George Saunders -Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to

George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone (Riverhead, 2007)

“Some novelists seem to make great reporters. Two of the best journalists of the last 50 years are Norman Mailer and David Foster Wallace; their literary nonfiction is jaw-droppingly good, the equal of their fiction. Maybe it's time to add noted short-story writer George Saunders to this short list. In The Braindead Megaphone, his collection of funny essays and long journalism, the affable author patrols the Mexican border, visits the Buddha Boy in Nepal, and, in the title essay, ribs America's loudmouth TV culture: 'Is all our media stupid? Far from it. But: Is some of our media very stupid? Hoo boy.' Is Saunders' book on target? Hoo boy.” - Entertainment Weekly

“Now hear this. Even though MacArthur-Foundation 100-Percent-Certified Grade-A Genius George Saunders’s first nonfiction collection, The Braindead Megaphone, is more rooted in the cultural terra firma of reality than his surreal and absurdly funny fiction, essays such as his account of chilling in the jungle with “the Buddha Boy” of Nepal, and the satirical manifesto of P.R.K.A. - “People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction” - still straddle the line between ridiculous and deadly serious, like a Girl Scout with a piece of spaghetti hanging out of her mouth, holding her troop hostage with an Uzi. Saunders’s bitingly clever and compassionate essays are a Mark Twain-syle shot in the arm for Americans, an antidote to the dumbing down virus plaguing our country. Well, we live in hope.” - Vanity Fair

“You’ll find the work of George Saunders frequently described as ‘funny,’ but that's like calling a nuclear detonation warm - it’s true, abundantly so, but it fails to accurately convey the forces unleashed... The Braindead Megaphone is a collection of essays, not short stories, but it’s still a representative and very welcome addition to the Saunders canon. That’s because essay is given the loosest possible definition, embracing everything from lighthearted, wholly fictional verbal badinage to earnest, in-depth field reportage, and in every case the author’s trademark bricolage of the fantastical and the familiar is very much in evidence.” - San Francisco Chronicle

“Short-story master George Saunders has perfected a form that we're gonna go ahead and call hysterical empathy: stories in which the regular guy, thrust into ever more cruel and absurd situations, endures. The essays in The Braindead Megaphone pack the same punch as his fiction. "Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to," Saunders writes in a tribute to his forebear Kurt Vonnegut. He brings that perceptive humor to bear on Iraq-era media, Dubai's architecture, Borat, and more.” - New York Magazine

"With some people it’s difficult to tell whether they’re joking or being serious; with George Saunders, there’s no need to bother with this distinction. The Braindead Megaphone, the author’s first book of essays and reportage, proves one thing above all: when Saunders turns his attention away from the various dystopias he has imagined for us over the past dozen years, when he aims his gift for surrealist satire at the all-too-real dystopia we call home, he can achieve some unforgettable glimpses at our often warped world. To achieve this, sometimes all he has to do is report his facts. For example, here’s his description of a hotel from his travelogue of Dubai (my ellipses in brackets):
'The Madinat Jumeirah is, near as I can figure, a superresort consisting of three, or possibly six, luxury sub-hotels and two, or maybe three, clusters of luxury villas, spread out over about forty acres […] I really couldn’t tell, so seamless and extravagant and confusing was all the luxury […] the site is crisscrossed by 2.3 miles of fake creeks, trolled night and day by dozens of fake Arabian water taxis (abras) piloted by what I can only describe as fake Arabs because, though dressed like old-timey Arabs, they are actually young, smiling, sweet-hearted guys from Nepal or Kenya or the Philippines, who speak terrific English […] the air is perfumed, you hear fountains, the tinkling of bells, distant chanted prayers, and when the (real) Arabian moon comes up, yellow and attenuated, over a (fake) Arabian wind tower, you feel you are a resident of some ancient city […] You have somehow entered the landscape of a dream […] and when, a little dazzled, you mutter to yourself (“This is like a freaking dream, I love it, I, wow…”) you don’t wake up, but instead a smiling Filipino kid comes up and asks you if you’d like a drink.'
The piece just quoted is one of three extended travelogues; another tells of his investigation into a Nepalese boy who had reportedly been meditating without food and water for seven months on end (verdict: it seemed genuine), and in the last, he takes a trip to the US-Mexico border to report on the immigration debate, and mostly gives us a close-up look at one local chapter of the Minuteman Project.
Throughout these pieces the author adopts a wondering stance, most evident in the Dubai piece: he is a wide-eyed innocent let loose in a crazy, beautiful, and strange world. This stance is so familiar from his fiction that it sometimes appears to be no stance at all, but just the way Saunders really understands the world. However, there is ample evidence of a wiser mind behind the device. Take the last piece mentioned above: the Minuteman Project is a group of self-styled vigilantes who have decided to patrol the border on their own, without benefit of official sanction. It would have been easy to ridicule the individuals involved, and dismiss the Minuteman Project as ugly nativism gone to seed, but fortunately Saunders has too much compassion, and is too devoted to showing the real complexity of the situation, to fall into that trap. He somehow manages to reveal the members for what they are – sad, scared, big talkers, overwhelmed by circumstances – without mocking them, too. Ultimately he likes the people as individuals, but he is “made sad by Minuteman dread. They take a fact and make the worst of it. This beautiful world, all this magnificence, seems to inspire in them only a fear that the beautiful world will be taken away,” and he can’t wait to escape their company.
The most impressive pieces in the book, in terms of the depth of their thoughtfulness, are four pieces of literary criticism: in fact, they overshadow the other pieces so much that I was surprised to discover they only comprise about fifty pages. They include detailed considerations of the best-known works by a trio of authors that should surprise no one: Vonnegut, Barthelme, and Mark Twain. The Vonnegut essay is especially revealing, as it essentially tells how Saunders came to see surrealism, coupled with a natural writing style, as something he could use in his own work. At the time he first encountered Vonnegut, he writes,
'I believed great writing was done in a language that had as little as possible to do with the one I spoke. […] Writing was, at this stage in my development, the process of trying to do whatever was most unnatural. Art was that thing you couldn’t quite reach.'
Naturally, his first reaction to Slaughterhouse-5 was to reject it as Art. But over the subsequent weeks, he repeatedly re-reads it, and eventually he recognizes that Vonnegut has used absurd humor to achieve an artistic, and even a moral, end:
'I’d understood the function of art to be primarily descriptive: a book was a kind of scale model of life, intended to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think just what the writer had. Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer […] can put whatever he wants in there. […] The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it. We are meant to exit the book altered.'
However, the best essay in this book is an in-depth piece on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I will leave it to the reader to discover his quirky reading of that book, and his thought-provoking analysis of its successes, failures, and enduring importance in American culture – literary and otherwise.
The collection is filled out with a generous number of hilarious pieces, many of which would have been equally at home in a collection of stories, for all the resemblance they bear to reality.
Saunders closes the book with the press release on the latest operations of the PRKA (People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction): “we set, on roads in every city, in every nation in the world, a total of zero (0) roadside bombs, which, not being there, did not subsequently explode, killing/maiming a total of nobody. […] These silences were, in all cases, followed by no unimaginable, grief-stricken bellows of rage and loss. […] we have gone about our work quietly, resisting the urge to generalize, insisting upon valuing the individual over the group, the actual over the conceptual.” It is a manifesto of compassion, and the author has evidently carried out many of its terms in the pieces collected here." - Jeremy Hatch

"American author George Saunders is known for his short stories and fiction, but he's also a journalist for publications such as The Guardian, The New Yorker Magazine and GQ. The Brain-Dead Megaphone is his first collection of essays and it's an interesting proposition: sixteen pieces ranging from travel writing, literary appreciation, political essays, to surrealist short fiction.
What marks Saunders' political essays out is their immense affability – never resorting to polemic, Saunders pieces are consistently thoughtful and reasoned. Title piece 'The Brain-Dead Megaphone' is a great introduction to the book, entertaining and inviting throughout as it slowly develops from a piece about the loud ignorant people to the dumbing down of news media. 'The Great Divider' is an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism highlighting the problems of immigration between Mexico and the United States; it covers all sides of the story from a human perspective, while he remains open minded about a contentious issue. As he meets with the Minutemen, a vigilante group who watch along the border for illegal immigrants, Saunders doesn't paint these men as racist red-neck caricatures but instead shows them as hard-working patriots wanting a decent future for their families.
As a creative writing lecturer, Saunders has an obvious love of language and this is not just expressed through his fluid writing style. In a series of personal essays Saunders covers how Esther Forbes' book Johnny Tremain was the book that first got him interested in writing and how Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is an influence on him. Saunders also includes a few brief pieces of fiction writing, like his hilarious faux letters page 'Ask the Optimist' and his interesting writing experiment 'Woof' - a plea written from a dog's point-of-view. A word of warning: if you have any interest in reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn then do not read Saunders' piece 'The United States of Huck' – though not a bad piece, it does tell you too much about the story including its ending.
Saunders proves himself to be a good travel writer. His piece about Dubai, 'The New Mecca', is an enlightening travel piece into a mysterious Middle East metropolis. Heaving with poetic imagery and attention to detail, Saunders puts this into a social context as he refers to the use of migrant workers in its construction and maintenance. It is a shame to report that his brief piece about Britain is quite myopic, focusing on the upper-middle class without really saying anything new. The climax of the book, 'Buddha Boy', is an illuminating travel journal piece about his trip to see a boy who had been in meditation for seven months straight. Though questioning, it isn't cynical but wondrous of this weird character.
This could have been an indulgent mess, but instead it is one of the most enjoyable essay collections I've read since the work of Hunter S Thompson. The Brain-Dead Megaphone is like the best magazine you've never read, a variety of well written, impassioned, and entertaining pieces from a writer you'd love to go for a drink with." - The Bookbag

"Here's a news flash from the pen of George Saunders: "Last Thursday, my organization, People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction (PRKA), orchestrated an overwhelming show of force around the globe. At precisely nine in the morning, working with focus and stealth, our entire membership succeeded in simultaneously beheading no one. At nine-thirty, we embarked upon Phase II, during which our entire membership did not force a single man to simulate sex with another man. At ten, Phase III began, during which not a single one of us blew himself/herself up in a crowded public place. In addition, in Phase IV, zero (0) planes were flown into buildings. All this was accomplished so surreptitiously, it attracted little public notice."
"Humor," Saunders explains in his new essay collection The Braindead Megaphone, "is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to."
A practicing Buddhist — and, though you'll rarely hear him acknowledge it, a Texan, born in Amarillo in 1958 — Saunders applies leftist, pacifist lateral thinking to our political and social problems. This way of thinking is on full display in his first five books, all fiction: the short-story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000) and In Persuasion Nation (2006); the children's book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000); and a novella-length anti-war fable titled The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005), in which he depicts members of the media as "squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles." That very image reappears in the title essay of his first book of nonfiction.
Perhaps because he's originally a Texan, Saunders has a finely tuned BS detector. He writes that "our venture in Iraq was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination." The media have "become bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, and agenda-driven" and are to blame.
But we're not powerless before the "volume and omnipresence" of the media, he writes. "Every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance" is an antidote.
Discussing the immigration debate stoked by CNN's Lou Dobbs and others, Saunders writes: "The national media seized on the story and, as always, screwed it up: reduced it to pithy sound bites, politicized it, and injected it with faux urgency, until, lo, the nation was confused." The problem with the debate is "the level of abstraction at which it's conducted." Not content to sit behind a desk and complain, he flew down to Texas from New York (where he teaches at Syracuse University) "to find some answers."
He drove along the U.S.-Mexico border in a rented Chrysler minivan, stopping in Laredo (what he calls "The All-American Mexican City, or the All-Mexican American City, Whatever"), Roma (to visit the World Birding Center) and then Del Rio for a nighttime patrol with the "Minutemen" — a group, it turns out, containing numerous Houston Renaissance Festival devotees.
Rather than mock the Minutemen or their mission, Saunders puts them in context: These "Minutemen" are, he writes, patrolling "a few hundred yards of border, on one small ranch, in the huge state of Texas — a tiny patch of Catcher in a thousand miles of Rye." It is a very subtle critique that doesn't diminish them or strip them of dignity.
Unlike The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, television shows that share Saunders' satirical DNA, he rarely employs a hectoring tone, opting instead for a sense of wonder.
This is on display most of all in his superb travelogue about a week wandering through the attractions of Dubai. One might assume he would be righteously repulsed by the city-state's vulgar opulence, but Saunders admits the "areal" beauty of the place seduced him.
"The air is perfumed, you hear fountains, the tinkling of bells, distant chanted prayers, and when the (real) Arabian moon comes up, yellow and attenuated, over a (fake) Arabian wind tower, you feel you are resident of some ancient city," he writes. It is more Disneyland than Middle East.
He takes in all the sights, including the $3,000-a-night "seven star" Burj al Arab hotel, the one that looks like a giant sail. His experiences lead to a meditation on perception versus reality and the eventual assertion that we are all — Arabs and Americans alike — "the victims of The Misconception From Afar." This misconception, he says, is what leads to mutual aggression.
Saunders' book offers more than a series of hard-earned political epiphanies. It also includes a handful of comic think pieces as well a quartet of literary appreciations covering Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Donald Barthelme's short story The School. The last is one of the most famous stories by the late University of Houston writing professor to whom Saunders is often compared. Titled The Perfect Gerbil, it's one of those rare pieces of literary criticism that actually explains how good writing works.
This book demonstrates that Saunders is more than a superb fiction writer: He's also a surprisingly empathetic essayist, a writer perfectly attuned to a world where the old paradigms of authority are breaking down, comedians deliver the nightly news and fiction writers, apparently, are finer reporters than many journalists." - Edward Nawotka

