REVIEW: In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders
George Saunders drafted a keynote for his work in the novella “Bounty,” which appeared in his first collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. “Bounty” is set in an apocalyptic world of an unspecified nature––the country is susceptible to anarchic Panics when water sources become mutagenic. The country––and needless to say it is a hyperbolic version of our country––responds to the Panics by legislating a Slave Edict and scapegoating the mutated part of the population known as Flaweds. The hero, Cole, is a Flawed (he has claws for toes) and lives in a compound that is a cross between a concentration camp and an amusement park. Cole’s sister Connie, who has a slight vestigial tail, is purchased by a Normal; when Cole learns that this Normal has a history of prostituting Flaweds and abandoning them, he escapes the compound and goes to find her.
The rest of “Bounty” is divided into the numerous episodic encounters Cole makes while illicitly crossing the country. In this, the novella was likely influenced by Chichikov’s journey in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls: each encounter represents a different segment of society and a distinct manifestation of social morality. Cole meets an ascetic missionary who calls Flaweds, “Specials”; he rides in a boxcar with a pacifist father who thinks it will set a bad example for his kids if he fights a lunatic who tries to kill him; he is caught and sold by poor starving locals and then caged by a slaver trying to raise money to win back his childhood sweetheart; and he finds an underground insurgency movement.
Nearly all the themes that Saunders will return to in later stories––even at the risk of monotony––are found here. His settings are the dystopian reverse-negatives of middle class suburbs. His main characters are outsiders, often with physical abnormalities. His humor is derived from the pathetic. And his dialogue is sui generis, an inimitable fusion of corporate jargon and ADD-addled dialect. (Here is the driving instructor from “The Barber’s Unhappiness”: “I’m talking what happens if you walk away from here a man or woman not changed in her thought patterns by the material I’m about to present to you in terms of the visuals and graphics? Which some of the things are crashes and some are working wounds I myself have personally dressed and some are wounds we downloaded off the Internet so you could have a chance to see wounds that are national. Because why? Because consequences. Because are we on this earth or an island?”)
But the most important quality to Saunders’ stories is the transparency of their moral questions. Saunders likes to use the word “urgency” when discussing his work, and it is possible that no writer has less expository patience than he does. Because his character and scene descriptions never surpass one sentence, there is no padding between the reader and the idea. His stories ask, with a candor that is sometimes almost artless, how do we treat one another––particularly the most vulnerable among us––and are we right or wrong?
These questions are posed again in the superb collection Pastoralia, most memorably in the masterpieces “The Falls” and “Sea Oak,” and they reappear with all the familiar trappings in Saunders’ newest book of stories, In Persuasion Nation. In “Commcomm,” for example, one of the best stories here, a compromised PR man is constantly engaged in a sort of ethical cost-analysis while colluding in crimes to save his company––or in his terms, “Actual Harm Analysis” and “Moral Benefit Eval.” It’s a system that proves inadequate when the crimes escalate to murder, and the powerful, retributive finish of this story (Saunders is a rare author willing to kill his characters) captures some measure of the aching glory at the end of “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” And though it strives for much less, “My Flamboyant Grandson” is a funny and touching addition to the pathetic vignettes that Saunders creates so well:
Being a man who knows something about grandfatherly disapproval, having had a grandfather who constantly taunted me for having enlarged calves––to the extent that even today, when bathing, I find myself thinking unkind thoughts about Grandfather––what I prayed…was: Dear Lord, he is what he is, let me love him no matter what. If he is a gay child, God bless him, if he is a non-gay child who simply very much enjoys wearing his grandmother’s wig while singing “Edelweiss” to the dog, so be it, and in either case let me communicate my love and acceptance in everything I do.
However, In Persuasion Nation shows a definite evolution in Saunders’ artistic intentions. Since Pastoralia––and more pointedly since September 11th––he has become openly opinionated about politics and the op-ed cultural issues for which the New Yorker, where his work generally appears, is a major sounding board. Saunders work has always fit in the uneasy category of “socially conscious,” and with In Persuasion Nation he may now find himself recruited into the ranks of Frank Rich’s “Cultural Warriors,” which, in my opinion, is a very unpromising place for a writer to go. A knell is usually tolled once a writer’s name becomes a shibboleth amongst a group or class.
