George Saunder’s CivilWarLand In Bad Decline

CivilWarLand in Bad DeclineGeorge Saunders is an unlikely candidate for celebrity, and not merely because he is a writer. Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, dark and humorous all at once, he is a writer of nightmares, worlds peopled with ghosts and mutants that are nonetheless uncomfortably, eerily familiar. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that this mild mannered writer, working in what is, traditionally, an unpopular form (short stories), has had guest appearances on The Colbert Report and The Late Show With David Letterman, and has seen his popularity explode, almost over night, with the publication of his latest book, The Tenth of December. But then it is also a testament to his craftsmanship.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is Saunder’s first published collection of short stories but even this early work is unusually polished and complete, cohering around a dystopian vision of American society where greed and force go unchecked, social bonds are left untended and the question of how best to live is given special poignancy by the threat of imminent catastrophe. It is a bloody work, filled with gruesome murders, betrayals and reversals of fortune, but Saunders never stoops to delighting in his own pessimism. If there is hatred and debasement and broken promises, there is also a belief in the endurance of our better qualities, a dogged pursuit of a middle path between despair and depravity that offers at least the possibility of a redemption.

There are two aspects of Western society Saunders takes particular delight in skewering. The first is the self-help culture of stock phrases and techniques that has become an industry of its own, fueled by charlatans like Paulo Coelho and Deepak Chopra who masquerade as enlightened beings when, in truth, they are little more than hucksters. Thus one character performs “Hatred Abatement Breathing” designed to curb his rage, and another defends a child’s right to steal and assault another person on the grounds that this is valid self-expression, integral to the child’s emotional development. But Saunders’ most savage satire is directed at the petty bureaucracy of office management, precisely those people most likely to attend a leadership conference and spew the familiar aphorisms about motivation and perspiration or wax poetic on the subject of personal development or the virtues of meditation, all while asking you to stay late on a Friday or come in on the weekend. One such character is a sadist and has constructed a torture dungeon beneath his office. You get the distinct impression that Mr. Saunders has an interesting employment record.

Ultimately, CivilWarLand in Bad Decay manages that rare feat of productively weaving together comic and tragic elements in service of entertaining narratives that nonetheless place great demands upon the reader. It is discomfiting, but in the best possible way.