"You'll find the work of George Saunders frequently described as "funny," but that's like calling a nuclear detonation "warm" - it's true, abundantly so, but it fails to accurately convey the forces unleashed.
Since making his debut with 1996's short-story collection "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," Saunders has been honing a seemingly paradoxical style, one that uses the tools and tropes of satire to produce not broad slapstick but miniatures of often-devastating emotional potency. Absurdities and surrealities abound, yet no matter how bizarre their circumstances, the characters are convincingly drawn, with inner lives and voices that ring true. Zombies return from the grave, only to shout desperate advice at the loved ones they've left behind. A postapocalyptic America reverts to slavery, but guilt-ridden overlords offer their chattel "meditation classes and mini-seminars on certain motivational principles we can all put to work in our lives."
When it's successful, it's searingly so - the acute eye of an Alice Munro matched with the wild-minded sensibility of a Kurt Vonnegut. It's no wonder that Saunders has racked up numerous awards, as well as a recent MacArthur "genius" grant.
"The Braindead Megaphone" is a collection of essays, not short stories, but it's still a representative and very welcome addition to the Saunders canon. That's because essay is given the loosest possible definition, embracing everything from lighthearted, wholly fictional verbal badinage to earnest, in-depth field reportage, and in every case the author's trademark bricolage of the fantastical and the familiar is very much in evidence.
The opening piece is a contemplation of the thought-cheapening force of modern media, vividly metaphorized as a man at a party with a megaphone, loudly yammering away on pseudo-topics ("We're eating more cheese cubes - and loving it!"). By virtue of volume, this Megaphone Guy can't help but dominate the conversation, but, more important, the very concept of conversation, of intellectual engagement, erodes away, drowned in the incessant stream of simplisms. "He has, in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party," Saunders writes. "Does very stupid media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general? It would be surprising if it didn't." - Jason Roberts
George Saunders, Pastoralia (Riverhead Books, 2000)

"Imagine a world where theme park employees live and work in a prefabricated, prehistoric cave and communicate with their families via fax; where an upbeat self-help guru encourages followers to find out "who's been crapping in your oatmeal"; where an improbable romance blossoms at driving school. Welcome to the twisted, profound, and hilarious world of George Saunders. In his new book of short stories, Pastoralia, Saunders returns to the wickedly imaginative world that distinguished his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline.
With a voice unlike any other in modern literature, Saunders gives readers a glimpse into the lives of the down-but-not-out, luckless losers who persevere and are oddly hopeful. In the selection below, excerpted from the title story, two employees at a historical theme park share a simulated cave and keep tabs on each other for the management. When Janet starts to slip — cursing at park visitors and drinking in the cave — her coworker must decide what to report to their Big Brother-like boss. The stories in Pastoralia are nervy, outrageous, sometimes darkly disturbing, but ultimately uplifting — exactly what readers have come to expect from George Saunders."

"ABSTRACT: Short story about a man who lives full-time as a caveman in an amusement park diorama... Narrator is depressed because no one has poked their head in to the exhibit in thirteen days, and the woman he shares his cave with, Janet, has been speaking English, which is forbidden... Tells how they eat freshly killed goats which they find in the Big Slot... Narrator discovers that the goat has not arrived one day... They eat Reserve Crackers; Janet smokes a forbidden cigarette and complains he won't talk to her... He faxes in his Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form, covering for her... The narrator gets a fax from his wife, Louise, who tells him that the medical crisis with their son Nelson, 3, has passed... Janet reveals to two people who look in on them how they go to the bathroom... Their goat the next day has a note attached to it suggesting that some staff members will be fired... The narrator is invited to brunch by executive Greg Nordstrom, who suggests he betray Janet... The narrator tells Janet that she is in trouble... When he faxes details of this discussion to Greg Nordstrom, Nordstrom becomes angry with him, explaining that he wants documentation that Janet should be fired, not encouraging news about her performance... Janet's ne’er-do-well son, Bradley, walks in to the cave, and Janet borrows $20 to give him... Bradley is subsequently arrested and convicted... Janet gets drunk and comes into the cave wearing an "I'm with Stupid" sweatshirt... Narrator continues to fax in positive evaluation reports, covering for Janet... She argues with a tourist, who writes up a negative evaluation report; she is fired and replaced by a younger woman who has had a cavewoman brow surgically implanted... Narrator notes her enthusiasm and wonders if he is pretending to eat small bugs off the ground at the correct rate. No one pokes their head in."

"Kurt Vonnegut is dead, but if he was still alive, he might request that George Saunders carry on his legacy as America’s greatest living social satirist. Saunders shoulders quite a bit of the Vonnegutian tradition, while simultaneously establishing his own unique voice as an author, engaging us in a way which seems perhaps more relevant and less preachy than predecessors such as Vonnegut and Twayne. Saunders published his most well-known effort, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, back in 1997 (there’s talk of Ben Stiller starring in a filmic version). Pastoralia picks up where the last collection left off, with Saunders offering a familiar five short stories and a novella formula. Pastoralia, the novella, takes place in a failing historical amusement park similar to CivilWarLand. Janet and the unnamed narrator play historically accurate cave dwellers for gawking tourists, with the narrator in constant danger of being terminated because of Janet’s negligence. Their wages arrive mainly in the form of roasted goat, which arrives daily through a metal slot for the duo to devour before the public. As with his other works, Saunders takes pains to expose human corruption and prejudice—all of it at least somewhat applicable to contemporary political climates. The author’s brilliance lies in his capacity to isolate the more horrifying aspects of our culture and relocate them—even make them seem hilarious to us. Saunders’s work begs important questions regarding authenticity in our culture, and largely the answers are nebulous. His protagonists are uncertain, shaky, and flawed, and they feel strikingly fragile and human, while the more resolved characters are often just posturing in a facade, which Saunders patiently chips away. The author’s bleakly hysterical vision is singular in that it doesn’t quite take place in the present, and if it does take place in the future, then it’s closer to the sort of regressive future Gilliam heralds in Brazil than it is to the apocalyptic landscape of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
Memorable moments: in the short story “Winky,” Neil Yaniky attends a motivational seminar headlined by one Tom Rodgers [Saunders’s answer to Tony Robbins]. In his opening monologue, Rodgers asks his timid disciples, “If someone came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say?” I’m not sure what Saunders would say, but I imagine it would be darkly humorous." - Kilgore Trout

"Saunders's extraordinary talent is in top form in his second collection (after CivilWarLand in Bad Decline), in which his vision of a hellishly (and hopefully) exaggerated dystopia of late capitalist America is warmed and impassioned by his regular, irregular and flat-out wacky characters. Merging the spirit of James Thurber with the world of the Simpsons, Saunders's five stories and title novella feature protagonists who are losers yet also innocent dreamers: in "Winky," a single guy lives with his sister but hopes to improve his life with his new self-help cult's mantra, "Now is the time for me to win!" The tales pit bleak existences with details so contemporary they're futuristic, as in "Pastoralia," where the narrator is a "re-enactor" who lives in a cave as part of an exhibit in the Pastoralia theme park. Authenticity demands that he speak no English, pretend to draw pictographs on the wall and eat goat. His cave partner, Janet, is driving him crazy, because she uses English, smokes and hates goat; meanwhile, the clumsy, bullying management leans on the narrator to testify against her. In "Sea Oak," the narrator is a beleaguered male stripper who lives with his Aunt Bernie and two other relatives, both clueless, young single mothers whose dialogue consists of trashy talk-show vernacular. They eke out their lives in foggy complacency until the pathetically passive Bernie dies and comes back to life to boss around the household: "I never got nothing! My life was shit! I was never even up in a freaking plane." These characters may not have much, but they do possess the author's compassion, and so are enigmas of decency enshrouded in dark, TV-hobbled dumbness. Saunders, with a voice unlike any other writer's, makes these losers funny, plausible and absolutely winning." - Publishers Weekly

"As in the previous compilation of his work, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders' latest collection turns a scathingly satirical eye on American culture, and the results are disturbingly hilarious and deeply satisfying. Vicious barbs are artfully lobbed at bits of suburban Americana, such as historical theme parks, self-help groups and driver's re-education classes. Beyond these searingly detailed, mundane landscapes, Saunders delivers a delightful cast of characters who are at once compellingly pathetic, unselfconsciously petty and oddly heroic. What makes Saunders' work so appealing is that he does not seem to be writing from the perspective of a cynical urbanite, casting aspersions on his less-sophisticated countrymen with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Instead, his voice is that of someone who has lived in the trenches of mediocrity, on some level embraces the experience and, ultimately, recognizes what he has in common with its inhabitants. The only problem with this collection is that there is simply not enough of it." - Mimi O'Connor

"The freakish, cowed characters filling Saunders's acclaimed debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1995), have spawned a new crop of unhappy, scabrously comic campers in these six stories, as the struggle among them to be happy and do the right thing continues. Only the novella-length title story echoes the futuristic feel of CivilWarLand, featuring a theme park complete with a live-caveman display. In the cave are two enactors, the narrator and an older woman, Janet. Although expected to live on-site and stay in their roles all day, whether anyone visits or not, Janet cannot, and the narrator's supervisor pressures him to rat on her. He resists for a long time, feeling sorry for Janet and her now-jailed addict son, yet he finally gives in, which he regrets when she loses it and calls a hectoring visitor a "suckass." Other pieces involve seemingly normal places, home to conflicted men such as Neil in `Winky,` who lives with his sweet, mentally challenged sister and attends a self-help seminar to find a way to tell her to move out. Or boys like Cody in `The End of Firpo in the World,` whose anger at being belittled by his mom and her boyfriend boils over when neighborhood kids laugh at him, and whose desire for revenge results in an accident, unfortunately fatal. There is some hope, however, in `The Barber's Unhappiness,` when a lonely, toeless barber overcomes his repugnance at the size of a woman he met in a driving-safety course enough to date her. Finally, `Sea Oak,` even more fanciful and bizarre than its fellow tales, depicts a stripper-waiter who must deal with his aunt when she returns from the dead, wondering why she never had any fun. Being inside the teeming headsofthese folks is amusing and enlightening. So accurately are they rendered, in all their flawed glory, that they appear not only perfectly human but familiar." - Kirkus Reviews

"Hilarious and heartrending in equal measures...Like Nathanael West, Saunders is a brilliant distortionist who devises dark, hallucinatory arenas and sets fierce satires against countercurrents of grotesque sentimentality. Pathos is Saunders's great theme, and given the breadth of his satires, he's driven to find it in the most extreme and unlikely circumstances." —The Village Voice

