“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”
In these times, strange times that they are, seeing someone do something that’s not patently selfish and fucked-up is like a breath of fresh air, good clean fresh air, not that any one of us would know good clean fresh air if a vial of it swooped down and bit us on the ass!
George Saunders has a way with words that makes his short stories both horrific and hilarious. A writer with a message, Saunders writes of modern-day culture – corporate greed, authority, inequality, socio-economic class, narcissism, hate, racism, helicopter parenting, plastic surgery, obesity, physical perfection – and magnifies them a thousand times to make a point: we live in one messed-up world.
In the literary universe of George Saunders, it’s not what’s on the inside that counts, but rather what’s on the outside and whether you fall into the category of the haves or the have-nots. With many of his stories set in theme parks – a metaphor for our world – designed to showcase an ideal setting in a tightly controlled environment, Saunders makes the reader think about aspects of our society we would rather not think about.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is both the name of a short story and the title of a book that contains seven short stories. Saunders typically writes in the first person with the narrator usually some downtrodden fellow who feels trapped in a severely unjust world. In the title story, CivilWarLand in Decline, the narrator works in a Civil War theme park and is at the mercy of his employer. Faced with declining attendance and a gang problem, he is encouraged to hire Samuel, a very disturbed Vietnam Vet who thinks he’s starring in the remake of Deliverance.
The narrator of Isabelle is a man recalling his boyhood years in which he recounts the first great act of love he ever witnessed. Officer Doyle, a small town police officer has been abandoned by his wife to take care of their severely handicapped daughter, a responsibility he takes very seriously. A story of love – and reminiscent of the academy award-winning movie Traffic in which we learn that even bad people have a good side – Isabelle is heartwarming.
In The Wavemaker Falters, the narrator is a man who works in a theme park spending his days operating a wavemaking machine and consumed with thoughts of his wife sleeping with his boss. When emotion overtakes him and he attempts to escape into music while operating the wavemaker machine, he inadvertently crushes a boy, Clive. Raked with guilt, remorse, and anger, the story is about how he comes to terms with what he’s done.
The 400-Pound CEO is the story of a self-described 400-pound loser and how he becomes CEO of Humane Raccoon Alternatives – a company that advertises itself as the humane way to resolve raccoon problems. The reality is quite different, as is the outside world, if only Jeffrey, the 400-pound narrator could see.
In Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz, the narrator is overwhelmed by guilt and grief (he killed his wife) and is a wreck. After consulting the religious clergy, he is advised to look outside himself for redemption so he contacts a senior service center and is assigned Mrs. Schwartz, a widow who greatly enjoys diversions that only he can offer, which leads him to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life.
92-year old Mary is the narrator in Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror, a short story about an elderly custodial worker who is a master at passive aggressive behavior. And, in Bounty, the reader learns there are two types of people who inhabit the earth: the Normals and the Flawed. The Flawed are bought and sold as slaves and forced to wear a bracelet (that is almost impossible to remove without cutting off the hand) because some flaws are not clearly visible and people have to be able to distinguish who is who amongst themselves. The narrator – 30-year old Cole – lives with his sister, Connie (who is also a Flawed) in BountyLand where he is worked, fed and given a bunk bed but denied most of life’s other rewards. Bounty is a frightening story of what happens when a society makes determinations based solely on physical attributes.
Without a doubt, a quote of distinction that captures the essence of the book is:
Ask yourself if the things you do make sense.