Thursday, May 18, 2006
I’m not exactly sure what it is, but there’s something about satirist George Saunders that sends the New York Times into grotesque fits of hysterical simile disease. In one review, he was dubbed “the illegitimate offspring of Nathanael West and Kurt Vonnegut,” as if those two could have had “legitimate” offspring. In another, he’s likened to—deep breath—“Lewis’ Babbit thrown into the backseat of a car going cross-country, driven by R. Crumb, Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Harvey Pekar or Spike Jonze.”
In reality, they’re both wrong: George Saunders is like the cannonball that kills a giant synthetic chicken sandwich shaped like a frigate—with oars made of celery and wafer-thin nacho sails—that blasted Abraham Lincoln with its salsa cannons in the middle of the Gettysburg Address.
Gibberish? Sort of. But accurate. Because about halfway through the title story of Saunders’ new book, In Persuasion Nation, that’s exactly what happens.
The story is a series of vignettes involving characters in offensive TV commercials who have their dignity and humanity robbed from them in service of the sale: A hip teenager is forced to choose between helping his badly injured grandmother and his bowl of “MacAttack Mac&Cheese,” and opts for the Mac&Cheese; a kindly orange is brutally assaulted by a “Slap-of-Wack” bar for questioning the bar’s nutritional value; and a man tricks his friend into tearing off his penis so he can make off with his “Pontiac Sophisto.” Fed up with the torment, the aggrieved characters band together and wage guerilla war against the commercials, pausing to wonder what kind of God would allow them to suffer like this for no apparent reason.
And yes, along the way, the chicken frigate takes a cannonball.
Like its titular story, In Persuasion Nation, the book traces the trials of individuals caught in a rigidly chipper orthodoxy that leaves little room for humanity. The stories, full of casual violence, are by turns hilarious and devastating; and the characters, just as often dog puppets and TV characters as they are actual human beings, somehow wind up being deeply sympathetic.
In “The Red Bow,” a man, consumed by directionless grief over the loss of his niece to a rabid dog, leads a town-wide campaign to first kill the rabid dog, then a couple of potentially rabid dogs, then all dogs (because they might get rabies), then all cats (just to be safe). The town, struck by his eloquent expressions of grief and stirring calls to action, goes along with the plan. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story—as well as the rest of the concept-heavy pieces in this collection—could have been a ham-handed mess, but here it succeeds in being genuinely moving. In the end, you feel bad for the kid, for the uncle, the father and the townspeople, who, in their attempts to be safe and good, wind up doing enormous harm.
Throughout the book, Saunders maintains his trademark deadpan voice—clean, understated, occasionally reverting to a choppy adolescent syntax to highlight the writer’s central point that Americans, bombarded with commercials and vapid entertainment and divorced from a sense of history, live in a perpetual state of adolescence. It’s dreary stuff, but there’s hope—at least in the form of the old man in “My Flamboyant Grandson.” Fed up with a futuristic world sanitized by pat self-help jargon and crammed with materialism and invasive advertising, he offers his thoughts:
What America is, to me, is a guy doesn’t want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let’s go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamorous reasonable voice.
It’s this sentiment that always lives around the edges of Saunders’ writing; and in a time when the word “patriotism” is flung around with an alarming degree of carelessness, it seems like the most patriotic thing in the world.