"Nineteen-ninety-five saw the debut of George Sanders’ short fiction collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a riotous, surreal, Vonnegutesque romp through an America of the not-so-distant future: a greed-ridden, dog-eat-dog future in which toxic waste and pollution of all variety contaminate the land - and theme parks (such as CivilWarLand) sprawl across the landscape. Bounty, the novella of that collection, presents a world divided into two groups, the Normals and the Flawed, the latter being mutants who have very little chance of survival outside Bounty - a theme park in which Normal clients can act out their fantasies and the Flawed are employed to cater to their whims (and given a "toot of cocaine" each day for their efforts). One of the Flawed decides to try to escape in order to capture his sister, whom a client has taken away for his pleasure. In the outside world he undergoes several adventures, including being captured and sold as a slave to a brothel situated in an old Safeway where he is assigned to give "drive-through hand jobs." As with many of Saunders’ scenarios, weird though they are, one has the sneaking suspicion that jobs such as this might already exist, and if not, some opportuntistic marketeer is ready to pounce on the idea.
Pastoralia picks up on the previous collection and delivers more riveting good stuff in the same darkly satirical vein. The title story is yet again a theme park of the near future: Pastoralia is a vast, underground park in which the privileged can wander, viewing theme sets of real people re-enacting the historical past. Thus, we find our not-so-privileged narrator employed as a caveman, virtually living his life in a zoo-like cave with another hapless employee, a cavewoman. The two are not allowed any communication or behavior other than that of the cavedwellers whom they are hired to portray. They communicate by fax with their families and the administrators of Pastoralia, and receive their daily food - a live goat - through the Big Slot. As in Bounty, it’s a clearly-delineated world, divided between the controllers and the controlled. A familiar enough premise, perhaps, but Saunders’ highly imaginative vision is unique. "Pastoralia," along with the other five stories, is both hilarious and disconcertingly familiar.
In "Winky," Saunders has a delightfully wicked go at self-help groups. Middle-aged, nondescript Neil Yaniky, a.k.a. Winky, lacks the balls to ask his older sister, a crazy-looking religious nut, to move out of his apartment. He joins the seminar of guru Tom Rodgers, whose mantra consists of "Don’t crap in my oatmeal." As Tom’s spiel goes:
'Now, if someone came up and crapped in your oatmeal, what would you say? Would you say: ‘Wow, super, thanks, please continue crapping in my oatmeal’? Am I being silly? I’m being a little silly. But guess what, in real life people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time - friends co-workers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids! - and that’s exactly what you do. You say, ‘Thanks so much!’ You say, ‘Crap away!’ You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, ‘Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?’
Does this sound eerily familiar or what?
"Sea Oak" takes a different turn. Slacker sisters Min and Jade - young, unwed moms with little babies - spend their time lounging around the house - their Aunt Bertie’s house, that is - watching such T.V. programs as How My Child Died Violently. Big brother Freddie is a waiter at an airplane theme bar/restaurant for women, who come to watch the male waiters strip and strut their stuff. Life in the go-nowhere lane takes a turn when Aunt Bertie begins to kick ass . . . in a most extraordinary and unexpected manner.
"The End of FIRPOL in the World" follows the thoughts of a hell-on-wheels kid and relates his latest naughty scheme while sketching in the dysfunctional family background and ending on a touching note. "The Fall" traces the nervous, introspective Morse, "tall and thin and as gray and sepulchral as a church about to be condemned," as he ruminates on his life; along with the "odd duck" Aldo Cummings, both of whom are led to act - or not - when a crisis presents itself. And in "The Barber’s Unhappiness," a middle-aged barber (a mama’s boy who still lives with his nearly eighty-year-old mother) fantasizes about the women he ogles - screwing in a bean field or in a mud hut with "Miss Hacienda," for example - and later wanks in the pantry on a milking stool; then, through his Driving School group he meets a woman . . . not ideal, but then neither is he. One of the funniest stories I’ve ever read - although the others in this collection are contenders.
If you haven’t read George Saunders, you’ve missed a major talent. He’s laugh-out-loud funny and a sharp and intuitive visionary, holding up a cracked mirror to all the skewed values and wrong-headed turns that America (and much of the world) is hellbent on taking, with special attention to the widening gap between the powerless individual and the global "administrators" who determine the course of lives. Want to see the future? Read his stories and weep - with tears of laughter and a haunting premonition that the future is upon us." - Barcelona Review

"I concluded my voyage through Liberal Arts in May 2000—a typical fairly useless poised-to-succeed-and-doomed-to-fail twentysomething of a hazy new millennium, and a less typical city-sluck Irangelite-turned-Brooklynite with no concept of the country I’d lived in for nearly two decades—when George Saunders’ second collection came out. I was of course was many universes and still many years removed—it took me a few years to discover him—from the five stories plus title novella of Pastoralia. But I was already lovedrunk on American stylists and dark humorists and determined to only follow writers who turned my world upside down—still, I don’t think I had ever read anyone as revolutionary as Saunders. I certainly didn’t know of a writer with a world as fully realized as his, that America that I wholly dreaded and yet came to grasp more tenderly after going through Pastoralia’s psyche-of-below-average-to-average-America rollercoaster ride.
Immediately I fell in love. First reason: the humor that was earth-shattering; best reason: the humanity that was something else.
Saunders is in many ways our most contemporary writer, the voice of the Boomers/Gen X-ers/Millenials world we currently inhabit, the scribe of Saracuda-crazed Jerry-Springerian Red America of the Eighties/Nineties/Aughties. But it’s not just the scenarios but the sentences—especially the seamless coexistence of high and low that only reminds us their segregation in art is actually what’s shocking—that in themselves tell me Saunders isn’t simply one of our best writers, but one of our best humans. Even in the lowest and lowliest Saunderian universe—”Winky’s” self help seminar, perhaps, to combat those “crapping in your oatmeal”—there is the infusion of an entirely genuine authorial affection. His America, our America, is of course horrible but without the horror.
Is he funny? Is he wacky? Saunders is mostly observant. The average man in Pastoralia works as a caveman at a theme park (“Pastoralia”) or male stripper at an aviation-themed-strip club (“Sea Oak”) to make ends meet. Does life look like this? Actually in our America of Reality™ and color-coded neverending War(s?) on Terror, of Parables of Joe Plumber and Tales of Tito The What-Did-He-Do-Again, I’d say we’re more there than we might wish… and maybe closer than Saunders even guessed while writing Pastoralia just before the end of a decade and millennium, and the beginning of a rather Unbrave New World." - Porochista Khakpour

"For a time in the mid-1970s, it was widely acknowledged that Richard Pryor was the funniest man in America. Who crowned him was immaterial because it was indisputably true. Five minutes of his stand-up was proof. With Pastoralia,his second collection of stories, George Saunders stakes his claim to the literary equivalent of Pryor’s old title.
As in his excellent first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,Saunders’s stories are populated and often narrated by sad sacks caught between the odd and false worlds of their workplaces and their real and horrendous family circumstances. They’re failing in both worlds yet doing their best to get ahead, all the while under attack by their own anxieties.
The title story opens with typical Saunders diction, an obsessive repetition reminiscent of Gordon Lish’s early novels Peru and Dear Mr. Capote:
'I have to admit I’m not feeling my best. Not that I’m doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about. Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No. Because I’m Thinking Positive/Saying Positive. I’m sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke their heads in. Although it’s been thirteen days since anyone poked in their head and Janet’s speaking English to me more and more, which is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.'
The narrator turns out to be a caveman, or a man portraying a caveman in an exhibit at a theme park, removed from the world at large. At home, reachable only by fax, his wife is tending his son, rapidly succumbing to an unknown disease. His cavemate is an older woman whose son is an Inadvertent Substance Misuser. The rules of the park are strict and changeable, and the narrator does his best to satisfy management’s kooky demands. His cavemate doesn’t, and her job is at the mercy of their Client Vignette Evaluations and his own Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form (which he also faxes in from his Separate Area). Our narrator tries to be nice. He hangs onto his conventional thinking, his hope and his willingness to please, in the middle of an untenable situation.
A guy from management explains things to our narrator:
'We all live in a beautiful world, full of beautiful challenges and flowers and birds and super people, but also a few regrettable bad apples, such as that questionable Janet. Do I hate her? Do I want her to be killed? Gosh no, I think she’s super, I want her to be praised while getting a hot oil massage, she has some very nice traits. But guess what, I’m not paying her to have nice traits, I’m paying her to do consistently good work. Is she? Doing consistently good work? She is not. And here you are, saddled with a subpar colleague. Poor you. She’s stopping your rise and growth. People are talking about you in our lounge. Look, I know you feel Janet’s not so great. She’s a lump to you. I see it in your eye. And that must chafe. Because you are good. Very good. One of our best. And she’s bad, very bad, one of our worst, sometimes I could just slap her for what she’s doing to you.
All our narrator gets in is "She’s a friend" before the manager is off on another wild harangue.
Here, and throughout his writing, Saunders enjoys juxtaposing the euphemisms of corporate speak ("Start generating frank and nonbiased assessments of this subpar colleague," the guy urges) with the candidness of colloquial speech (our narrator’s cavemate says, "Don’t be a dick for once."). Likewise, management sends a fax telling their employees to stop calling the Disposal Debit the Shit Fee.
On top of this unveiling of language, Saunders will jam high and low idioms together within speeches for maximum contrast, fashioning a new tongue from old clichés and more recently coined buzzwords. The cavemate’s son reasons:
'Oh God, the group would love this. You’re telling a very troubled inadvertent substance misuser to go live with his terminally ill grandmother? You have any idea how stressful that would be for me? I’d be inadvertently misusing again in a heartbeat.'
Things inevitably proceed from bad to worse, and despite the desperate circumstances of his characters--because of those circumstances, in fact--the stories grow funnier and funnier. It’s a pathetic, almost gallows humor he uses, delivered (for his major characters’ part) absolutely deadpan. They’re too worried about the consequences of their imminent failures to find anything funny, and as their embarrassment and anxiety rise, the reader comes across passages discussing, very seriously, utterly ludicrous subjects:
'I heard you very clearly, says the dad. You said Jesus Christ. You said Jesus Christ because of what I said about the goo-goo in my son’s nosehole. Well, first of all, I’m sorry if you find a little boy’s nosehole goo-goo sickening, it’s perfectly normal, if you had a kid of your own you’d know that, and second of all, since when do cavepeople speak English and know who Jesus Christ is? Didn’t the cavepeople predate Christ, if I’m not mistaken?'
Like Monty Python, Saunders will go for the highbrow or lowbrow joke or anything in between, and can strike at any time. He’s fast and furious, never simply whimsical or goofy, and he so successfully delivers his pitiful characters that the reader feels at bottom some gravity or emotional anchor, even when what’s happening is loopy.
Because, on the whole, Saunders’s heroes are average. They’re making the best of insane circumstances, much as we might try to. They accept that the world may be crazy and that they have to earn a living and put up with other people’s shit, and some of that shit is exceedingly weird. The systems they’re trapped in run by false or cracked logic--like the Tom Rodgers Seminar Neil Yaniky visits in "Winky," hoping to find the assertiveness to finally kick his nutty sister out of his house:
'Now what about you folks? he said softly. Is now the time for you to win? Are you ready to screen off your metaphorical oatmeal and identify your own personal Gene? Who is it that’s screwing you up? Who’s keeping you from getting what you want? Somebody is! God doesn’t make junk. If you’re losing, somebody’s doing it to you.'
Like management’s rants in the title story, Tom Rodgers’s advice is self-serving and empty, an idealized fantasy when held up against the sorrows and hard demands of real life. While it might sound good, Neil can’t live by the seminar’s advice.
"Sea Oak," maybe the best of the collection, follows a narrator trying to support his extended family by dancing at a male strip club called Joysticks. He worries that his Cute Rating may drop from Knockout down through Honeypie and Adequate to Stinker. Sea Oak is the subsidized apartment complex they live in, with a view of the back of the FedEx. No one’s happy there, and it’s his fault. The narrator’s sister and cousin loll about the apartment all day with their babies, watching shows like "How My Child Died Violently" and "The Worst That Could Happen," which is:
'a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.'
Their ailing grandmother lives with them, and one day someone breaks into the apartment and she dies of fright. At the funeral home, after seeing brochures like "Why Does My Loved One Appear Somewhat Larger?" the family, strapped for cash, ends up buying her a balsawood coffin.
It doesn’t hold her. After our narrator gives in to grief at work and is voted Stinker for the first time, the grandmother returns from the grave, angry and full of advice. "Show your cock," she tells him, as a way of making enough money to escape Sea Oak for a nicer complex:
'After we get the new place, that’s the end of the first part of Phase Two. You’ll still show your cock, but only three days a week. Because you’ll start community college. Pre-law. Pre-law is best. You’ll be a whiz. You ain’t dumb. And Jade’ll work weekends to make up for the decrease in cock money. See? See how that works?'
But, like the great advice in the earlier stories, this plan too proves useless. The grandmother’s corpse falls apart, and the sister and cousin refuse to work. They’re stuck in Sea Oak, that’s their lot in life. In the end, the narrator is haunted by the heartfelt question the undead grandmother asked him: Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?
'Why? Why did that happen?
Every time I say I don’t know.
And I don’t.'

