George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Random House paperback edition, 2016, 198 pp. Originally published in 1996.
Two Instances of Prevarication
On a Writer’s Acknowledgements Page
“I often marvel at the persona engendered by the influence of the form. The writer presents himself as one surrounded, cushioned, buoyed up by wonderful friends. He is, he says, ‘blessed,’ ‘in luck,’ ‘serene’ even in his obligations. Not a word on the acknowledgements page about grievances, or about offenses received and inflicted. Who would suspect a curmudgeon behind such handsome avowals? But perhaps this is what they are good for. By their virtue, ill-humor, rancor, resentments are temporarily purged, and the author is given a glimpse of the person he might have become, had he formed the habit of privately closing each day with such notations as are called for by the publishing of acknowledgements.” Leo Steinberg
Another spot replete with fakery is the back cover of any book, where the blurbers hold sway, trying to say only good things—often lying through their teeth about what they really think. Why lie? Because these guys are writing books themselves, and when the time comes they will need favors returned—i.e., more lying blurbs for the backs of their books. Here are some of the blurb-lies on the back cover of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline—annotated by me, with rebuttals.
BLURB ONE: “George Saunders is a writer of arresting brilliance and originality, with a sure sense of his material and apparently inexhaustible resources of voice.” Tobias Wolff
Well, Saunders went on to become a writer of arresting brilliance; he probably is the best living American short story writer today. But back when he published CivilWarLand—almost twenty-five years ago—he still had a long way to go. His “sure sense of his material” was far from sure. The narratives of this book are often deficient in structure, the author does not have a firm grasp on his narrator, and the writing can be ragged.
In 2012, sixteen years after this, his first book, was published, Saunders wrote an afterword for the paperback. Read that afterword closely and you will note that the writer himself is aware of the book’s faults. He tries to be kind to his former self. He resists admitting how shocked he probably was when he looked back at this, his first effort, from the high perch of Literary Glory to which he had attained. But interesting phrases slip into his afterword, ways of characterizing these stories: among others, “abrupt and telegraphic, truncated and halting.” The stories are, he writes, “more cruel, more misshapen then they need to be . . . the stories are mean in places . . . occasionally nasty.” He even suggests, at one point, obliquely, that the book is “a failed attempt.”
BLURB TWO: “An astonishingly tuned voice—graceful, dark, authentic, and funny—telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times.” Thomas Pynchon
The voice may be astonishing, but it is not yet tuned. That will come later. “Just the kinds of stories we need to get us etc., etc.” sounds like a piece of meaningless rhetoric, a specialty among blurbers. Say something that sounds good, reads, at first glance, as profound, but really is totally vacuous. There is a certain kind of comic writer whose comedy, even when dark, uplifts us by the force of its art. Flannery O’Connor is such a writer. So is Raymond Carver, and so is Isaac Babel. In his afterword Saunders mentions each of these writers as models in great writing. He also notes that you must give up on imitating the greats and find your own unique way.
I think that in the year 2020, George Saunders has found his way and has become that kind of writer. But not with this, his first book, far from it. Firmly anchored in a deeper, profound reality, great comic writing redeems the flawed world, overshadows by the very force of its art the grim realities of life in flesh. But you get no sense of redemption from the sometimes funny, but overall terribly sad stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
BLURB THREE: “Saunders makes the all-but-impossible look effortless.” Jonathan Franzen
Got some bad news for you and some bad news. Which do you want first? That’s a quotation from one of the stories. See the comment about the raggedness of narrative above (first bad news); see also the last part of this review, a discussion of the book’s stylistic quirks (second bad news). It took Saunders—as he admits in the afterword—“seven long years” to write the stories of CivilWarLand. Most of them have the same setting and the same identical narrator. Readers of the book in reviews on Amazon sometimes complain that he writes the same story over and over. Furthermore, in reading this collection one has no sense of effortlessness whatsoever. On the contrary. The narratives are often belabored.
