Tuesday, May 20, 2008

George Saunders, "The Braindead Megaphone", (2007).

A few years ago I decided to delve into the world of the American contemporary short story. I had been mostly reading "the classics", and had started wondering what living writers were making of the time I was living through. I found the field was exceptionally strong. Writers like Chris Offutt and Dan Chaon became early favorites. But perhaps the most stunningly original author of the bunch was George Saunders. I quickly made my way through the two volumes of tales he had published- CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000). His work was characterized by magical realism, dystopianism, and the critique of corporate culture- all themes that particularly appealed to me.

In one story in Pastoralia, Saunders describes a modern-day theme park that has living vignettes of humans, a la Williamsburg, VA. Reading about how two 'cave people' interact in front of the tourists in this park was funny in a sort of surreal and sad way. Saunders vision of America is certainly colored with cynicism, but he manages to be quite humorous about it regardless. As some critics point out, there is a touch of the modern Kurt Vonegut in his approach. He can be scabrous and pessimistic, but it is quite clear how much Saunders values his characters, no matter how reprehensibly they sometimes act. In a tale called Sea Oak, we meet a protagonist with an unemployed pair of sisters, and an aunt that is rapidly decomposing- yet still manages to retain her acid tongue.

Saunders (who was born in 1958 in Texas, and grew up in Chicago) has an odd background for an author. He received a geophysical engineering degree from Colorado, and has worked on an oil exploration crew, and as a technical writer in his field of study. When he was a young man in the 1980's, he embraced Ayn Rand's Objectivism- but later had a change of heart and decided that her views were "repulsive", and formed the basis for neoconservatism. That accounts in part for his penchant for pointing out the most cockeyed aspects of corporate culture. He targets that world with such relish that he has been celebrated by many of the most intelligent malcontents within our society. For the last several years he has written essays for The Guardian, The New Yorker, Harper's and GQ. In 2006 he received a "Genius Grant" (MacCarthur Fellowship).

One look through his only nonfiction collection (The Braindead Megaphone) demonstrates why he has earned such accolades. With very few exceptions his aim is unerring. The title piece explains (in his inimitable way) the role of the media in our current national crisis. His vast skills as a commentator are underscored by his refusal to dehumanize his subjects. He is never shy about confronting his own presumptions of others. Descriptions of trips to Dubai (in the United Arab Emirates) and to the US-Mexican border demonstrate the amount of equanimity he is willing to show to the traditional whipping boys of Northeastern "liberal society". Invariably he finds a core of decency in those easiest to disdain.

There's something to be said for an essayist who reserves his judgments while interacting with primary sources. While he's not at all afraid to expose the hidden agendas and selfish motivations of some, he's also not going to let preconceptions dictate his story- otherwise why bother making the trip? It's clear that he is a skeptic, and finds much of human behavior completely absurd. Yet he realizes what is at stake. At one point he makes an internal resolution to remain as open to new experiences and information as he can. In his opinion, the opposite tact is a direct route to the death of both the intellect and the spirit. It's extraordinary how Saunders can be simultaneously discerning in his evaluation of human foibles and yet so life-affirming. This feat makes Saunders unique in the American literary landscape.

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