This serious and real question flows underneath all the wackiness of Saunders’s best stories. People may work at the Patty-Melt Depot, but despite the goofy joke, their work is seen as a dead-end, their finances and spiritual lives stagnant. Whether they retain hope or not is uncertain, but his characters all continue to try, even when it means submitting to idiotic rules or demeaning themselves. Paradoxically, the bleakness of their struggle only makes things funnier.
Saunders’s narrators, like the caveman in the collection’s title story or the barber in "The Barber’s Unhappiness," aren’t sure how the world works, making them prey to people and systems whose logic seems more developed, no matter how insane and self-aggrandizing it sounds. Their anxieties, while sometimes leading to paralysis, are a sign, at least, of their humanity, and because the reader shares those anxieties on some plain (family, love, sickness, death, money), the stories are more than just bravura pieces. As in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son,there’s a damaged American heart at the center of Pastoralia,except it’s the reader who’s laughing so hard that it hurts." - Stewart O’Nan

"Pastoralia: a good name for a theme park. It suggests rural simplicity tweaked, enhanced by modern technology and superior management skills. Though George Saunders uses it as the title of a story set in a theme park, it could also be his wry comment on the circumstances of the unnamed narrator, whose job is to impersonate a caveman. He lives in a cave and sleeps in a "separate area" equipped with a fax machine. On the cave walls are fake pictographs; outside, a herd of "robotic something-or- others" appears to be feeding.
Saunders's bitterly funny stories here and in his extraordinary debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), succeed in squeezing meaning and emotional resonance out of absurd, post-real predicaments. His satirical jabs are sharp and scary, but also sad and unexpectedly touching. In Pastoralia, the faux -caveman is urged to denounce a "subpar" colleague, but resists with a truth so primitive it shocks: "'She's a friend,' I say." Though he's meek and dim, beset by troubles and half-brainwashed by his inane job, he acquires with that single utterance a provisional heroism. In Saunders's world, that's the best you can hope for.
Saunders specialises in giving losers - the ugly, the weak, the self-absorbed - a flicker of appeal or delusional hope. We meet them in motivational seminars, drivers' education courses, walking home from dead-end jobs. We follow them to places like Sea Oak, with "no sea and no oak, just 100 subsidised apartments and a rear view of FedEx". Inside those apartments, the tenants are watching TV: "How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who's always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they've been sainted by pain."
Saunders's stories present an unsettling amalgam of degraded language and high art: slogans, jargon and the crippling incoherence of daily speech, arranged on the page with meticulous care. He cherishes the brutal solecisms of the American vernacular, working them for laughs and the odd shot of beauty, too. Who can resist a high school education "mini-session" called "Who You Do Is Up To You"?
Less shocking, less zany than CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in which the subnormal, paranormal and not yet normal all clamour for a hearing, Pastoralia sticks mostly to plausible absurdities. There's one ghost story, but the supernatural dimension is eclipsed by the ghost's all-too-human complaint: "Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?" The rest of the stories succeed on the strength of fine-tuning, not special effects.
A darling of American critics, Saunders was last year chosen by The New Yorker as one of the 20 best fiction writers under 40. Though his sensibility is easy to spot, it's nearly impossible to pick out his voice. He's a self-erasing author, happy to let other voices do the work. This absence could be ominous - a black hole that sucks in the contemporary scene and spits out satire - but it reads more like confidence, or serene faith, or philosophical calm. Or a good sense of humour." - Adam Begley

"Finishing the book I’m reading and placing it on the white plastic seat of my white porcelain toilet, I exhale loudly. I run my fingers through my damp hair, shake my face free of water, touch the sore on my lip, and stare at the book as if it were a fast-paddling and panicked beetle sharing my bath or a clutch of hairs left on the blue and white tiles by my girlfriend after her shower a few weeks ago.
Towelling myself dry, my skin flakes and spirals to the bathroom floor, I think of the slight shift in emphasis from Bounty, the last story in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, to the title story of Pastoralia, Saunders’ second collection. This time, the theme/amusement park is caveman-based, disgruntled employees scrabbling and scratching for food and meaning. The paranoia here is gentle, the comedy an admixture of Freud and Benny Hill.
“This morning is the morning I empty our Human Refuse bags and the trash bags from the bottom of the sleek metal hole where Janet puts her used feminine items. For this I get an extra sixty a month. Plus it’s always nice to get out of the cave. I knock on the door of her Separate Area.”
Saunders’ language here is more controlled, the hysteria hypodermic rather than armorial, the dialogue sparklingly crystallized. The characters in Pastoralia, constantly assessed, reviewed, and monitored, are docile subjects inhabiting sentences and paragraphs that move from truth to emotion via humour and humility. We’re all sitting on our log waiting for the goat to be dropped in the Big Slot. Saunders’ characters are ordinary. Very ordinary. Their dialogue is human. Very human.
Martin Amis has written something about the history of literature and how literature’s earliest texts were about gods, then about kings and other royalty, then courtiers, and then landowners, and then the middle class, and then tradesmen, and then the working class, and then the underclass — thieves and murderers. Saunders writes about the losers, the lost, and the lonely. If Martin Amis has his Keiths and Johns, Saunders has his Lens and Phils — the dispossessed, the not-ever-possessed, possessed with making their lives better, fuller, more meaningful. Language and character strive to be different but are fundamentally simple. Saunders has written (I found this tucked inside the back cover of my English edition of Pastoralia, the one with the Raquel Welch-like fur-bikinied woman on the front cover, surrounded by smoking bones under a red and mordant sky, a supine man at her feet, and she’s holding a flint tool or a very primitive vibrator).
“Certain kinds of language walk hand-in-hand with falseness: vague language, humourless language, sloppy language, language that strings together code words, language that eliminates the doer and the done to, that shuns people and things in favour of the abstract.”
Damn that’s good. “The doer and the done to.” Exactly. And now my essay is a sloppy soup of words, sloshing around the bowl of my brain, staining my keyboard, messing my iBook’s dusty screen. “That shuns people.” Uh-huh. Saunders never shuns people. He embraces (Argh! Argh! Argh!) the disabled, the abled, the unable. He writes about people who spend the best years of their lives swearing at photocopiers. In ‘Winky’ — great title — conventioneers, labelled with their own shortcomings, reify being and identity with the (small) world. Look at the seven dwarfs. We are the seven dwarfs. We are the seven dwarfs with multiple-personality disorder. All of the time I am always and forever Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful, Dopey, Sneezy, and er� Doc. Reify. That’s what Saunders does, he reifies our hopes, our disasters, our dreams. But he would never use a word like ‘reify,’ it’s too abstract, man, too loaded, uncompassionate.
Is Saunders Funny? You bet. Read ‘Sea Oak.’ Read ‘Sea Oak’ and try not to laugh.
“Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn’t look good. Jade says “regicide” is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn. I offer to help and they start yelling at me for condescending.”
And, thank God, he even makes bad jokes. Auntie Bernie has returned from the grave and is rotting away in the parlour:
“What a nice day we’ve had,” Aunt Bernie says once we’ve got the babies in bed. “Man, what an optometrist,” says Jade.
He is also, I would argue, sometimes blissfully unaware of his humour. This is from ‘The Barber’s Unhappiness’ and the barber is attempting to achieve and sustain an erection.
“It wouldn’t be easy. It would take hard work. He knew a little about hard work, having made a barbershop out of a former pet store. Tearing out a counter he’d found a dead mouse. From a sump pump he’d pulled three hardened snakes.”
Empathy and sympathy. Emancipation and seduction. Eros and sloth. Entertainment and seriousness. Saunders has a toe fetishism — see Bounty and The Barber’s Unhappiness. His characters are fully dimensional and are so within the space (fourteen pages) and time (immemorial) of the story. Observe the indecisive decisiveness of Morse and Cummings in The Falls,’ a masterful short story, something like T.C. Boyle’s Heart of a Champion and nothing like Joyce Carol Oates (in a good way, that is. I have nothing against JCO. In fact, I own — hold on, let me count — twenty-five books by JCO). Saunders makes the Happy Man feel uncomfortable and the Uncomfortable Man feel happy. (I could make a bad seven dwarves joke here — but I won’t. My god! The restraint.)
If this is adding up to an arse-licking exercise in criticism — two points. (Two? Only two?) See the Barber’s Unhappiness pages 140 and 172: “wank Brit. Vulgar slang — verb [no obj.] (typically a man) masturbate.” You don’t wank it, George. You just wank. In the essay I found in the back cover of Pastoralia, Saunders writes,
“The movements from vagueness to precision, from generality to specificity, length to brevity, passivity to activity, involve, mysteriously, a corresponding movement from falsehood to truth.”
And quotes Esther Forbes, “On rocky islands gulls woke” against “On structures not unlike rock masses, it was observed that certain animals perhaps prone to flight slept somewhat less aggressively than previously.” Yet in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, SAUNDERS COMMITS SELF-HERESY in “after which they wrestled about which one of them sang the best and there was the sound of some wooden thing breaking, possibly a piano bench” — vague, general, and passive.
Injecting myself with 20mgs of insulin, I admit that these are quibbles — mere quibbles. Not Tribbles (that’s Star Trek) and thinking on it, the goat-loving Gappers of Frip do resemble Tribbles — albeit with multiple eyes and a severe case of capriphilia — oh, capricious, capri pants, Capri. Although marketed as a children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is an extraordinary prose work, documenting prejudice, outbreaks of NIMBYism, snobbishness, falsity, and hypocrisy in a political fable stinking of Swift, ponging of Pynchon, and reeking of Rabelais. The Gappers have to be the most (that was moist in the pre-edited text) lovable parasites in literature — I want to see the Mattel toy along with accessory goat or fence. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip shows Saunders at his most playful and compassionate (that word again). Here’s Capable — the heroine of the story.
“And she soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.”
And here the Gappers are deciding what next to love:
“So the gappers took a vote. And though they were not in perfect agreement — one believed they should begin loving wadded-up pieces of paper, another believed they should begin loving turtles, particularly turtles who were dying, particularly dying turtles who nevertheless kept a positive attitude — the gappers still very much admired and trusted that less-stupid gapper, and voted to begin madly loving fences.”
How can you not love them? How can you not love Phil, the titular despot of Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”?" - Steve Finbow