Life in a Demented Theme Park
CivilWarLand depicts life in the U.S.A., and it certainly is in bad decline. The basic idea, repeated in most of these stories: we Americans are living not in a life, but in a huge, dystopian amusement park, where we fight to escape but remain wallowing in despair. The stories are set in some future time, but not far into the future. Something has happened. For the most part, we are given no backgrounding about what that something was. American life has, apparently, just wended its hapless way into dystopian catastrophe. An exception is made in Bounty—the longest story in the collection. Here we have brief background mention of “the first wave of mass death,” and “the Third Panic.” Women in Bounty are giving birth to babies with physical defects: claws instead of toes (e.g., the narrator), vestigial tails (his sister). These babies grow up to become a persecuted minority, oppressed, disparaged, sometimes pressed into slavery. They are known as the Flaweds. The underlying irony of the story, however, is that everyone—even the so-called Normals—is badly flawed, as is suggested by an old sage of a lady, who pokes her nose into the story for a one-page appearance.
The narrator, usually unnamed, is always a loser guy, downtrodden, well-meaning, lonely—he often has a wife, but they don’t get along and she gives him zero respect. He is always about to get fired from his job and worried that he will soon find himself in even deeper shit. His only recourse is to persevere: “I think of fleeing the city. I think of working on a shrimper, or setting myself on fire downtown. Instead I go to work” (“Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”). Another motif: “I think of how lovely it all could have been had anything gone right” (“Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” which has, for a change, a female narrator). The narrator usually has a heart of gold, a rarity in his world teeming with degenerates and cynics. In two of the stories—“Isabelle” and “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”—he ends up devoting himself to caring for the retarded or aged.
There is also usually the character of his boss, totally crass and cruel beyond all measure. Ancillary characters, almost always stupid, are often afflicted: one has Tourette’s syndrome, another has no arms, rings the doorbell with his face. One sentence in one story epitomizes the world described in this book: “What a degraded cosmos.” Or, to take another example, we’re all like “the legless man doing life, who’s perennially on toilet duty.”
Once in a while a character—such as the narrator of Bounty—looks back on what used to be a better life: “What a beautiful country this must have been once, when you could hop in a coupe and buy a bag of burgers and drive, drive, stopping to swim in a river or sleep in a grove of trees without worrying about intaking mutagens or having the militia arrest you and send you to the Everglades for eternity.” But by the time we get to the action of these stories all possibility for such a life is dead and gone. What, exactly, is Saunders satirizing in this book? Bad government, the excesses of gross capitalism? Well yes, but not only that.
In CivilWarLand just about any institution or movement gets a poke in the snout: due-diligence business-speakers—Saunders is a master at bizspeak—do-gooders, New Agers, Feminists, everybody. Here, for example, is a description of the way modern parents bring up their children: “The bearded dad offers me sunflower seeds and briefs me on his child-rearing philosophy. Discipline and other forms of negativity are shunned. Bedtimes don’t exist. Face wiping is discouraged. At night the children charge around nude and screaming until they drop in their tracks, ostensibly feeling good about themselves” (Bounty).
The same story features, briefly, a cult group called Austerity, whose members are hairshirt-wearers of the modern age. One of them, “dressed as Death Eating Chips to protest the reemergence of wasteful packaging practices,” is a girl. Divested from her costume, she turns out to be a feminist: “In deference to Austerity’s policy of eschewing anything even vaguely degrading to women she’s shaved off her hair and plucked her eyebrows and is wearing a chest-flattening harness. Still her beauty shines through.”
The Christian religion remains a solace for some of the characters, but their belief, like everything else, is mere cause for mockery. Such are Lupe and Maria, the Ramirez twins in Bounty, who “rarely speak and when they do are either proselytizing or claiming to have seen the Virgin Mary hovering above a moat.” The moral message of almost all the tales in the book goes like this: “Don’t budge from here [from the demented theme park]. Learn to enjoy what little you have. Revel in the fact that your dignity hasn’t yet been stripped away. Every minute that you’re not in absolute misery you should be weeping with gratitude and thanking God at the top of your lungs” (Bounty again).
Meanwhile, the stars look down in gleaming contentment upon the Plight of Man: “In spite of the strife the stars were bright as crystal.” Once in a while we get a swerve out of the madcap zaniness of the narrative into something approaching pathos. This happens in the title story with the McKinnon ghost family. Mr. McKinnon, who fought in the actual Civil War, “starts talking about bloody wagon wheels and a boy he once saw sitting in a creek slapping the water with his own severed arm. He tells how the dead looked with rain on their faces and of hearing lunatic singing from all corners of the field of battle and of king-sized rodents gorging themselves on the entrails of his friends.” Okay, this passage still has overtones of the let’s-be-grossly-amused tone that dominates the whole book, but the rain on the faces and the lunatic singing establish a slight twinge of something else. The book needs more such passages.
