Vonnegut’s Lost Son: On George Saunder’s Civilwarland in Bad Decline

1. It seems that the great anxiety born out of Kurt Vonnegut’s death is finally gone, thanks to the prose narratives of Geroge Saunders. As a Vonnegut fan, I constantly wondered who will have the balls to continue what he began inn his fiction. I’ve often wondered on who will take the tremendous and somewhat dangerous responsibility on exposing the absurdities and inanities of western culture, and of the world, by poking fun at existence, at the human experience, and at the numerous idiocies men do during the time they spent here on Earth (or in Tralfamadore). Certainly, any writer from the anti-“empires,” from the other side of the world, can pursue such an anarchic project. But we always need someone from the inside who’ll have the bravado to take on the same project. That man is George Saunders. In his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, which was previously acknowledged by the New York Times as one of the notable books that came out of 1997, George Saunders combines black humor and the other techniques of satire and yolks it with the tenets of the post-apocalyptic worlds found in Dystopian and Speculative Fiction.

2. In the title story, the first in the collection, we are given a view of a not-so-distant future overrun by murderous gangs and the theme park which they continuously raid, Civil War Land. As the name of the amusement park suggests, Civil War Land is a reserve dedicated to the preservation of one of America’s finest and most savage moments in history, the American Civil War. It is an extraordinary place where an individual can adopt an identity and be one of the characters of that period, be it may a politician, a confederate soldier, a sickly degenerate, a whore struck with a venereal disease, or even a priest, giving its visitors and patrons a unique and unforgettable perspective on a humorous time when everybody was obsessed with color and pride. Told from the point-of-view of one of the park’s administrative employees, it details the last remaining weeks of Civil War Land’s operations and the attempts of the protagonist and his boss, Mr. Alsuga, to take care of the “gang problem.”  In their desperation to revive their cash flow and stop the murders from happening, they hire an ex-criminal, a murderer, only to realize that their actions just might have fast-tracked the end of the park. What comes out is a ridiculous portrait of an individual who obsessively and quite irrationally attempts to preserve history, figuratively and literally, even at the expense of his own family, his own career and the bystanders around him; a work which exhibits the author’s penchant to explore the unspoken undercurrents of human life and exposes Saunder’s gung-ho drive to narrate the stories of individuals who find themselves at the far-end of loneliness, near the precipice of madness and nothingness.

3.  Absurdity is also of interest to Mr. Saunders. In his fourth story, The 400-Pound CEO, Saunders tackles the horror that has invaded American society in the last few decades: the problem of obesity. Jeffrey, an employee at a firm that specializes in exterminating squirrels, is perennially the butt of all jokes due to his weight and his irrepressible need to stuff himself with food. Told from his own point-of-view, it recounts his attempts to begin a relationship with Freeda, a coworker, the embarrassment he feels when the date he had with her was nothing more but a dare initiated by his office, and his anger towards Tim, his boss, who Freeda is sleeping with. Fueled by his anger, Jeffrey accidentally kills Tim and replaces him as the CEO of the extermination company, which follows  his downfall, incarceration and his wish to be born anew, an ambiguous conclusion which is part-prayer and part-suicide note. Other than the story made me quite concerned about the manner in which I eat, and besides the way the story resembles the Aristotelian framework of the Greek Tragedy, what I like about the story is that it renders the ridiculousness of present society, a silliness born out of men’s perception of what is beautiful, of what is normal and what it means to be a winner.

4. The humor tones down a bit in both Isabelle and The Wavemaker Falters, a comfort to the guffawing laughter that comes from reading Saunder’s stories. I can’t say much about the stories and I prefer not to. They’re melancholic and sad, showing that Saunder is not only skilled in the writing of satire, in making a simple witty joke that digs deep into the psyche of the contemporary man. He can evoke sadness. He knows how to show the sadness of the human spirit and the compassion inherent in all of us.

5. The real gem of this collection is the novella Bounty. Maximizing the nature of speculative fiction and the concept of dystopia, Bounty portrays a society in which all creatures with genetic deformities, mutants, in the non-X-Men and more Black Hole-ish sense of the term, are, by law, automatically slaves to those who are normal. The narrative follows Cole, one of the mutants endowed with talons on his feet, and the journey he goes through to look for his sister, Connie, who left Bounty Land, the amusement park where they have lived and worked since the government edict was decreed, to marry one of the normals.  The search takes Cole to the horrible world where he is faced the moral degradation of the hostile land he was born into, a world which mirrors how the world would look like if the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 turned out differently. This is the most unforgettable narrative in the collection, and it’s not because of the story, but because of the rendering of the world within the narrative. In a recent panel I participated in the 3rd Taboan International Writer’s Conference, I made mention of the challenge of the author to present the entirety of a different, altered future while focusing on the plight of a single character, the protagonist. Like Burgess, like Pynchon, like Gibson, and like Huxley (That’s a lot of namedropping), Saunders has effectively presented to us a world where each and every fragment of that particular reality has been, more or less, shared to the reader. The search for Cole’s sister is interesting enough, but the world he trudges, the world he sees, the people he meets and has to fend off and betray, are the things which ultimately is what made the narrative jaw-dropping, arresting and unforgettable.

6. On to Pastoralia after a few month. Much love to Penguin/Riverhead Books for giving me the free samples.

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