"NOW, IF I came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say?" asks Tom Rodgers, a self-help sermonizer and character in George Saunders’ new collection of stories, Pastoralia. In answer to his own question, he replies, “You say, ‘Thanks so much!’ You say, ‘Crap away!’ You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, ‘Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?'" Self-help fanatics, pseudo-strip-waiters, a prehistoric theme park, and an assortment of bizarre, as well as disturbingly “normal” characters, fill this often hysterically funny collection of stories.
The literary world needs more writers like George Saunders to crap in the oatmeal of convention, and then stir it up a bit. John Updike recently declared that the short story is a dying genre. And, he is correct to some extent, but an upheaval seems more like it. Writers like Saunders (along with David Foster Wallace, Diane Williams, T.C. Boyle, Curtis White, and many others) are part of a new brigade of fiction writers who have revitalized and revolutionized the short story. In a culture where the personal computer is as common as the refrigerator and the Internet makes pornography available anytime, anywhere, at the click of a button, we are in need of a new vision. The short story has certainly and fortunately transformed in response to this changing shape of reality and our perception of it. Often very dark and despairing, or outrageously absurd and comic, this new type of short fiction reveals a culture that revels in the ridiculous and glorifies the tragic, with an often comic, yet disturbing effect.
Saunders’ new work is no exception. In "Pastoralia," the title story, for instance, the scene is a theme park where the characters attempt to continuously re-enact the life of a Neanderthal couple while onlookers “poke there heads in” at any given moment -- a paleolithic Panopticon of sorts -- whereby the characters’ behavior is controlled and structured by the off-chance visit of a perusing tourist. The narrator who is also the main character takes his role as hunter-gatherer rather seriously (though perhaps somewhat sardonically), whereas his cynical partner, Janet, makes a comic mockery of the situation: “I mime to her that I dreamed of a herd that covered the plain like the grass of the earth, they were as numerous as grasshoppers and yet the meat of their humps resembled each a tiny mountain, etc. etc., and I sharpen my spear and try to look like I’m going into a sort of prehunt trance. ‘Are you going?’ she shouts. ‘Are you going now? Is that what you’re saying?... Christ, so go already,’ she says... ‘Bring back some mints.’"
"Sea Oak" invites readers into the world of a Chippendales-style waiter who lives with his aunt, his barely literate teenage sister and teenage cousin, and the girls’ two babies, in a small apartment that is stuck in the middle of what seems to be gang warfare. The scene portrays the classic American white trash stereotype with comic hyperbole: “After dinner the babies get fussy and Min puts a mush of ice cream and Hershey’s syrup in their bottle and we watch 'The Worst That Could Happen', a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could ... A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.” The life of this family grows worse and worse by the minute, with it finally culminating in the death of their beloved aunt, who then appears missing from her grave.
However, she reappears, having apparently resurrected herself, and begins to make orders to the family in an attempt to change their lot: “ ’You, mister,’ (Aunt) Bernie says to me, ‘are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it...'" The story showcases a family in deep poverty and with seemingly no means of escape. However, Saunder’s presentation is so ridiculous and comic that it is often difficult to sympathize with the characters. Ultimately, though, you are led to feel for their plight and understand Aunt Bernie’s lament, “Some people get everything and I got nothing... Why? Why did that happen?” The story is so shocking in its reality that you feel yourself believing the weirdest events (Aunt Bernie’s resurrection and subsequent magical powers for instance), and also, a feeling of guilt for having laughed so hard. This is magical realism in a fantastic new contemporary garb, which means that it is both potently comic and tragically convincing in the same breath. Saunder’s reminds us again and again that laughter reveals what is difficult and uncomfortable as well as what is humorous.
"The Barber’s Unhappiness" depicts a sort of contemporary Walter Mitty character whose thoughts about what could happen with various women take him on a ridiculous and fictional roller coaster. The final story, "The Falls" reveals another very obsessive character, lost in worry about what might happen, but ends with a very hopeful and amazing twist about what one human being is capable of doing to help others.
These stories are full of angst and anguish, revealing characters lost in a world of human cruelty and despair, and unable to break through the ridiculous simulacra of culture (love communicated via fax machine, quick self-help recipes, classic and dangerous gender stereotypes). At times, the stories are so funny you will find yourself laughing uncontrollably, while also lamenting the human condition -- a very powerful effect. However, embedded in each story seems to be at least a glimmer of hope for human kind, as remote as that sometimes seems." - Mark Tursi
George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House, 1996)

"George Saunders has seen the future of America and it is funny. Bleak, yes, and sad and toxic and greedy - and very, very weird - but funny, too. With today's malls and theme parks and ecological disasters as their foundation, these stories build a tomorrow inhabited by fat executives in despair, genetic mutants in servitude, virtual-reality merchants in Chapter 11, and American Dreamers everywhere in trouble. A lot of this book's business is business in an America whose culture and economy are falling apart, business on the fringes, business on the skids. The marginal entrepreneurs who people its pages hawk everything from glimpses of a living see-through cow to raccoon meat to old ladies' memories. Deregulation rules and brigands thrive. But at the center of George Saunders's fiction stand those hapless souls who suffer most keenly. the injustices and inequalities that a Free Market dishes out - the guys who just can't make it or run into plain old bad luck. A self-abasing minion at CivilWarLand suggests a way to rid the premises of the teenage gangs that prowl the grounds at night, only to find the cure far more dangerous than the disease. Another poor sap, who runs a wavemaking machine, allows himself a moment of underling's vanity and accidentally kills a kid frolicking in the artificial surf. And in the picaresque novella "Bounty," a futuristic descendant of Huckleberry Finn with claws for feet travels across the ramshackle country to rescue his sister, also a mutant, who has been bought by a Normal for pleasure and, possibly, profit. These astute stories recall not only the work of Mark Twain but also such diverse figures as Jonathan Swift and Kurt Vonnegut. At once cautionary and, in their humor, entertaining and redemptive, they help us see our society and ourselves in new and startling ways."

"George Saunders' first collection arrives with ecstatic blurbs from Thomas Pynchon, Tobias Wolff, and Garrison Keillor, and what the hell, the guy actually deserves it. The author, a geophysical engineer, specializes in pitch-black satire. His stories take place sometime in the near future, and many of them feature entrepreneurial concepts to die for. One character runs the Burn 'n' Learn franchise, with "a fully stocked library on the premises and as you tan you call out the name of any book you want to these high-school girls on roller skates." Others work in virtual-reality theme parks, which offer shabby duplications of the Civil War or a Day at the Beach. Saunders has a great ear for professional jargon, and his descriptions of these dystopian Disneylands invariably ring true.
In the title story, for example, the narrator manages a crew of Adjunct Thespians, Verisimilitude Inspectors, and Historical Reconstruction Associates. Another theme park -- a fake farm called Our Nation's Bounty -- includes among its exhibits a cow with a see-through panel in its stomach. ("The idea was to provide schoolchildren insight into the digestive process of a large mammal.") Given their satiric slant, these stories aren't particularly plot-driven. In most of them, the employees are falling apart at about the same speed as the business, and it's a race to see who will last longer. But Saunders' voice, deadpan and hilarious, keeps you coming back for more, and not even the occasional patches of tough-guy lyricism can succeed in derailing it." - James Marcus

"In this debut collection of seven dystopian fantasies, some of which have appeared in the New Yorker and Harper's, America in the near future is a toxic wasteland overrun by vicious thugs and venal opportunists who prey on the weak and misshapen. Saunders's feverish imagination conjures up images as horrific as any from a Hieronymus Bosch painting: a field full of braying mules toppled over from bone marrow disease; a tourist attraction featuring pickled stillborn babies; and cows with Plexiglas windows in their sides. The black humor and vision of American enterprise and evangelism gone haywire are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's early works. In the novella "Bounty,'' for example, the clawed-foot narrator, who flees slavery under the "Normals'' to find his sister, sees a McDonald's that is the headquarters of the Church of Appropriate Humility, aka "the Guilters.'' "In Guilter epistemology,'' he observes, "the arches represent the twin human frailties of arrogance and mediocrity.'' Despite the richness of the vision and the occasionally heart-melting prose, however, there is little difference in voice to distinguish one story from another. Read in one sitting, they blur into a bleak and unsettling vision of the world to come." - Publishers Weekly

"This group of stories focuses on characters who work in a theme park called CivilWarLand in the future United States. Environmental pollution and genetic mutation have taken their toll, dividing the population into Normals and Flaweds. America's farmland lies fallow. All scramble to feed themselves and their families. Cars are hauled by horses, barges are hauled by humans, and technology continues its amazing feats, such as "off-loading" human memories, which are then sold as virtual-reality experiences. People continue to struggle for recognition, for wealth, and for the American Dream in the face of grinding poverty and limited opportunities. Saunders's surreal depiction of a bleak future for the country is both startling and believable. Here's hoping he is not a prophet. The author is a teacher and consultant for Raytheon. This is his first work of fiction. Recommended for public libraries." - Joanna M. Burkhardt

"An astoundingly tuned voice - graceful, dark, authentic, and funny - telling just the kind of stories we need to get through these times." - Thomas Pynchon

"Every so often I come across a writer I think will be bad, due to an image they cultivate, but turns out to be a good one, just as there are writers I think will be good, via reputation or personal recommendations, that turn out to be atrocious. Then, there are writers that split the difference.
For example, a few months back I came across a slim volume of short stories called Civilwarland In Bad Decline, by George Saunders, at a local book discounter. It was only a couple of bucks, so I decided to give it a chance. In reading the opening and closing paragraphs of the stories, and seeing numerous ill-phrased lines, I felt that this writer was going to be the typical wannabe PC badass sort of writer that recrudescence like TC Boyle or Dave Eggers are, just from his hipster posing on the book's cover, replete with coonskin cap, to his staccato cooler than thou pacing and short sentence structures. I figured it would give me a chance to write a humorously negative review, where I can show off that the H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain vein of criticism is alive and kicking.
I was wrong, but only partly so. This book contains six short stories and a long novella. Three of the short stories are fairly good, and after having read the first half of the book one night, which was a pleasant surprise, I was hopeful that the second half would be as good. It wasn't. Not even close. This is because Saunders is a very limited writer, in form and scope. At his best, his tales are quirky and humorous- in ways that would be humorists like David Sedaris or David Foster Wallace simply have never been. He also tends to write about worn down palooka sorts, but much more engagingly, and less bathetically, than, say, someone like Thom Jones. But, once his load is shot, there's not much else to choose from. His stories become very formulaic. And if one can detect a writer's formula in a mere seven stories, this does not bode well for a writer's future, as even some of his online fans have groused that while they appreciate his unique takes on things, he and those takes are very repetitive.
The book came out ten years ago, in January of 1996, published by Random House, then released in paperback by Riverhead Books, and boasts of being named a New York Times Notable Book Of The Year in 1996. Its official title is CivilWarLand In Bad Decline: Stories And A Novella. The titular story, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, was originally published in the Kenyon Review, in fall of 1992, and it sets the mood of all these tales, being set in a near future theme park filled with losers, where the main character dies with a shitload of guilt over an act that occurs in the body of the tale.
Isabelle, was originally published in the Indiana Review in April, 1994, the reprinted in Harper's, in September of 1994. It starts out strongly, then tails off. Yet, it has enough interesting points, as does the first story, to make one believe Saunders has great potential, even if his stories, as a whole, fail to cohere into something special. The third story, The Wavemaker Falters, was published in Witness, in November, 1993. It's the best tale yet, but a pattern is clearly emerging, and one beyond the fact that these tales are part of a larger story cycle. It deals with yet another loser in the slightly futuristic setting of the first two tales, and he also feels guilt, this time over an accidental death he caused, only to find redemption in the end. The bulk of the story is very engaging, but the ending bogs down in predictability and cliché. I saw it coming the minute a minor character threatened the main character. All the other tales are similarly placed in time and space.
The best tale in the book occurs directly midway. It is the fourth story, called The 400-Pound CEO, published in Harper's, in February of 1993. Again, it follows another loser, this time an obese man with small dreams, who works in a specious business- the trapping and releasing of raccoons into 'safe' environments, when really they club the rodents to death- around the futuristic theme park, and has a quirky, macabre humor going, until yet another odd death occurs. Although the end is very predictable, it is quite well phrased, and thus clearly allows this short story to be the best tale in the book, and quite a good one on its own, although far from great. Yet, the Saunders 'formula' is by now clear. Follow a dumb post-Apocalyptic loser through his quirky and humorous travails. Watch as things get worse, due to his own stupidity, and total ruin threatens, then a sudden epiphany near the end redeems some prior awful deed, and seems to make everything worth living for.
The rest of the tales, which brink no deviation from the above formula, get progressively worse. Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz, published in The New Yorker, on October 5th, 1992, is a tepid tale with a couple of good scenes, and a sweet ending. It follows a futuristic scenario of offloading people's memories for resale as Virtual Reality usage. Nice idea, poorly executed, but a sweet ending. Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign Of Terror first saw light in Quarterly West, their Spring 1992 issue, and again follows the Saunders formula to a T, but with none of the high points the earlier tales possess, and the book ends with a novella called Bounty, published in the April, 1995 Harper's, and which won the 1995 National Magazine Award for Fiction. This is surprising only because it is clearly the worst tale in the book, a small comic piece masquing as a ninety plus page novella. It follows a typical Saunders loser, a clawed-footed narrator in the near future who is one of The Flaweds (brilliant irony, I tell you!), who flees slavery under The Normals that now run society, to find his sister. He then realizes that the fast food chain McDonald's (a cheap commentary) is really the center of a cult called the Church Of Appropriate Humility, better known as The Guilters. Corporations and religions are evil- wow, deep, George. You can pretty much see the dull and lazy DFW-like end coming from afar.
Overall, the book was better than I initially thought, but after my first night of reading, it really disappointed me. I almost hoped for something like TC Boyle's dull tales, or David Foster Wallace's horrid, from stem to stern, crap. Although Saunders is a better short story writer than those two overrated hacks, that there were so many opportunities for him to 'raise his game' and know he instead chose the easy way out, suggests that he really is a very limited writer, as even his own fans lament that fact. One simply has to mature beyond dystopian fantasies, where pickled fetuses and dying mules are seen as funny or presenting any real social commentary. His prose, and his narrators, tend to be off the rack losers, with little variation in tone or definition. In a sense, he is a modern Jorge Luis Borges, and suffers from all the seemingly inbred and stillborn ills that writer's short fiction suffered from. The more you read of either writer the less original they seem and the more limited their cosmos, for everything blurs into a gray predictability, as it soon becomes evident that Saunders is derivative, most often, of himself. Thus, what may at first seem like satire is really incidental. It's like making the error that the kid who makes fart sounds with his hands and armpits is really saying something deep rather than merely seeking attention.
Given the odd nature of the tales, and their manifest flaws, despite the quality that pops up here and there, it should not come as a surprise that the reason Saunders rocketed to success was not because of the tales' quality, nor big magazines like Harper's and The New Yorker, seeing that quality, but because his creative writing program instructor at Syracuse University was the published writer Tobias Wolff, who got his work published in those mags, and- what else?- blurbed heartily for the book, such as this: '(Saunders) has created a surreal, weirdly persuasive picture of the devolved future now taking shape in our own worst and most potent tendencies.' Thomas Pynchon and the execrable Garrison Keillor likewise open wide and suck deeply.
If anyone really thinks that Saunders' 'vision' is persuasive, or within the realm of possibilities in the near term, they are a crack addict. Period. Saunders is, in a sense, very much like the New Yorker/Harper's/Atlantic Monthly writers of the past. Reading their tales every so often makes one feel they are original, and better than most of the PC and PoMo dreck that is regurgitated today, but when their tales are collected together their homogeneity is manifest, and what seems daring when alone in one story, merely becomes a predictable version of a mere gimmick that may or may not work in one of a continuum of tales. He is thus almost an O. Henry type writer, a century on, with the flaws and pluses such a genre writer has. He is capable of an almost clipped poetry, as when, instead of rhapsodizing on a sunset the way another writer might, he merely tosses if off, in The 400-Pound CEO, this way, 'Big clouds roll in. Birds light on the dumpster and feed on substances caked on the lid.' But, this is not the realm of magical realism, in the Latin American sense, merely comic book level pathetic irony, thus the humor is never of the guffawing type, merely the gross out sort, just as the extent of his social critique comes in lines like this, from the title tale: 'Their gimmick is a fully stocked library on the premises and as you tan you call out the name of any book you want to these high-school girls on roller-skates.'
Since this book was better than I thought it would be, I will marginally recommend it, but any reader with clarity of mind will get bored midway through, and read on merely to confirm what they feel will happen to certain characters actually does. When they're proven right they'll momentarily feel pleased, then realize that is not the sort of positive feeling one wants to have when reading a story, and feel cheated. I was cheated, as Saunders has great potential but is only a barely passable writer. Yet, in life and the arts, potential means nothing, execution is everything. So, too, in the rackets, and as Saunders is a skilled con, I hope his later works fulfill more of the points that these bones rolled." - Dan Schneider