The hyped-up narrator—who sometimes reminds you of these trolling kids on the Internet nowadays, who post “funny” messages to families who have just lost a bullied child to suicide—seldom removes his mask of never-ending-let-it-hang-out madcap. The title story ends with another swerve into a different mood. In a weird final paragraph the narrator describes himself being murdered by a degenerate named Sam:
“Possessing perfect knowledge I hover above him as he hacks me to bits. I see his rough childhood. I see his mother doing something horrid to him with a broomstick. I see the hate in his heart and the people he has yet to kill before pneumonia gets him at eighty-three. I see the dead kid’s mom unable to sleep, pounding her fists against her face in grief at the moment I was burying her son’s hand. I see the pain I’ve caused. I see the man I could have been, and the man I was, and then everything is bright and new and keen with love and I sweep through Sam’s body, trying to change him, trying so hard, and feeling only hate and hate, solid as stone.”
What is different about Mr. McKinnon’s vision, and about this final paragraph, in comparison to most of the other narrative in this story, and in the whole book? The big difference is that in these two passages we escape, if only briefly, from the caustic narrator behind the narrative: the man with the nasty twinkle in his eye and the sardonic grin on his lips. And what, largely, is the difference between the George Saunders who wrote this first book and the accomplished writer who came later? The difference is, largely, that the accomplished writer has learned to rein in the excesses of that leering guy.
What a relief for the reader—so he thinks at first—when, in Bounty, the narrator finally escapes from the theme park. Thank God. Now at least we get something different. But, alas, if you are looking for relief from the incessant chaos and tumult of the book, good luck with that. As the narrator journeys west in search of his sister, he comes upon a chaotic U.S.A. that mirrors the chaos in the theme park he just left. Once in a while, in what appears an attempt to escape the utter hopelessness of the world of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, the author tacks on something like a happy ending. Here is the conclusion of “The 400-Pound CEO”:
“Maybe the God we see, the God who calls the daily shots, is merely a subGod. Maybe there’s a God above this subGod, who’s busy for a few Godminutes with something else, and will be right back, and when he gets back will take the subGod by the ear and say, ‘Now look. Look at that fat man. What did he ever do to you? Wasn’t he humble enough? Didn’t he endure enough abuse for a thousand men? Weren’t the simplest tasks hard? Didn’t you sense him craving attention? Were you unaware that his days unraveled as one long bad dream?’ And maybe as the subGod slinks away, the true God will sweep me up in his arms, saying: My sincere apologies, a mistake has been made. Accept a new birth, as token of my esteem.
“And I will emerge again from between the legs of my mother, a slighter and more beautiful baby, destined for a different life, in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner.”
Notwithstanding this optimistic coda to the story—a kind of deus ex machina in a minor key—no such merciful God ever shows up, not in “The 400-Pound CEO,” nor in any of the other tales. The merciless subGod—Beelzebub or his brother—remains in control of human fate. Although the author may not be aware of this, the subGod he refers to in the passage quoted above looks a lot like the sardonic guy who runs the action of the whole book, i.e., the teller of the stories in CivilWarLand. That grinning narrator is seldom challenged by a higher force, whose name may be George Saunders.
Once in a while the well-meaning good guy of an author takes a look at what his narrator is doing and doesn’t like it. Whereupon, he, the author, tries to rein in the subGod—by including passages such as the ending of “The 400-Pound CEO,” or by throwing in a kindly character once in a great while. But if you look at the book as a whole you cannot doubt that the subGod is largely in control. I find it amusing that George Saunders was puzzled and bemused by the reaction of one of his old neighbors from Chicago to this book—as related in the afterword:
“‘It worried me. I’m worried about you. You seem like a very unhappy person. Like the guy who takes out the garbage, late at night, miserable and grumbling . . . . That book is not like you. You were always such a happy little guy.’
“Wait a minute, I thought once she’d hung up: I’m happy. I’m one of the happiest people I know. My book is not unhappy. My book is funny. My book tells, uh, dark truths. I’m a hopeful person. Writing this book was a happy, hopeful act.”
