George Saunders writes social-protest fiction from the future. Sort of. Maybe it’s more accurate to say he writes corporate-protest fiction from the future. Like successful satirists from Voltaire to Vonnegut, Saunders identifies present trends and pushes them to their extremes. He imports the value systems of corporations, advertising, consumerism, and government (all American-style) into daily life, into social relationships, crossing every border until even a character’s mind, memory and identity are defined by these imposed value systems.
Funny, heartbreaking, and addicting to read, his fiction mixes the personal with the corporate, the private with the public, collapsing into our homes and heads the commercialization of culture. By trapping his characters in the living hell of a living mall, in the eternally arrested development of a youth-consumer-testing lab, and in the limbo of life in a television surreality show, Saunders makes us say, “Isn’t this hilarious? No, wait, isn’t this insane?”
In his latest book of stories, In Persuasion Nation, and in his 2005 novel, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders conflates the worlds of television, commercials, politics, and real life to create unique hybrid worlds populated by polar bears, god-like junk-food wrappers, talking organs, and Abraham Lincoln. His fiction depends on visual literacy and pop-culture fluency. Images and products come to life as fictional characters. He makes surreal and bittersweet art from the commercial images, corporate sloganeering, and insinuating authoritative doubletalk all around us. From the story “My Flamboyant Grandson”:
“We would be standing there at least half an hour, after which we would have to go to an Active Complaints Center, where they would check our Strips for Operability and make us watch that corrective video called ‘Robust Economy, Super Moral Climate!,’ which I had already been made to watch three times last winter, when I was out of work and we could not afford cable.”
And from “CommComm”:
“In the van I do a Bad Feelings Acknowledgment re: the reburial. I visualize my Useless Guilt as a pack of black dogs. I open the gate, throw out the Acknowledgment Meat. Pursuing the Meat, the black dogs disappear over a cliff, turning into crows (i.e., Neutral/Non-Guilty Energy), which then fly away, feeling Assuaged.”
The typical Sanders character is a sympathetic victim overwhelmed by dystopian circumstance, trapped in devilish just-slightly-ahead-of-their-time scenarios. The Saunders character can’t help but absorb the lingo and the self-defeating psychology of those in charge, and the conflicts frequently center on the heroes recovering in some small way their wit, words and will.
I. “I CAN SPEAK!”TM & “My Amendment” & “93990”
Written as a letter from a KidLuv company representative to a disgruntled parent who bought, basically, a robot mask that fits over a baby’s face and can be programmed to tell jokes or converse intelligently, the story, “I CAN SPEAK!,”TM lampoons what creepy self-serving manipulators we can be when our parental guilt fuels our consumer whim.
“Mrs. Faniglia, I, for one, do not believe that any baby wants to sit around all day going glub glub glub. My feeling is that a baby, sitting in its diaper, looking around at the world, thinks to itself, albeit in some crude nonverbal way: What the heck is wrong with me, why am I the only one saying glub glub glub while all these other folks are talking in whole complete sentences? And hence, possibly, lifelong psychological damage may result.”
To persuade the customer to upgrade, the representative marshals a variety of arguments any consumer might hear from any company about any product, and the effect here, when the product is a twitchy fleshy robo-face affixed to a little baby’s head, is to persuade us not only to laugh at this futuristic absurdity but also to question the motives of everyone (except the baby) involved in these kinds of consumer dynamics. The actual (natural) welfare of the baby, in fact, is the last value on anyone’s mind.
The story, “My Amendment,” is also a letter, this time a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Taking homophobia to an extreme, the writer suggests that not only should same-sex marriages be outlawed but also Samish-Sex Marriages, meaning those in which the husband is too effeminate and the wife, too masculine. The story exposes hypocrisy, reveals the absurdity of prejudice, and flips the slippery-slope objection back onto the social conservatives who always bemoan it (i.e. those who always object to same-sex marriage because it’s “a slippery slope”; a slope into exactly what is never clear).
“93990” is the third story composed not as a work of fiction but as another kind of document, here the document being the summary of a science experiment (“a ten-day acute toxicity study”). The conflict is that the cold precise language of scientific observation strikingly fails to account for the most important finding of all. This kind of language not only fails to find the right words but is symptomatic of the habit of mind that fails even to recognize the miraculous. And “miraculous” is the right word because while Saunders is an equal-opportunity critic of those who misuse language (scientific, governmental, and corporate authorities get their comeuppance), he is also a humanist with a soft spot for the spiritual.
II. “My Flamboyant Grandson”
Grandpa wants to take his theatrical grandson to New York to see a play. The first conflict is that Grandpa must get over his wish for a more typical grandchild and thus summon his forbearance and love in an effort to inspire a grandson who likes to wear pink boas and sing show tunes. What keeps this from getting sentimental is two things. First, the distraction, for both the characters and the reader, of invasive advertising assaulting the narrator and his grandson as they walk down the street. Here is the world Saunders can’t resist imagining:
“We left the Eisner and started up Broadway, the Everly Readers in the sidewalk reading the Everly Strips in our shoes, the building-mounted miniscreens at eye level showing images reflective of the Personal Preferences we’d stated on our monthly Everly Preference Worksheets, the numerous Cybec Sudden Emergent Screens out-thrusting or down-thrusting inches from our faces, and in addition I could very clearly hear the sound-only messages being beamed to me and me alone via the various Casio Aural Focussers, such as one that shouted out to me between Forty-second and Forty-third, ‘Mr. Petrillo, you chose Burger King eight times last fiscal year but only two times thus far this fiscal year, please do not forsake us now, there is a store one block north!'”