"Reading George Saunders, in Civil War Land in Bad Decline, is like listening to a fairly good sax player jam. His improvisations are, at times, exhilarating, for he creates wildly original, otherworldly scenarios of near-future America. Most of these take place in decrepit theme parks run by megalomaniacal, thoroughly unscrupulous bosses who victimize, if not ruin, the pliant, well-meaning, but thoroughly ineffectual underlings who are the narrators of the stories. The title story, about a Civil War theme park terrorized by teenaged gangsters, opens:
'Whenever a potential big investor comes for the tour the first thing I do
is take him out to the transplanted Erie Canal Lock. We've got a good
ninety feet of actual Canal out there and a well-researched diorama of a
coolie campsite. Were our faces ever red when we found out it was actually
the Irish who built the Canal.'
It's this kind of throwaway, wry detail that compels a reader to turn the page--for a while, at least.
Most of the six stories and one novella in Saunders's collection are as simple as a 12-bar blues and proceed as follows: the main character, a lowly yes-man in an unfeeling organization, usually a theme park, tells his own tale of woe; he's disdained by his wife, or he's disdained generally, for having no better career options and for taking so much abuse from his boss; ultimately threatened or duped by his boss, he ends up compromising what little integrity he has left and this gets him fired, maimed, or killed. In the title story, for instance, the feckless narrator--at his boss's insistence--hires a dysfunctional Vietnam vet to scare off marauding teen gangs. Overzealous, the vet kills a boy for stealing penny candy from the General Store. The narrator helps conceal the murder, and so begins his downward spiral and the escalation of the body count.
Saunders's primary strength is his invention: his near-future theme-park Americas are unlike anything you'll find in short stories these days. But invention, like jamming, is pleasurable only up to a point. Ultimately, the writer should have something to say--and Saunders rarely does. He's just jamming. The reader can too easily imagine Saunders making all of this up as he goes along, as if coaxing himself riff after riff: "Okay, this happens next, and then this ... and then.... "As a consequence, his stories have an episodic, stapled-together feel. In "Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror," the narrator, Mary, a 92-year-old peon in a theme park that features "see-through" cows (a window implanted in each flank of their midsections) mentions that the cows have been dying, much to the nasty park owner's chagrin. Only near the story's end do we learn that Mary herself is killing the cows. This seems an afterthought. Had we known early on that Mary is the culprit, she would have been a more interesting character. Coming as late as it does, however, Mary's poisoning of the cows seems half-hearted at best. The story ends with her attempting suicide after she loses her job. There seems no message here, only that Mary--like the rest of Saunders's characters--is profoundly alone and miserable.
At first glance, Saunders seems to care for these losers. He is sympathetic, after all, since he takes their point of view (always in the first person) and, occasionally, he gives them a break--or, at least, a glimpse of redemption, as when, in "OffLoading for Mrs. Schwartz," the owner of a failing virtual reality franchise tries to please a needy client by siphoning his own memory into his computer's database, thereby making himself stupid. It's a sacrifice offered for apparently humane reasons, though one could argue, too, that the man is simply desperate to make a success of himself no matter what the cost. In another story, "Isabella," after years of witnessing the daily brutalities and hate crimes of urban America (probably LA), a young man adopts a deformed, paraplegic neighbor--a girl--whose father was himself a hate monger. The point of the story, I suppose, is that love prevails (the young man's father and brother were nearly as odious as the girl's father), though Saunders makes no attempt to finger even the shallowest recesses of the young man's mind.
At worst, it appears that Saunders is doing nothing more than torturing his characters to sec how they squirm. In his picaresque novella, "Bounty," he uses a flimsy device--a young man's sister is sold into slavery and shipped to New Mexico--as an excuse to send a mutant Candide on foot through post-apocalyptic America, where, at every turn, the young man is chased, degraded, and beaten. Why should a reader witness such ugliness? In "The 400-Pound CEO," the forever-ridiculed, obese Jeffrey accidentally kills his criminal boss while preventing the man from raping a woman. Due to his poor handling of the incident, and his co-workers' scorn, Jeffrey is sent to prison for life, where we leave him murmuring his hope that some day, somehow, he'll be "a slighter and more beautiful baby, destined for a different life, in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner." Jeffrey speaks for all of Saunders's losers, but he is hardly convincing, and this reader is left murmuring, as Jeffrey does at one point, "I'm sorry, but I feel that life should offer more than this."
Or, rather, life in fiction should offer more.
Saunders appears to be having fun and perhaps, like T. Coraghessan Boyle, he feels he offers the reader enough if he can blow some thrilling riffs. Boyle gets away with it because he's both a fearless and masterly player. Less accomplished, Saunders sounds like he's not sure what he's up to. The effect, finally, is that we're left wondering why this writer plays only a single, simple melody." - Ron Tanner