There’s an old paradox about comic writers: out of the depths of melancholy comes zany, happy, crazy-funny fiction. The best example of this is Nikolai Gogol. Melancholic and bizarrely neurotic in his everyday life, Gogol produced fiction that has you rolling on the ground with laughter. So if that’s true, then maybe the reverse is also operative: a happy guy writes disturbing, unhappy fiction about a world wallowing in despair. “My book is funny.” Well, yes, sometimes it is—there are plenty of genuinely witty passages—but most of the time CivilWarLand is very, very sad. You want to experience a bad dream, read this book all the way through, cover to cover.
The Style of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
“The land of the short story is a brutal land, a land very similar, in its strictness, to the land of the joke.” George Saunders
I’m not sure exactly what Saunders means in the above quotation, but I think he refers to the delicate nature of a short story. You can commit errors, stylistic solecisms in the body of your large novel, and they will appear less glaring than in a short narrative. A slight wrong turn in a short story, however, can spoil the broth for a good reader. The same goes for telling a joke: timing is everything, setting things up, pulling the listeners in with a wry grin, knowing exactly how to deliver the punchline. Isaac Babel knew all that, he who wrote and rewrote and polished and polished and polished, and finally ended up with a gem of a story only three pages long. The mature George Saunders who speaks of the “brutal land” of the short story knows that truth, while the George Saunders of CivilWarLand has not yet learned it. In his creative writing classes at Syracuse, he could assign this book as an example of how not to write short stories.
In this, his first book, the rudiments are already there. We can already find examples of the kind of writing that is to make George Saunders, in the year 2020, one of the best American masters of the short story. The comic imagination is already there. Take, for example, the store named O My God, which sells religious statuary. Or protestors who have protested so fervently that they have developed bony knuckles from perpetually walking around with their fists clenched. The book is rife with such hilarious detail, and simply teeming with wild, creative flights of the imagination. There are constant divagations from the main plot of a story, subplots or characters that flash into the febrile imagination of the writer and bloom for a sentence, or a paragraph.
Here are a few examples, from Bounty: (1) One of the “Flawed” who entertains “Normals” at the theme park is Brian, who “had an eye in the back of his head and would read Chaucer from a book I held behind him. In truth his third eye was a nonfunctional glutinous mass and he’d memorized the passage.” (2) The camp doctor at the theme park is perpetually intoxicated, and that’s not particularly funny, but this is: “Once when I found him soused in a ditch he admitted to being confused by the difference between hemorrhoids and piles.” Pause, reader, for a moment and think about that sentence. I’m not sure that the narrator who rushes us through the action of Bounty is aware himself of its comic possibilities. A guy comes upon the drunk camp doctor in a ditch. How in the world did the ensuing conversation even get to the matter of piles? Two guys talking in a ditch, one of them drunk, and suddenly the subject is piles! That’s fun, folks, and that’s creative.
(3) The I-narrator works briefly as a barge puller on the Erie Canal, thinks of himself as a “surrogate mule,” and then wham—here comes a one-paragraph digression: “Mules are at a premium. Thousands have died of a bone marrow disease. The ones that lived lost the use of their legs. You’ll walk past a field and there’ll be fifteen or twenty of them lying on their sides braying. High-school kids get a kick out of pouring gas on them and lighting them up. It’s a craze. The animals rights people do their best to prop them back up and slap on feedbags and post anti-vandalism signs, but no sooner are they back at headquarters than the mules are either toppling over or burning.”
(4) One of the cult groups that the narrator encounters as he wanders America, the so-called Guilters, have established their Church of Appropriate Humility in an abandoned McDonald’s. “The ultimate Guilter ritual is when one of them goes into a frenzy and thrusts his or her hand into a deep fryer. A mangled hand is a badge of honor. All the elders have two, and need to be helped on and off with their coats. There was a rash a few years ago of face-thrusting, until the national Guilter Council ruled it vain and self-aggrandizing. Guilters believe in quantifying pain. Each pain unit is called a Victor, after their founder, Norm Victor. Each Victor earned is a step towards salvation. Having a loved one die tragically earns big Victors. Sometimes for a birthday present a wife will cheat on her husband with one of his friends in such a manner that the husband walks in and catches a painful eyeful. Once at the facility we got hold of a bootleg video of a group of cuckolded Guilter husbands talking about the difficulties of living with simultaneous rage and gratitude.”