Second, Saunders keeps this story from becoming made-for-TV maudlin by rendering it as a cautionary tale about how much more difficult it could be in the future to encourage unique personalities at odds with the conception of people as consumers.
III. “The Red Bow” & “Christmas” & “Adams” & “Bohemians”
These four pieces are more typically realistic (“Christmas” is autobiographical fiction), but they remain thematically consistent with the spiritually informed compassion running throughout the collection of 12 stories. “Bohemians” and “Christmas” are about wrongs done to good people, about failing to stand up for someone cheated or slandered, and thereafter wishing for vengeance against the cheaters and slanderers and for merciful redemption for the wronged.
“The Red Bow” and “Adams” explore good intentions run amok. In contrast to “Christmas” and “Bohemians,” in which the good and bad people and actions are clarified in the end, “Bow” and “Adams,” to Saunders’s credit, push moral certitudes to their own grim limits, that is, when the grief-stricken desire to prevent bad things from happening goes so far that, in paranoia, the do-gooder perpetrates those bad things. Faith and compassion are good for the soul, yes, but in moderation. Too much faith becomes intolerant fundamentalism. Too much compassion becomes smothering righteousness.
IV. “Brad Carrigan, American” & “In Persuasion Nation” & “CommComm”
These, with “Jon,” are the big hitters in this collection. They are breathtaking in their imaginative scope. Saunders goes way out there and expects the reader to keep up, which is possible because the imagined worlds operate according to familiar rules: the rules of satellite television, of commercials and advertising, of movies and cartoons and jingles and promo spots, of reality shows and game shows and, well, religious texts in which gods and bushes and animals talk and wreak vengeance and show mercy. Rarely do fiction writers avail themselves of these rules and rarely do they attempt to chop up so many of these elements and drop them, all at once, into the stew of a single story. From “Brad Carrigan”:
“So whenever something’s changed around here, he’s tried to stay upbeat. When they got Buddy he didn’t question why Buddy was a puppet-dog and not a real dog. When Chief Wayne started coming around claiming to be his oldest friend in the world, he didn’t question why a Native American had red hair. When their backyard started morphing, he didn’t ask how it was physically possible.”
That Saunders’s work is so widely esteemed concerns me. If he’s a satirist, does he sting? Whom is he stinging? His work doesn’t appear to be much of a threat, at least judging by the Congressional hearings a video game can generate. Are corporations ticked off? He actually names real companies and products in his stories: Pfizer, Ding-Dongs, Doritos, Tampax, Cinnabon, Tylenol. Saunders must know that marketing eats criticism: any mention is good mention, lends a product the literary equivalent of street credibility (“As Featured in George Saunders’s Latest Story Collection!”). So provoking corporate interests or politicians in particular is not his aim. Granted. What he might want, instead, is to bolster our self-conceptions, reaffirm our civil liberties, defend the principles of the Constitution, compose new myths which celebrate the lasting integrity of our fellow feeling, and all because things have gotten so bad that we actually for crying out loud need an artist to argue for common human decency, plain speaking, love and hope.
What I fear is that his stories are received like a kind of literary comfort food in that the liberal reader who shares the morality of Saunders the satirist is enabled, by this fiction, to feel superior to those corrupt authorities and their sloppy evil language by chastening them in their excesses. Saunders by the miracle of his fiction reclaims a damaged world and remakes it into the humble god-fearing realm of the artist. But the problem is that my feelings are confirmed, not challenged. I’m entertained by the notion that the individual will to humility, to honor, to awe and wonder and hope and love, will save us, even, as in “CommComm,” in death.
And yet Saunders’s own stories seem to respond to this criticism even as they provoke it. Brad, in “Brad Carrigan,” yearns to do the right thing but, I think (the ending is nicely nuanced), fails. The polar bear, one of the main characters in “In Persuasion Nation,” leaps from a cliff and bounces back up, calling to the crowd of penguins, “Free your minds and live! There is a gentler and more generous GOD within us, if only we will look!” The characters in this story are trapped in “a sub-universe” that is basically the limbo of the ad world, each character reliving his or her advertisement over and over again as if trudging to work each day (the polar bear has to enter an igloo, paw a pawful of Cheetohs, and wait for the Eskimo father to drive an axe into his skull, after which comes the tagline, “Yo, Keep Yer Pawz Off My Cheetz”). The penguins, in this story, are stand-ins for the doubting and timid masses, “always easily embarrassed,” as they are by the polar bear’s earnest cries for salvation. If I’m skeptical of the polar bear’s spiritual slogans, I am also challenged to avoid the reflexive cynicism of the penguins.
Liebniz argued that this world was the best possible (while still being imperfect), and Voltaire, clever satirist, responded with Candide (in which tragedy dogs the hero and everyone else to the ironic refrain, “It’s all for the best!”). Reacting to the prevailing foolishness of their own times, Huxley gave us Brave New World, Orwell gave us 1984, Donald Barthelme gave us “The Emerald,” and Vonnegut gave us his many works in which present trends are extrapolated into hyberbolic dystopias. Saunders joins them by devising otherworldly American nightmares in the midst of which beats the miracle of the humble human heart.