Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Book Review by Alison Ross

The Perils of Persuasion in a Neanderthal Nation
by Alison Ross

Vonnegut, Voltaire, and Orwell are a few prominent satirists who come to mind when reading the stories of George Saunders in his collection, In Persuasion Nation. The stories are brilliantly bizarre, written in a quirky, almost cavalier manner, and yet conjuring up outlandish scenarios that savagely satirize modern America. Indeed, these outre situations are easier to digest when served up in language that is mostly straightforward but tinged with odd stylistic flourishes such as the author's incessant use of "via" and ocassional injections of hyper-colloquial dialogue.

Though all stories in Saunders' collection have merit, there are two that deserve special recognition, and "brad carrigan, american," and "Jon."

"brad carrigan, american" is a howlingly hilarious, almost unbearably searing indictment of American apathy and gluttony. The story relies on wildly inane situations to tell the tale of a family stuck in a reality show, reacting in humorously vacuous manner to events in their environment. Technically, the story is notable for its insane inventiveness, and for its forging of a new genre, which I will term Surreal Satire. The story is told in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, and is overflowing with implausible situations that become eerily possible when couched within their crazy context. Such extreme incidents serve to nail home the numbing passivity that characterizes the American response to international tragedy. For example, during dinner one night, an emaciated, AIDS-inflicted African baby mysteriously appears, and there is ensuing discussion as to whether duct-taping the baby to the roof would be an appropriate way to handle the predicament. After all, the AIDS baby is not an AMERICAN problem; it's an African one.

The freakish scenarios in "brad carrigan" are exhiliratingly entertaining, although their entertainment factor is mitigated by their wrenching pathos. By the end, we are devastatingly aware that we should strive not to “waste life on accumulation, trivia, self-protection, and vanity," as so many Americans do.

The collection's second stand-out story, "Jon" mines its humor from the same source as "brad carrigan, american," - the de-humanizing effects of unhinged consumerism - and yet the manner in which it is told sets it apart. The story is narrated from the perspective of a hapless teenager trapped in a sort of advertisement concentration camp, where his reality is fully informed by the product ads he is forced to "experience" and rate. Jon cannot relate to the world except by analogy to product advertisements. In fact, even his facility for language is maimed through his experiences; he speaks in a teenaged parlance that is further fractured by dint of his advertisement-culture immersion. His syntax and grammar are all askew, which reinforces the notion that the ubiquity of consumer culture impedes intellectual growth. Furthermore, the story seems to be saying, our unfettered consumerist impulses alienate us from our natural environment; they constitute a pathology that marginalizes spiritual communion in favor of childish introversion. We are eternally juvenile, like Jon, endlessly wandering the grocery store aisles in search of the perfect product to placate our silly and sinister whims.

Other highlights from Saunders' classic collection include "christmas," an umembellished tale of betrayal, and "99550," an absolutely harrowing story about animal testing, told in a shockingly straightforward - indeed, clinical - manner.

George Saunders is a masterful satirist; incisive imagination and wit are the weapons he employs to relentlessly jab a sick society in the ass.

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