(5) One more example, this time from “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” An armless man takes a trip in virtual reality—the program is Youth Roams Kansas Hometown, 1932—back to his boyhood, where he waves his still-intact arms at long-dead friends and neighbors. “It’s all homemade bread and dirt roads and affable dogcatchers. What a sweet grin appears. He greets each hometowner with his ghost limbs and beams at the chirping of the holographic birds. He kneels awhile in Mrs. Lawler’s larder, sniffing spices that remind him of his mother elbow-deep in flour. He drifts out to the shaded yard and discusses Fascism with the iceman near some swaying wheat. His posture changes for the better. He laughs aloud. He’s young again and the thresher has yet to claim his arms.” Hey, look! This is another example of creeping pathos in a book where most things verging on pathos are quickly beaten back with mockery.
All of the above examples amount to kernels of what could be developed into separate short stories. Was/is Saunders aware of this? Notwithstanding the author’s assertion—in the afterword—that it took him “seven long years” to write this book containing only seven stories, the reader’s impression is often that of a narrator in a frenzy, squandering his creativity, rushing through stories in a mad attempt to get the stuff told, while, above all, keeping things properly zany. The belabored narrator is often trying too hard. He has the orchestra assembled, but the conductor has lost control of it; the music is loud, and all too often the Three Stooges march into the picture, tooting off tune on tubas. Well, if you like the Three Stooges maybe that’s a good thing.
The creative writing instructors tell us, “Show, don’t tell.” Of course, like so many hard-and-fast maxims of the MFA racket, this one can sometimes be invalid. I once attended a writers’ workshop in Vermont. One writer-instructor who loved the above maxim had us read Chekhov’s “Lady with Dog” as an exemplary piece of fiction. The story is exemplary, but, as I informed the instructor, it is also rife with tell, not show.
At any rate, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is a frenzy of telling. Not exactly the kind of third person telling by an omniscient authorial presence. Saunders prefers first-person narrative, but his narrator does something similar to what that third-person teller does. Here’s a typical example from the first, title story: “As we walk up the trail he’s wearing a sweatsuit and smoking a cigar and I tell him I admire his acumen. I tell him some men are dreamers and others are doers. He asks which am I and I say let’s face it, I’m basically the guy who leads the dreamers up the trail to view the Canal Segment. He likes that. He says I have a good head on my shoulders. He touches my arm and says he’s hot to spend some reflective moments at the Canal because his great-grandfather was a barge guilder way back when who got killed by a donkey.” Etc.
This kind of indirect rendering of speech is not limited to any one story; it is used perpetually throughout the book. What about setting the scene and letting the characters speak? Try this:
Well, I admire your acumen (I said). After all, some men are dreamers and others are doers.
He cocked his left eye at me.
Which are you?
Me, I’m the guy who etc., etc.
Here is a scene describing how the narrator is beaten up: “Soon I’m downwind of the tent-town stink and can hear their domestic disputes and their brats screaming in bad grammar. I’m not ten feet from their barbed wire when a few young toughs recognize my khaki as corporate issue and wrangle me down to the ground while giving me a ribbing about health care benefits and the amount of time I’ve spent in conference rooms. I don’t fight back, etc.” All tell, no show. Indirect speech. Instead of letting his characters play out the scene, the narrator summarizes the whole thing in rapid-fire monologue.
I’m not saying using indirect speech is always wrong, but there’s something out of whack with the narration when you use it incessantly. I’m still puzzled over what exactly is the point of telling your story like this and what effect it has on the narrative as a whole. One thing it does for sure is speed up the action of the story. Pacing. This kind of summarizing instead of writing scenes makes everything go faster.
Take this paragraph, from “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”: “The kids come out of it with a firsthand War Years experience and I come out of it with a check for five hundred dollars, enough to hire a temporary live-in for Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Which I gladly do. A lovely Eurasian named Wei, a student of astrophysics, who, as I’m leaving them alone for the first time, is brushing out Mrs. Ken Schwartz’s hair and humming, ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’” A lot of things happening here, over the course of a single paragraph, including the introduction of a new character, Wei, who struggles for purchase in the story, but hangs on only briefly. Such is the fate of many characters in CivilWarLand in Decline, people who hop out of the author’s fervid imagination into the narrative, but remain ancillary, undeveloped, and soon expire of desuetude.
