Friday, September 5, 2014

George Saunders' "The Braindead Megaphone: Essays": Review

In the title essay, the Megaphone Guy struts in, sets up his amplified bray, and his listeners find themselves unable to carry on their conversations, forced as they are to adopt his expressions, giving way to his domination, without realizing his sway. More relevant than ever ten years on, in an age of click bait and Buzzfeed and Facebook “likes” pestering us alongside pop-ups and pundits.

Covering excess in Dubai, Saunders reflects amidst the predictable if dazzling glittery glitz how universal the Other remains, appealing by common human dignity and compassion to connect people no matter who or where. Under the snark, his essays at their best sustain the impact of his stories, where empathy mingles somehow with satire, and pop psychology send-ups deepen the poignant attempts of put-upon everyday people, corrupted by systems and co-opted by corporations, to maintain dignity against all capitalist odds. The profit motive reigns in Dubai; Saunders accepts in reporting for GQ his complicity, but he wonders what else he, gawking at Third World workers happy to toil in the desert, should or can do.

As for the media he represents, on the border near Laredo, he gently mocks his Minutemen companions, as an East Coast journalist. Accused of not being a properly neutral reporter, Saunders fires back: “We’re being neutral.” “By not making fun of you.” (152) While insistent on his liberal bona fides, Saunders here allows himself to hear out the often caricatured other side of the issue, and the border. He never gives in, but following his coverage, he begins to become more patient, and we share the tolerance for insights transcending sound bites or partisan treatment of hot-button issues

Beneath a smart-ass tone, Saunders keeps aware of the need for honesty. He wonders if we may be wired by one of two nodes neutrally. Some protect what they have, and crouch and hunker down to guard it. Others pop up, eager to share, open to the new. Perhaps, he reflects, our politics thus emerge.

This continues into an excellent introduction to Huck Finn. “Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies.” (203) Out of this conflict, Saunders maps the war within the American (and World) Psyche, ever contending. Apropos, he finds in Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme congenial fellow travelers.

What links these writers is a refusal to give into the narrative's comforts, and to allow uneasiness. As Saunders finds investigating a report of a boy meditating for seven years: “A human being is someone who, having lived awhile, becomes terrified and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear.” Visiting a Nepalese Buddhist shrine, wary of miracles, he still muses: “all of this began when one man walked into the woods, sat down, and tried to end his fear by doing something purely internal: working on his mind.” (216). Saunders diagnoses this as a possible remedy for our “ambient fear” of knowing that when we love, we realize “there must someday come a parting.”

While a few essays fall flat, feeling like sketches for stories better dramatized than satirized, and while his strength remains in fictionalizations of the predicaments he doodles in the lesser entries, overall this 2007 collection plays to the quirky elements that make his inventive tales so successful. (7-25-14 to Amazon US)

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