"Nostalgia, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is "a bittersweet longing for the things, persons, or situations of the past." If that is the case, then George Saunders's stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline tend to gravitate more toward the bitter than the sweet. The present, as depicted in this collection of stories, whether in the characters' lives or in society, leaves much to be desired. Everyone is dissatisfied and nostalgic for the past, whether real or imagined. And yet the past, as it is actually remembered, also brings equal discontentment. One might say that Saunders's characters are simply neurotic to a fault, but a deeper analysis poses a more interesting question about the real source of their unhappiness.
One way in which to examine that source is to look at the way the past is rendered. Throughout his stories, Saunders threads a common theme pertaining to the commodification of nostalgia. For instance, the settings in "Bounty" or the title story, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," take place in theme parks that recreate the past. In "OffLoading Mrs. Schwartz," the protagonist uses modules to download personal memories to sell to a school principal. In all three stories, the past is treated as entertainment. In "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," "The Desperate Patrol," costumed like soldiers at Gettysburg, enact a rebellion which is suppressed by a "rousing speech," a sing-a-long, fireworks, and a parade like something out of a Broadway musical (7). The children in "Offloading Mrs. Schwartz," happily experience sanitized versions of American history via downloaded memories, identifying "a Mercury Cougar with no prompting" and calling each other "Nixon whenever a trust is betrayed" (75). The staged death of a child from cholera in "Bounty" equally becomes a source of amusement when "[t]he Clients titter and check their Events Schedules and a few who are really in the spirit of the thing start laying coins on Scotty's chest" (90).
Since the past is commodified for entertainment, it is also sanitized or made meaningless for bottom line purposes. Mr. A., the owner of CivilWarLand, cuts corners due to budget crunches. He orders the protagonist to
fire Mr. Grayson, the ornithologist hired to keep the bird population in approximation to 1865, due to fiscal restraint and refuses to update the spaceship equipment greeting visitors into the park or use real buffalo meet for the "simulated frontier hunt" (9-11). There are other aspects of this park that have absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War, such as the "Mother Goose Days" (6). The protagonist in "OffLoading Mrs. Schwartz," censors history to make it more palatable for school children. He does this twice, first with Hank, the elderly robber who breaks into his apartment, and again with Mrs. Schwartz, an elderly woman under his care. He edits out Hank's hetero- and homosexual "trysts," profanity, "petty thefts," and the more brutal realities of war, just as he erases Mrs. Schwartz's mastectomy, her husband's mid-life crisis, and her drinking problem (74-75). Considering the fact that both Hank and Mrs. Schwartz no longer own their memories after the narrator downloads them onto his hard drive, his erasing them becomes all the more troubling. These memories are now completely lost.
In these examples, history is made more palatable for a buying public. As Cole, the narrator in "Bounty," says is BountyLand's "Statement of Corporate Mission," the purpose of selling nostalgia is: "To allow the
deserving to experience an historical epoch unlike our own in terms of personal comfort" (93). The emphasis, of course, is on the "personal comfort," since the recreations of the past, whether the Civil War era or the Middle Ages, rarely approximate what people actually experienced during those periods. Another theme that comes up time and again in Saunders's stories is how the past as it is imagined or manufactured contrasts with how it is experienced. A perfect example of this is in "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," with the "ghostly" MacKinnon family. The MacKinnon family is first introduced as a folksy frontier family who once lived on the land on which the park now sits. The Mrs. is seen washing clothes in the nearby creek and is fascinated with machine-stitched clothing. The daughter, Maribeth, reads bad poetry chapbooks and bemoans the lack of an "appropriate boy [who] ever died in the valley" (12). Mr., the family's patriarch, is a Civil War veteran whose folksy suspicions of modern life masks far more disturbing elements in his character. They are a font of information to the narrator, who appropriates ideas for the park from them, like obscure ballads from the 1800s. There is no indication that the MacKinnon family actually work for the park. They are simply ghostly haunts who roamed the land long before the park had been built on it. This is an important distinction since the MacKinnon family provide a sharp contrast between the history the park portrays and the history the MacKinnon's represent. It becomes apparent that the MacKinnons are far from the folksy frontier family as they were initially depicted. As it turns out, Mr., shellshocked from the horrors of war, had viciously butchered his family, an act that is "recreated" by the story's climax. Since the MacKinnons are ghosts, it's fair to assume that their memories and experiences are authentic. Therefore, the family serve as a reminder that the past, despite its inauthentic representations, can't be neatly ordered or sanitized.
In that case, the businesses in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline profit from manufacturing the past. What affect, if any, does this have on the characters who work there, who must peddle these artificial histories? Clearly, Saunders's characters are an unhappy lot. In "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," the narrator hates his job and, in the end, is abandoned by his wife and kids, who consider him "irresponsible" and an "oaf" (14). The narrator in "The Wavemaker Falters," similarly hates his job and his boss, who is sleeping with his wife. He is also wracked with guilt over his responsibility of a child's death in the pool he operates. "The 400-Pound CEO," is narrated by a character who is mercilessly teased by his coworkers over his weight and, through a series of mishaps, winds up in jail. The lead character in "OffLoading Mrs. Schwartz," is torn also with guilt and grief, in his case, over his wife's death, and is dissatisfied with his business. Mary, in "Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror," is both frustrated and angry for being dismissed and unwanted at work. In each case, the unhappiness in their lives is traced to their jobs, which in many ways are unsatisfactory and unremunerative. This is clearly shown in the work they are asked to do and their attitudes toward it.
After firing the ornithologist and having to "fend off a few blows," the narrator in "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," states: "Is this the life I envisioned for myself? My God no. I wanted to be a high jumper" (9). When the narrator in "The Wavemaker Falters" rescues a drowning nun, who, in turn, later stabs a cafeteria worker, he can only feel guilt over his good deed. The 400-pound CEO spends his work time doing invoices, lying to clients in letters or phone calls about the fate of the raccoons they've captured, or doing errands for his abusive boss, Tim. And while he seems pleased at how well he does his work, he expresses his true feelings through overeating - "When I've finished invoicing I enjoy a pecan cluster. Two, actually" (46) and the way he changes the way the business is run once he gains control after Tim's death, for which he is also responsible. And while Mary enjoys taking care of the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle, turning off the Maintenance lights, dusting the furniture, picking lint off the "fur items," etc. (78), she resents being the butt of jokes by visiting school children, being made to pay for a pair of wings which were taken from her by one of the children, having her pay deducted from her while being lectured to by her boss, and cleaning up the vomit in "The Wonder That Is Our Body" exhibit. She takes out her anger by poisoning the see-through cows, not out of any compassion for the cows, but because "I like to make [her boss] sad" (85).
If their jobs are a constant source of irritation and dissatisfaction, then why do they continue to work there? Clearly, they have no choice. The narrator in "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," has tried to find other work, but is rejected time and again. "Two hundred send-outs and no nibbles" (4). Mary, perhaps, is too old to find work elsewhere. Her boss eludes to this when he says to visiting Trustee members that he "should insist on an age cut-off, [Mary] is like working with human vegetables" (84). In other words, as Tim's T-Shirt in "The 400 Pound CEO" implies - "I HOLD YOUR PURSE STRINGS IN MY HOT LITTLE HANDS" (47) - these characters are trapped in their livelihoods.
Since they have no choice but to work in these jobs, their personal lives contradict their workplaces' demands for cheery representations of life. Like nostalgia, their jobs often mask a deeper truth. Mr. A in
"CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," orders the narrator to keep quiet about Samuel's increasing homicidal tendencies at the park, telling him to "put this sordid ugliness behind us and get on with the business of providing an enjoyable living for those we love" (19) (italics mine). The 400-pound CEO presents a prettified picture not only about the fate of the raccoons but that of his boss. After he kills Tim, the narrator writes a letter in which "[Tim] claims to be going to Mexico to clarify his relationship with God..." (59). Either of these characters must lie in order to keep up the cheery facade their worklife demands. Mary's personal history contrasts with that of the life the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle tries to paint. In The Wonder That Is Our Body, an exhibit at the museum, where The Pickled Babies are kept, she is reminded of her own stillborn babies. Our Nation's Bounty, another exhibit at the Fairy Castle, also contradicts Mary's memories. When she goes to the exhibit she recollects her own childhood growing up on a farm, when her father "came in smelling of compost..." and "would either beat [Mary and her sisters] or stroke us excessively" (84). While the exhibit features "a barn facade and a few real tractors and a stuffed farmer...," it hardly resembles a real farm. "...[the see-through cows in the exhibit] have sound enough instincts to know that a functioning scaled-down coal mine with collegiate tour guides in hard harts is not part of any farm" (85) (could the same be said for the visitors who come to the fairy castle museum?). It is interesting to note that a museum dedicated to the biological and mundane functions of life is called the Evermore Fairy Castle, blurring a line between what is genuine and what is not. It is also interesting that Mary works here, since her life has been anything but a fairy tale.
In every story, the reality of these characters' lives rubs up against the inauthenticity surrounding them. And yet, there is a yearning for that inauthenticity, as well. In "Bounty," after the narrator escapes from the theme park where he is enslaved, he pines for the days when people drank "Dr. Pepper while driving an Edsel and listening to Muzak on a Victrola" (125). His vision of the past is meant to be humorous, but it is poignantly understandable considering the life he has led. His is a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world in which Flaweds, like the narrator, are beaten, lynched, or sold into slavery. This character, as well as the others in Saunders's stories, turn to nostalgia to escape their own present and depressing lives. This is even true for the characters who are aware of the false comfort nostalgia brings. Mary is old enough to know what the past was really like, yet she still recollects fondly about the days when the city where she lived "was made entirely of wood, and men sold goods from carts, and this museum was a floodplain where we all picnicked" (86). She, like Hank and Mrs. Schwartz, have a wealth of "real" knowledge about history, but their knowledge is either undervalued or made irrelevant in a society that is more interested in a past that is increasingly trivialized.
Though the characters long for a nostalgic past, such longing sets them up for doom. In most of Saunders's stories, his characters who are either nostalgic for the past, such as the narrator in "OffLoading Mrs.
Schwartz," or traffics in the commercialization of nostalgia, are met with more uncertainty and tragedy. The character in "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," is murdered. "You know a few things I don't want broadcast," his killer, Samuel, says before he is hacked to death. The narrator understands this as well. "Possessing perfect knowledge I hover above him...I see his rough childhood. I see his mother doing something horrid to him with a broomstick. I see hate in his heart and the people he has yet to kill before pneumonia gets him at eighty-three" (26). The narrator in "OffLoading Mrs. Schwartz' downloads his own memories onto his hard drive, editing out all the sad, painful recollections of his dead wife. Mary, after her one nostalgic reflection of the past after so many unhappy ones, tries to kill herself by jumping off the pier. "I think of how lovely it all could have been had anything gone right, and then I think: Oh heavens, why prolong it, I've no income now." She survives her suicide attempt only because she is unwillingly rescued by Navy boys (87).
In each instance, Saunders's characters recognize the futility of dwelling in the past, especially one that is ideally manufactured. And yet the present offers no hope for them either. Their lives don't live up to the cheerful, sanitized versions of the past. Their lives are real, messy, disorderly, full of anger, regret, grief, and sadness. Nostalgia, like the modules in "OffLoading Mrs. Schwartz," edits out those unpleasant realities, making the past easily digestible for a consuming public. It shouldn't be surprising then that Saunders's characters are so unhappy and dissatisfied. Their miserable lives couldn't possibly live up to those unrealistic standards. Yet all is not hopeless. In the story "Isabelle," the narrator creates a little life for himself and the title character, finding hope within that misery. "It's not perfect. Sometimes it's damn hard. But I look after her and she squeals with delight when I come home, and the sum total of sadness in the world is less than it would have been" (33). He, as well as the narrator in "Bounty," escape the fate of the other characters in Saunders's stories, by accepting life as it is, and finding some satisfaction in it by taking control of their own destinies." - Cynthia C. Scott
George Saunders, In Persuasion Nation (Penguin, 2007)

"George Saunders has earned enthusiastic acclaim and a devoted cult-following with his first two story collections and the recent novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. With his new book, In Persuasion Nation, Saunders ups the ante in every way, and is poised to break out to a wide new audience. "The Red Bow," about a town consumed by pet-killing hysteria, won a 2004 National Magazine Award and "Bohemians," the story of two supposed Eastern European widows trying to fit in in suburban USA, is included in The Best American Short Stories 2005. His new book includes both unpublished work, and stories that first appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and Esquire. The stories in this volume work together as a whole whose impact far exceeds the simple sum of its parts. Fans of Saunders know and love him for his sharp and hilarious satirical eye. But In Persuasion Nation also includes more personal and poignant pieces that reveal a new kind of emotional conviction in Saunders's writing.
Saunders's work in the last six years has come to be recognized as one of the strongest-and most consoling-cries in the wilderness of the millennium's political and cultural malaise. In Persuasion Nation's sophistication and populism should establish Saunders once and for all as this generation's literary voice of wisdom and humor in a time when we need it most."

"Following his superb story collections Civilwarland in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (1999), as well as last year's novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders reaffirms his sharp, surreal vision of contemporary, media-saturated life, but keeps most of the elements within his familiar bandwidth. In the sweetly acerbic "My Flamboyant Grandson," a family trip through Times Square is overwhelmed by pop-up advertisements. In "Jon," orphans get sold to a market research firm and become famous as "Tastemakers & Trendsetters" (complete with trading cards). "CommComm" concerns an air force PR flunky living with the restless souls of his parents while covering for a spiraling crisis at work. The more conventionally grounded stories are the most compelling: one lingers over a bad Christmas among Chicago working stiffs, another follows a pair of old Russian-Jewish women haunted by memories of persecution. Others collapse under the weight of too much wit (the title story especially), and a few are little more than exercises in patience ("93990," "My Amendment"). But Saunders's vital theme-the persistence of humanity in a vacuous, nefarious marketing culture of its own creation-comes through with subtlety and fresh turns." - Publishers Weekly

"Within this series of thematically linked stories, consumerism goes haywire in a country and era somewhat like our own. Following his fabulist novella (The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, 2005), Saunders returns to the short story with his signature synthesis of satire and surrealism, through which flights of the imagination assume a hyper-reality. Within the brave new world of "Persuasion Nation," parents buy computerized masks for their babies, transforming infants into amazing, more articulate facsimiles of themselves (and making the neighbors jealous). Advertising holograms based on individual preferences shadow potential shoppers, in a society where consumption equals patriotism. Children are taken from their homes to live in a training camp, where they form an elite Tastemakers & Trendsetters cadre (complete with their own bubblegum cards). With all the pressures to consume and conform, free will is either an illusion or a betrayal. The stories take a variety of formats-letters of complaint and comment, a scientific report, a holiday memory (in the uncharacteristic, bittersweet realism of "Christmas")-and most of them feature first-person narration by a series of oddly dysfunctional narrators. Exceptions to the variety of first-person voices are two of the longer stories at the collection's center: "Brad Carrigan, American" finds a television series under threat of cancellation resorting to increasingly extreme measures to sustain interest (and in the process probing the morality of anything-goes reality TV). The title story that follows turns the world of commercials into a battlefield of all-American revolt. Though much of the fiction is slapstick funny in a dark, deadpanway, a spiritual undercurrent courses through the work, as desire and suffering feed on each other, and God may be just another pitchman or empty promise. Where many short stories at the creative vanguard seem to bear minimal relation to the world at large, Saunders's work is as effective as social commentary as it is at exploring the frontiers of fiction. Many readers will be glad that they don't live in Persuasion Nation, though the most perceptive will recognize that we already do." - Kirkus Reviews