The book is teeming with gratuitous characters. Even central personages are, largely, undeveloped. We could take much more seriously the narrator’s (in Bounty) desperate peregrinations across the U.S. in search of his beloved sister, were that sister not described in the same terms as so many other characters: dumb, puerile, cynical; in other words, had the narrator taken the time to develop the character, give her some humanity, make her appear at least a little bit worthy of love.
The feeling that the narrative force is in a hurry, eager to get the story told, is especially pronounced in Bounty. Billed as a novella, this is really one of the short theme-park stories, with a picaresque tacked on. All the action of the story involves the narrator’s breaking out of the theme park and traveling west, over Americana. But when he finally finds his sister we dispense with her, and dispense with the whole tale, in short order. Here’s what happens over the course of two pages: the narrator comes to the end of his journey and discovers his sister Connie. She’s pregnant. They exult. Then they have lunch. “Over soup he [Corbett, the bad guy who took his sister away but has now become a good guy] asks if I want a job in Grounds.” The narrator takes the job. “A week later she goes into labor in the rec room” and gives birth. The giving of birth, description and naming of the baby take all of one paragraph. Next, on the same page, the narrator hears about a rebel cell “down in Talpa,” apparently fighting for the rights of oppressed Flaweds. He kisses Connie and the baby goodbye, takes off, arrives at his destination—still on the same page—joins the rebel cell. End of story. Pacing. Bounty, and especially the way it ends, is a textbook example of narrative pacing run amuck.
Then there’s the matter of the humor. Just as the short story form itself is a delicate instrument, so too does the writing of comic fiction demand a delicate touch. Not-quite-right humor can spoil the narrative. Wild creative flights of the imagination—and Saunders specializes in such flights—can be very funny. See some of the examples I’ve cited above. But, then again, a high flyer can easily forget his sense of measure and fly too high and then suddenly come crashing down to earth. The Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino is such a pilot, one who puts together a good film and who might even excel—had he only a sense of measure.
Sometimes the narrator/narrators of CivilWarLand remind you of an over-eager, amateur stand-up comedian, straining for laughs. Want to be funny? Throw in a character—she’s a baby sitter in “The 400-Pound CEO”—and name her Mrs. Rasputin. Har. Or do what Hollywood loves to do in comedy films: throw in some fart humor or have a child, a toddler, use an obscenity: “Now we’re on the fucking lam” (Bounty). Har. Describe how a family pet is murdered, roasted eaten: “Is it right that a couple of little kids should have to watch a grown overweight Italian man coldcock their father in order to bludgeon their dog to death with an eight-iron and roast it over an open fire?” Har, har, har.
Maybe best of all, make fun of a doddering oldster. One entire story indulges itself in this: “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror.” Here we have the only tale in the collection with a female narrator, and she is 92 years old. To a certain puerile mind—the same kind of mind that might appreciate the thing cited above, about killing and roasting the family pet—this in itself is already funny: ninety years old, Har! This story has some of the best examples of where failed humor can run a narrative off the tracks. It has cute children making obscene gestures. Over the course of a single page Mary tells of how great sex once was with her lover Herb, until her husband Bud and his gangster friends “slit his throat and dumped him off a barge into the CalSag. After killing Herb the lot of them came over to our place for dinner as usual. Oh I was beside myself. All of them had excellent appetites. Every Sunday they came. After eating they would take their shirts off and talk gangster strategy in the front room . . . invariably Bud would have me try on a dress for the group. The day he killed Herb he made me put on a cigarette-girl get-up,” etc. etc., etc.
At this point you can almost see the stand-up comedian sweating—there’s, say, some leering drunk, like me, out in the audience, making loud remarks. The desperate stand-upper now pushes the “humor” still further into zaniness. Mary describes her brother: “He was a Wobbly and went out West, where they cut off his penis [Ho, ho] and hung him from a bridge [Har]. And did you know they shipped him back without cleaning him up one bit and my poor mother had to view the body of her only son without its penis and with such a horrible rope burn on the neck?” [Yo-ho-ho, and if this were a film Tarantino would insert a scene with the puzzled mother unzipping the fly of a corpse in a coffin and peering hard at the absence of a penis].