A real flavor of political evangelism surrounds this publication: the dust jacket announces that it comes to us “at a time when we need it most,” making the fatuous insinuation that during, say, the Clinton era great books were unimportant. Yet there is no escaping that Saunders’ political allegories constitute the least successful of all of his writing. In my eyes The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, an allegorical fable published last year in paperback, was his first real misfire, reading as it did like silly stuff against the hefty subjects––patriotism, preemptive war, civil rights––it attempted to confront.
One simple reason that Saunders hasn’t pulled off broad Swiftian commentary is that his chosen form all but precludes breadth. “The Red Bow” is a perfect example. This brilliantly conceived story begins after the narrator’s daughter is killed by dogs crazed by a strange and apparently contagious form of rabidity. In response, a vigilante operation led by the narrator’s power-thirsty uncle takes to the neighborhood putting down all dogs they suspect to be sick. How do you determine which are suspected? someone asks in town hall meeting asks. The answer is a Bush/Rumsfeld hybrid: “Suspected, you know, said Uncle Matt. That means we suspect and have good reason to suspect that an animal is, or may be, Infected.” Quickly this policy degenerates into the elimination of all animals in town. Channeling the paranoia, racism, and government encroachment bred after 9-11, the story is mesmerizing––and then abortive. At thirteen pages it finally reads more like the prospectus to a terrific novel than a satisfying story.
Even weaker are “Brad Corrigan, American” and “In Persuasion Nation,” which attack the moral bankruptcy of reality television and commercialism. Saunders has been concerned with these topics from the start, using them ingeniously to fill out his dystopian backdrops: In “Sea Oak,” for instance, the struggling family is hooked on the reality show How My Child Died Violently. But now the stories that frame Saunders’ message, though still idiosyncratic, are so flimsy that what issues forth are the teakettle shrills of preachment. The title story, in which characters from TV ads come to life and stage a kind of opéra bouffe, ends with a recycling of Plato’s cave allegory. “The green symbol [a prepossessing candy wrapper] is a false GOD!” declaims a polar bear from a snack food ad. “Free your minds and live! There is a gentler and more generous GOD within us.” The absurdity of the setup doesn’t alter that this is the hoariest cliché in literature.
Social satire is born of passionate anger. Swift and Gogol (as well as contributors to Harpers and Adbusters) possessed or were possessed by it, a fierce and lacerating sarcasm that, at its finest, actually distills into sparkling clarity. But Saunders isn’t very good with anger. Chichikov is trying to buy the titles to dead serfs and thus become a rich nobleman: his journey is fundamentally cynical. But in “Bounty,” Cole is just trying to rescue his sister. Cynicism runs thinly in Saunders’ blood; what drives him, on the contrary, is love. (Which is no mean commodity: Gogol wanted to write the redemption of Chichikov and literally killed himself trying.)
Love is the subject of “Jon,” maybe the one story here in this collection that stands beside the best of Pastoralia. The premise iterates a great deal of “Bounty.” A colony of orphaned young people live in a compound––this one is largely benignant––where they work as highly-trained advertisement assessors. As a result of their lifelong immersion in their work, all of their experience and associations come from commercials: when Jon tries to describe lovemaking, he can only think of a Honey Grahams ad in which streams of milk and honey are poured together. But when his pregnant girlfriend leaves for the outside world he has to decide whether to stay amongst the hardwired comfort and privilege of the compound or follow her (which would entail the removal of a metal disk and a gaping hole in his neck for the rest of his life). Here again Saunders’ pet motifs are featured, but they are all in service of a winning love story. To me it feels like an antidote to the cool, stylish, disaffected irony of so much postmodernism. Jon decides to leave the world of data and rejoin the dangerous, disorienting world of feeling.