"When the clones come to harvest our organs, they will speak to us like George Saunders—swiftly, smoothly, proffering bits of Pop-Tarts. The synthesized flow of their voices, combined with the promise of extra filling, will persuade us to lie back on their tables and focus—happily, productively—on what they say, not what they do.
Saunders has made a career out of hot-wiring himself to machines—the former engineer attaches fingers to the keyboard and spews out reams of tripped-out data on the intersection of a mechanized culture and its equally mechanical population. Those data, in turn, become the source material of some of the slickest, most relentlessly satirical stories yet produced on this planet. In his latest collection—In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead, April)—teenagers interned in a terminal focus group, the deranged star of a Truman Show screenplay, scientists, and product specialists speak, with disarming fluency, the language of the commercial voiceover artist in residence inside all our brains. The real question of the moment, as one character puts it, is "Well Who Will Be There, Will There Be Cakes?"
Do you take your cultural parody with or without sugar? As the platitudes the authorities feed us diminish in already wafer-thin logic, Saunders nearly takes leave of narrative—immersing his stories, instead, in the chocolate-covered nonsense of corporate and political speech. While previous works in this millennium— Pastoraliaand The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil—consisted of tightly wound parables, Persuasion lets loose a series of hysterically smooth-talking voices. They hawk prosthetic baby faces; legislate the slaughter of dogs, cats, and primates; and recount Teddy Graham commercials as the sincerest professions of love. Their lesson, Saunders suggests, is that truth exists in inverse relation to eloquence—or so, at least, he says." - Carla Blumenkranz

“Stunningly effective…The title story of In Persuasion Nation—about a doomed rebellion against the brutal and degrading skits used to advertise consumer products—is [Saunders’] wildest yet. Set is the psychic space of a series of television commercials (all of them absurd, some of them grotesquely violent), the story is at once insanely inventive and calmly convincing…. [But] the fantastically talented George Saunders…can also do old-fashioned realism. In ‘Bohemians,’ about a clutch of misfit kids from ‘unraveling households’ in a working-class neighborhood, Saunders demonstrates a delicate human touch….There’s movement beneath the surface of these simple sentences, a ripple of emotion that makes the laughter, the budding friendliness, ring true.” — The New York Times Book Review

"If you are a new reader of George Saunders, the first thing you ought to know is that Saunders is the funniest writer in America...The competition--David Sedaris, Tom Wolfe, Christopher Buckley--isn't even close.It is easy, therefore, to pigeonhole Saunders, to think of him largely as a wit and an absurdist extraordinaire. This would be to miss his point. Saunders's laughs are a cover, a diversion, beneath which reside some profoundly serious intentions regarding the morality of how we live and the power of love and immanent death to transform us into vastly better creatures than we could otherwise hope to be. These are the biggest intentions an artist can have...Nowadays, in a time of the most limited sense of possibility and ambition in American literature, where even the discussion of the requirements of art, as opposed to success, feels obsolete and embarrassing, I can't think of another writer who would try to do what Saunders is doing, or anything close to it. This is an important book." —The Nation

“Back when Philip K. Dick asked ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ who could have imagined that George Saunders would answer? Or that his reply might be, we are the electric sheep…Saunders’ caustic wit, imaginative flair and the Ping-Pong speed of his dialogue are on full display here.” —Los Angeles Times

“The 12 brilliant entries of In Persuasion Nation explore, through hyperbole, the most heinous aspects of contemporary America, as it merrily eats and pollutes itself to death…[Saunders] has a singular skill at manipulating language. It’s almost as though he learned English from watching television and reading poetry, and then fermented his findings into a weird new language all his own. His sentences, bursting with barely perceptible tweaks to standard usage, are multilayered and profound, yet instantly digestible. ‘Think these things up in your heart,’ one of his characters says. ‘Treasure them around, see what it is.’ Treasuring Saunders around, you find yourself laughing, a bit moved and ultimately won over.” —Time Out Chicago

“In Saunders’ latest collection - In Persuasion Nation - teenagers interned in a terminal focus group, the deranged star of a Truman Show screenplay, scientists, and product specialists speak, with disarming fluency, the language of the commercial voiceover artists in residence inside all our brains…Some of the slickest, most relentlessly satirical stories yet produced on this planet.”—The Village Voice
George Saunders, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (Riverhead Trade, 2005)

"Welcome to Inner Horner, a nation so small it can only accommodate one citizen at a time. The other six citizens must wait their turns in the Short-Term Residency Zone of the surrounding country of Outer Horner. It’s a long-standing arrangement between the fantastical, not-exactly-human citizens of the two countries. But when Inner Horner suddenly shrinks, forcing three-quarters of the citizen then in residence over the border into Outer Horner territory, the Outer Hornerites declare an Invasion In Progress—having fallen under the spell of the power-hungry and demagogic Phil. So begins The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Fueled by Saunders’s unrivaled wit, outlandish imagination, and incisive political sensibility, here is a deeply strange yet strangely familiar fable of power and impotence, justice and injustice—an Animal Farm for our times."

“Many critics refer to Saunders as a satirist, and though the term is often used in conjunction with names like Swift and Twain, it can also be a trap. The world a satirist creates, some charge, is only a prediction or, at best, a distortion, as though all successful art isn’t about distorting, or bending, reality. Another word that gets fastened to Saunders is moralist. These two terms are often intertwined, of course. At the core of much satire is some kind of prescription. Still, even if correct, these two labels, the limitations of the first and the taint of the scold in the second, don’t do justice to Saunders. His bleak but merciful stories contain a great deal more than satire, or at least the toothless send-ups that often stand in for satire, and they are never preachy…The message of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, delivered with great wit, isn’t overtly political…But there is no denying the noble rage at the heart of this book. Stunning… Brilliant.”—Sam Lipsyte

“The timing and panache of George Saunders’ new novella, a parable called The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, could not be more appropriate. If we must live in an age where everyone is aggrieved to some degree or other, the always clever Saunders seems to have realized that his only comic redoubt is to find comedy in a story concerning the most offensive things possible: fascism and genocide….Saunders, whose prose is never stronger than when he adopts the humorous fatalism of the career dead-ender (see the classic Pastoralia), proves more than up to the task of giving voice to an entire geopolitical region, from devious presidential advisers to doubting soldiers, funny-walking foreign neighbors, and, best of all, a marvelously self-important and obsequious media, ‘squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles…The book is a riff—and a very amusing one, I hasten to add—on any number of 20th century monstrosities…Madly inventive.” —Boston Globe

“In The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders has sketched a parable about the abuses of power than has an unlikely sting in its whimsy…its imagery and perverse cruelties linger in the mind after you’ve read it.” —Seattle Times

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a political fable of a world unbound from the physical laws of our own, but not so unlike it for all that….One of the many pleasures of this little book is the sheer physical weirdness of Saunders’ characters; take Phil’s flirting techniques, which involve, ‘inflating and deflating his central bladder in order to look more manly and attractive.’ Saunders also has a perfect ear for political rhetoric, and so we get the National Life Enjoyment Index Score, the Certificate of Total Approval (signed by Phil’s cronies), and the Peace Encouraging Enclosure (a jail, of course.) Phil is more than a send-up of the machinations of power than a direct satire of our country…but it doesn’t feel so unfamiliar, either.—Esquire

“Like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Saunders finds a backdoor into our conscience through surrealism, albeit of a more ironic stripe. Characters get kitschy names like Vance and Freeda, and non-humanoid features—one ‘man’ is a tunafish can with a blue dot on it- and yet this draws out their essential human features. When Phil proposes to disassemble a harmless old Inner Hornerite named Cal ‘in the interest of preventing further violence,’ an essential line is crossed. So many real-world events can be seen here, but the genius of this book however is not its applicability, but rather how it convinces us to care for a beleaguered people—without allowing us the cozy certitude that they are us.”—Newark Star-Ledger

“Saunders’ first two works of fiction, Pastoralia and CivilWarland in Bad Decline, both consisted of stories, many of which appeared in the New Yorker, noted for stylistic hijinks and visionary grace. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a departure of sorts, or an evolution: wackier still, and less grounded in reality. It suggests an obvious question: Yes, it's funny, but is it literature? Like judges we might search for signs of precedent, and there are many: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, that 18th-century darling of the postmoderns, has a similar antic style and imagination, a mixture of high intelligence and comic bathos. Saunders’ fiction also resembles the best of Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme and Mark Leyner. It's daring and different. It laughs at the absurdity of imagination itself, which is what our own world needs most when things look bleak.”—Houston Chronicle

“Although the war in Iraq is quickly brought to mind, the novella's message is a broad and timeless one about conflict and human nature... The book's moral center, however, is anything but simplistic: to what lengths will an individual go to be told that he or she is appreciated?... Although Saunders’ work is easily labeled satire or science fiction, his real gifts are literary ones. No matter how masked by experimentation, Saunders has a soaring command of language that he uses for the most important element of fiction: building character.... His words move quickly from mundane to futuristic to poignant to sarcastic.... Saunders' dialogue, in particular, makes for easy and humorous reading while grounding scenes in everyday emotion.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“With an absurdist wit as playful as Monty Python’s and a vision as dark as Samuel Beckett’s, a postmodernist spins a provocative parable of political power and its abuses… A mind-bending work.” —Kirkus Reviews

George Saunders, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Illustrated by Lane Smith (McSweeney's, 2006)

"Three families live in the seaside village of Frip—the Romos, the Ronsens, and a little girl named Capable and her widowed father. The townspeople of Frip make their living raising goats, but they must fight off a daily invasion of gappers, bright orange, many-eyed creatures that cover goats and stop them from giving milk. When the gappers target Capable’s goats, the Romos and the Ronsens turn their backs on the gapper-ridden Capable. What will Capable do about her gapper plague? An imaginative tale accented with haunting illustrations, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is an adult story for children, a children’s story for adults, an oceanside fable for the irremediably landlocked, a fish story for loaves, and a fable about the true meaning of community. "

"The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is that rarity, a fable that appeals equally to literate adults and id-crazed kids. Its author, George Saunders, is a Thomas Pynchon-approved, three-time O. Henry Award-winning surrealist writer; its artist, Lane Smith, is the Caldecott-honored illustrator of The Stinky Cheese Man and film designer of James and the Giant Peach. Nothing could evoke Saunders's simple yet extravagant story better than Smith's strange, painterly depictions of the seaside town of Frip, a place of ornery eccentrics and oddball animals. Smith combines some of the virtues of George Grosz, Dr. Seuss, and the Japanese prints called Ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world").
Gappers are baseball-sized, burr-shaped orange creatures with a compulsion to creep up out of the sea and fasten themselves to goats, whom they love. "When a gapper gets near a goat it gives off a continual high-pitched happy shriek of pleasure that makes it impossible for the goat to sleep, and the goats get skinny and stop giving milk," writes Saunders. Since Frip survives by selling goat milk, the children must brush gappers off the herd eight times daily and dump them into the ocean. You simply must see Smith's picture of Capable, the book's plucky heroine, emptying her gapper-sack from a precarious cliff picturesquely menaced by subtly colored waves. You'll be torn between lingering over the gorgeous artwork and flipping the page to see how Capable will ever cope with the gapper invasion of Frip, her obdurately past-obsessed widower papa, and her dumb, mean neighbors (two snooty, boy-obsessed girls and a family of singers who are harder on the ears than a keening gapper attached to the goat of its dreams). This is a slim tale, but unquestionably one quite in keeping with Saunders's prizewinning books. The title story of Pastoralia, for instance, is also a fable involving class struggle and people who get snooty about the difficulties of working with goats." -

"Saunders's (Pastoralia) idiosyncratic voice makes an almost perfect accompaniment to children's book illustrator Smith's (The Stinky Cheese Man) heightened characterizations and slightly surreal backdrops in this unconventional fairy tale for grownups. Saunders describes the setting, the town of Frip, as "three leaning shacks by the sea," which Smith represents as oblong two-story towers in brick red, ocean blue and mint green situated on irregular plots of land with sinewy trees against a yellow sky that suggest a Daliesque eerieness. The 1,500 gappers, spiky little creatures with multiple eyes, feed on the goats that graze the shacks' backyards; by habit, they split into three groups to attack all three properties at once. One day, the gappers decide that henceforth they will concentrate all their efforts on the goats at only one house, the one closest to the seaAinhabited by a girl, Capable, and her grieving, widowed father. Soon, the two unafflicted families begin to tell themselves that they are superior to Capable and her father ("Not that we're saying we're better than you, necessarily, it's just that, since gappers are bad, and since you and you alone now have them, it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us"). Of course it's only a matter of time until everybody's luck changes. The Saunders-Smith collaboration is inspired. Smith adds witty touches throughout, and Saunders's dialogue features uncannily amusing deadpan repetitions and platitudinous self-exculpations. Saunders is much too hip to bring this fable to an edifying ending, but things do conclude as happily as is possible in the morally challenged, circumscribed world of Frip. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title." - Publishers Weekly

An interview with George Saunders: