You may not have read George Saunders' 2005 novella, "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil," which was not as widely acclaimed as his two short-story collections, "Pastoralia" and "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," both New York Times Notable Books.
But the haunting and dryly hilarious opening sentence from "Phil" provides a glimpse of Saunders' eccentric genius and his uncanny ability to create coherent (if bizarre) universes: "It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner."
It's one thing to create and embellish upon the fanciful mini-state of Inner Horner, but Saunders cuts a bit closer to the bone in his latest, "In Persuasion Nation." These 12 stories are set in an almost-recognizable America; most but not all in the nearish future. Some of his visions are upsetting and a bit horrifying, while others are simple tales of the enduring sadness and selfishness of human nature.
Besides their wacky creativity, his stories of the strange and the stubborn, the victims and the vindicated, show a new depth of poignancy. And while every one will take you on a journey to parts unknown (and probably previously unimagined), some will have you shaking your head and smiling in delight at their entertaining flights of imagination.
The best of these stories have first-person narration by characters whose comments are so bluntly conversational that you can almost hear their tones of voice. In several cases, their descriptions are offhand, almost clunky, and the realism is chilling.
The story I found most engaging is called "Jon," the name of its teenage narrator, though we will find out soon enough that his mother named him Randy.
Jon lives with others in his demographic category of White Teens in the Midwest Region. They assess commercials that are apparently piped directly into their brains through neck implants. With only a single window on the dingy, humdrum world of "Out," they live regimented lives of ad-invoked emotions. The commercial images that swamp their brains are found at Location Indicators and become more than just their points of reference, they become their reality.
Saunders likes to explore the increasingly intrusive nature of advertising. In "My Flamboyant Grandson," an old man faces social censure when he removes his shoes, which means that he can't receive the ads directed at him as he walks the streets of Manhattan. We saw a similar vision of the future in "Minority Report," as personalized, interactive ads spoke directly to the characters about past and suggested purchases.
In "Christmas," the most realistic and conventionally emotionally wrenching of the stories, a 26-year-old working as a roofer in Chicago watches a co-worker he respects lose his possessions and his hope.
The monkey experiments of "93990" describe a hideous cruelty cloaked in icy clinical language.
In "My Amendment," an eminently reasonable writer with a clear idea of "what God had in mind" pens a "My Turn" letter suggesting that not only should same-sex marriage be banned, but so should "Samish-Sex Marriage." He writes, "It goes without saying that He did not want men marrying men, or women marrying women, but also what He did not want, in my view, was feminine men marrying masculine women." His suggestions for couples in "Samish-Sex Marriages" would be hilarious if one didn't have the sneaking suspicion that a senator from Utah might suggest those exact steps in the next few years.
While every story in this book is a gem, two stand out. In the title piece, "In Persuasion Nation," Saunders leads the reader, step by step, into a tangential imaginative fantasy that ultimately includes President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant and an oblong green triangular symbol ripped from the wrapper of an obnoxious Slap-of-Wack bar. The nature of God is discussed along with the input of a Wendy's GrandeChickenBoatCombo, and the brilliant and the banal shout at each other.
The title of the final story, "CommComm," stands for Air Force "Community Communications," where the narrator works. Bit by bit, we learn the troubling and tender circumstances of his shattered life, and even when the bloody pivotal events happen, we hang on for an ending that provides a vision of selfless redemption and the ultimate unity of all sentient spirits.
Well done, Saunders.
Anne Neville is a News feature reporter.
>In Persuasion Nation
By George Saunders
Riverhead, 228 pages, 23.95