“What America is, to me, is a guy doesn’t want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let’s go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamorous reasonable voice.” – Leonard Petrillo, ‘My Flamboyant Grandson’
There are certain storytellers who craft stories set in places or times that are unfamiliar yet eerily close to our own surroundings. There are just one or two distinct and important differences that separates the real from the fiction. Such worlds provide us with insight on what can happen and terrifies us with its possibility. Imagine a world where you can be erased from existence just because you are inconsequential to the world at large just like in Steven Millhauser’s ‘Vanishing Acts’; a world where a thirty-five year old man can pass for a toddler and no one will suspect a thing just like in Donald Barthelme’s ‘Me and Miss Mandible’; or a world where clones are both a source of slave labor and something else entirely sinister just like the Somni-451 chapters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
Terrifying, isn’t it, if the stories of such writers are actually prophetic. Woe to us if they’re not only imaginative but also clairvoyant. George Saunders is one such writer. His stories are always set in the near future where capitalism and vanity is the guiding principle everywhere and who you are in a society is either based on how you look or how much money you have in your possession. Here’s a review of Saunders’ Tenth of December from The Rumpus’ Kevin Thomas:
Indeed, woe unto us if and when his world becomes ours. Such is the case with every short story collection written by George Saunders. Case in point is In Persuasion Nation, the book that I will be reviewing, published last 2006 and contains 12 short stories about a world gone mad with capitalism and a world where fascistic persecution is not only acceptable but also a requirement of everyday life. It is a terrifying world where there is an obvious evil lingering above the lives of the people. Most of the stories are set in the near future while the rest are set in the present but accompanied by absurd details that is almost whimsical if not for its frightening ramifications.
“He is going, he realizes. He is going, and will not be coming back as Brad. He must try at least to retain this feeling of pity. If he can, whoever he becomes will inherit this feeling, and be driven to act on it, and will not, as Brad now sees he has done, waste his life on accumulation, trivia, self-protection, and vanity.”
Of the 12 stories in the collection, five stood out (although all were excellent pieces of literature). These are: ‘Jon’, ‘The Red Bow’, ‘Brad Carrigan, American’, ‘In Persuasion Nation’, and ‘CommComm’. It comes as no surprise then that the reason that they are favorites is because all of them except ‘The Red Bow’ have protagonists that goes against the tyrants who oppress them in their stories. In ‘Jon’, the protagonist rejects a life of celebrity and affluence to pursue a great love; In ‘Brad Carrigan, American’, the protagonist sacrifices himself in order to fight for what he thinks is right; in ‘In Persuasion Nation’, a group of characters who live a repetitive cycle of TV commercials goes against the script and their programming to go against a culture of violence and greed; while ‘CommComm’ features the most heartwarming ending in all of the stories that I have read that is written by George Saunders. ‘The Red Bow’, on the other hand, lacks a kind-hearted and empathetic character but is one of my favorites because of how horrible and close to reality it is. Yes, ‘The Red Bow’ is also funny, as all of Saunders’ story are, but this one just felt real.
In Persuasion Nation is a book with insight into the world. Yes, it’s a terrifying world that is swiftly becoming closer to ours with each passing day. But there’s always a bright side and that there will always be people who will go against the grain in order to rebel against tyranny and make sure that the world is not a truly horrible place to live in. This, I believe, is one of the driving factors behind Saunders’ genius. That his world becomes more terrifying with every collection that he releases but it also becomes more clear in its call for compassion.
That is why i came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.
George Saunders is a writer who gets better with every book that he writes. Clearly, I should prepare myself for the assured beauty that is Tenth of December. But, since I don’t have a copy yet of Saunders’ latest, I am content in reliving the joy in reading this achievement of a collection and in glimpsing the truth that it wishes to convey.