Sunday, June 15, 2008

George Saunders' "In Persuasion Nation" Book Review

I heard the author at a book reading when his previous collection, "Pastoralia," came out. I asked him how he conceived his intricate, twisting stories. He replied that it was like tossing a stick out for your dog to fetch, but the dog comes back with a baby's severed (I hope) arm in his mouth. Or maybe it was a doll's head, or a real one. You get the picture, however.

As "Pastoralia" marked a shift into more humane characters if no less bizarre scenarios away from the corporate-psychobabble-consumerist dystopias of his first collection, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," so "In Persuasion Nation" depicts his fumbling figures adrift in a more media-driven setting, farther from the tract homes, chain stores at the strip malls, and "business parks" of his earlier stories. He's an acquired taste, and not a quick read despite the superficial facility of his prose. Like Vonnegut, with whom I sense here an increasing connection, Saunders strives to marry the morality tale to the satirical invective against homogenization and conformity that masks its domination in the cant of buyer's (or voter's!) choice, free-enterprise, and relentless salesmanship.

More humanity, and less concentration on verbal tics and ingenious vignettes, shows Saunders' evolution as a writer. The four sections gather stories into patterns that, especially at the start and closing, recalled for me an unlikely but indirectly perhaps influential predecessor: James Joyce's "Dubliners." As nearly a century ago the pattern of social paralysis emerged through stories arranged from childhood to adolescence to public life to maturity, before entering the sublime and disturbing epiphanies of "The Dead," so here do twelve entries arrange themselves in a similar order. Part One takes on growing up; Part Two enters into suburban families; Part Three explores speculative terrain of lab research, mass marketing and media blitzing; Part Four combines character studies with harrowing accounts of violence past and present. Each section's prefaced by a brief excerpt from "Bernard 'Ed' Alton" who in his "Taskbook for a New Nation," targets those who will not conform to the cornucopia of crap.

The "health of our commerce" is first defended by such Power-Point middle-management protegees. Saunders in earlier fiction delved into their world. Now, he looks out on those who are sold such a bill of goods. The first three stories explore "free"-enterprise that limits autonomy. "I CAN SPEAK!tm" introduces a baby's toy, a mask that makes the tot articulate beyond infant ability; "My Flamboyant Grandson" enters a near-future in which citizens are beholden to tap in to an electronic system haranguing them for marketing "opportunities" and a grandfather's grim duty to this Orwell-meets-Philip K. Dick surveillance contrasted with his wish to allow his charge a bit of freedom. The elderly man tries to rebel:

What America is to me, is a guy doesn't want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let's go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamourous reasonable voice. (21)

Wise words as we witness a presidential campaign or a P.R. blitz. "Jon," nearly a novella, takes on a community where children have been raised as a test market and can by "lendelling" call up in their visual field by blinking an array of memories mixed with databases of endlessly recalled ads that tug at heartstrings cleverly. The tale, I thought, was about to end just when it hesitated and gained verisimilitude (no easy feat) and continued into a more satisfying conclusion than I'd anticipated.

Saunders' ability to take on longer stories bodes well for his staying power. So many of those with whom he might be compared such as Richard Brautigan, Nathanael West, or even later Pynchon or Vonnegut, have foundered in keeping up their imaginary powers. Part Two's prefaced by "Ed"'s defense of preferences, against those who "citing equality, deny our right to make critical moral distinctions." The weakest story, "My Amendment," imagines a legislative remedy for gender mis-matches, but it fails to engage, and its dullness as a letter to the editor keeps it plodding. "The Red Bow" by far turns the grimmest entry here, a suburban apocalypse as the lives of pets are pitted against the death of a child. It'd make a great short film. "Christmas" stays totally realist, as its race and class tensions give a calmer indication of Saunders' willingness to step outside of his familiar funhouse milieu. "Adams" explores neighborly tensions also, but ends rather in a pat fashion.

The third section opens with "Ed" targeting dissenters and naysayers. Those who refuse to go along with the program make these three stories the closest to Vonnegut and these capture a countercultural flavor, not dated in its attitudes, but updated for our wired sensibilities. "93990" briefly considers primate lab experiments in a thoughtful, nearly understated way. "Brad Carrigan, American," tackles ambitiously the complacency of our national greed and our ethnocentric ignorance. Why Brad's backyard morphed and how this tied into his predominance on this reality-TV show remained less than clear to me, but this may be intentional, as the blurred explanations fit into the ultimate fate of the protagonist. The hand of the satirist may be rather heavy in parts of this story, but its conclusion managed to gracefully place this setting within one that recalled many tales of mortality and fate.

Similarly, the title story plunges you into a place reminding me of a Tibetan bardo, a liminal realm of the afterlife. Creatures and characters from ads who have been pitilessly forced perhaps by a divine power or its false similacrum to enact their pummeling and submission to clever animated products (it's hard to describe this!) decide to fight back against their commercial tormenters. It reminded me of a Harlan Ellison story in which people realize they are trapped within a larger, capricious, power's evil consciousness. Jim, "the penisless man," protests as he struggles for enlightenment whether the characters could not join "to devise a more humane approach? An approach in which no one is humiliated, or hurt, or maimed, an approach in which the sacred things in life are no longer appropriated in the service of selling what are, after all, merely--" 171) He's cut off at that moment by a higher power, so his moment of articulation remains attenuated. But, it's as close as we come in this collection to Saunders' defense of the human (even in CGI form?) against the implacable rulers who dominate individual freedom and crush our better selves. Theologically intriguing, it veers into the spiritual after it had begun on an equally inspired parody of commercialized sentiment. The story ends perfectly.

The last two, in part four, take on "Ed" who warns that people must not let their words be used against them. It's ambiguous, as by now "Ed" in this dictum may be taken up on the side of the dissenters, I suspect. "Bohemians" returns to the working-class stagnation of "Christmas." It shares a humble Chicago setting; it's realistic, more nuanced look at two elderly ladies each claiming to be refugees from Eastern European pogroms, and how the boy who tells the story must grapple with what he learns about their pasts. It's comparatively straightforward, and such urban coming-of-age tales make for a respite from the demanding and disorienting fictional worlds that dominate Saunders' imagination.

"Commcomm" returns to the title story's combination of a moral clash that involves supernatural forces along with ghostly characters mingled with institutional power. A daunting mix, this time not the media but the military, as a base faces shutdown and Homeland Security wishes to replace its facilities with its own. The story cannot be summarized further without spoiling the plot, but it marks an advance. Saunders by now can combine his half-humorous, half-poignant depictions of office politics and workplace dissension with his more gruesome indulgences into violence and death, while somehow rising above to a graceful conclusion that again reminded me of an epiphany in a Joyce story, above the paralysis, for once, rather than mired in it.

GeorgeSaundersLand: Author's website Michael Schmelling's photo suits a key moment in "Jon." (See also my review of his 2012 collection "Tenth of December" 10-24-12 at Amazon US)

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