Funny. In describing what is unfunny about “Downtrodden Mary,” I have made it sound funny. But that is indicative of my ability to write comic sentences. Believe me, while you’re reading that story it’s not funny at all. Aren’t yet ready to boo the comedian off the stage? Try this, Mary’s next gambit: “That is why I moved to the city and before long was married to a man with all gold teeth, who used them to bite painful arcs into my legs. Bud was brutal through and through” [Har, har, hardy-har, what a prize that Bud is, a biter, Ho-ho-ho]. And we could go on with this (it gets even worse), but I’ve had enough of laughing my guts out.
Don’t get me wrong. I object to such passages on aesthetic grounds, not because they are politically incorrect. Some gross descriptions even work for me. I like the mention of a man who keeps an actual shit list, “enhanced with an angry piece of feces stamping its feet.” That’s funny. Anyone versed in the dogma of politcorrect will hardly, however, make it past the first page of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There should even be a warning on the title page: THIS BOOK IS NOT, WE REPEAT NOT, FOR THE POLITICALLY CORRECT. WARNING. STAY AWAY. KEEP OUT. THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR YOU, ARDENT ADVOCATE OF SPEECH CONTROL AND THOUGHT CONTROL.
By the way, political correctness, in my view, should be shunned by any writer interested in producing quality literary fiction. Great women writers—such as Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West—would sneer derisively upon American woman writers who are legion these days, the kind who self-gag themselves, their speech, their thought, in the mistaken belief that a writer should obey the nicey-nice strictures of Feminism, and Ageism, and God knows how many other gruesome Isms there are out there.
Anyway, you get my main point by now: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is far from a well-written book. Its fledgling author still has much to learn, about pacing, about the dangers of pushing humor to the point where it is overdone, and is, consequently, not funny anymore. About being too cynical, about too much telling—in a word—how to retain a sense of measure and how to structure a story. The good news is that by now George Saunders has learned all those things. And more. Take a look at his most recent short story collection, Tenth of December. The differences between that book and CivilWarLand are day and night. To take just one example, look at the teenage protagonists in the first story, “Victory Lap”: Alison Pope and Kyle Boot. They are more rounded, more developed; they are real human beings, sympathetic—much more so then any of the cardboard jokey characters manipulated by the leering narrator of the first collection. Or try Lincoln in the Bardo. Good stuff. Billed as a novel, it really is still a story, albeit a long one. Saunders does not write novels, probably having learned, from the structural mess of Bounty, to stay mostly away from lengthy narrative. With his first published book Saunders was still, obviously, a novice writer; talented, yes, but raw. Now he is a master.
Interesting adumbrations of the Saunders who is to come peek out occasionally from the pages of CivilWarLand. In addition to the McKinnon family, ghosts who show up in the title story, a dead child’s specter appears at the end of that tale. There are several other appearances of ghost characters, including a child, for whose death the narrator is responsible in “The Wavemaker Falters.” Deep in the mind of the author such characters are girding their loins, taking on ghostly narrative flesh, in preparation for Lincoln in the Bardo.
The title of George Saunders’ first book is weirdly prescient, the way he gets our Civil War into the picture. For, sad to say, we’re still fighting that war in the U.S.A. Lately, much apparently on the mind of Saunders is the present political situation of this country, our deep political division and the antics of our clown president. His most recent story in The New Yorker, “Love Letter”—April 6, 2020—utilizes one of his favorite tropes: it takes a look at a future time, but not far into the future, when “loyalists” have begun turning the country into a dictatorship. A passage from Bounty reads like another adumbration of what is to come:
“‘We need a gun,’ Mom said. ‘For if someone tries to take the house.’
‘The people who come to take the house,’ Dad said, ‘will have more guns than you can imagine.’
“And he was right. They had guns and riding crops and mortars. They had a sense of high moral purpose. They had the sanction of the provisional government and a portable sound system that blared ‘Homogeneity, Sweet Homogeneity,’ as they blockaded the home of any family with a Flawed member, meaning every family but the Quinces, who they blockaded for fraternizing with Flaweds.”
It takes but a slight skip ahead from that passage to reach the loyalists of “Love Letter.” But over the years since he published CivilWarLand in Bad Decline the writer George Saunders has taken a giant leap forward in his skillset as a writer. Most important of all, he has fired the over-zany, over-eager, over-doer, over-cynical narrator of his first book and hired a guy with a perfect touch in humor, and a feel for how a story should be structured, and facility in developing characters, and a sense of measure. A kind of solicitous God of the story, watching over its telling, in place of that Beelzebub.
U.R. Bowie, author of Looking Good (forthcoming)