Mexico versus Angola in the World Cup, turns out to be disgusting), milk, peaches, apples, and walk home. After packing away my food, I sit on the sofa and look at my desk — on it sits a pile of books to read: at the bottom James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare, on top of that is Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, then Orhan Parmuk’s Istanbul, then Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, then Tim Macintosh-Smith’s Yemen, then T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, and on top is George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation. I pick it up. I open the cover. I look at the contents page. I read the inside back cover. I read the blurbs on the back cover. I look at the other Saunders’ books I own — they nestle on top of my James Sallises and my Jose Saramagos and my Jean-Paul Sartres. I put In Persuasion Nation back on the bookshelf, settling it on my red, blue, yellow, and green editions of J.D. Salinger. I’ll save it for Japan, I think. Or for when I’m ill. I’ll savour it, like the first sip of morning tea, the fatty crackling on roast pork, the tip of a triangular slice of melon.

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