Have you done your homework yet scholars?
'IN PERSUASION NATION: STORIES,' BY GEORGE SAUNDERS
Review by ADAM BEGLEY
Published: May 14, 2006
The fantastically talented George Saunders would surely hate to have one of those little trademark symbols tacked on at the end of his name. A dedicated satirist, he has made the buying and selling of packaged experience a favorite target of his bitter wit. And yet with his third collection of stories, "In Persuasion Nation," he's peddling a line of signature goods. Expertly made, unmistakably his, they'll be consumed with gusto by the loyal customers who enjoyed "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and "Pastoralia." It's the kind of ironic twist he delights in: George Saunders, sworn enemy of commodification, is in danger of becoming a dependable brand name.
I'm not at all suggesting he's predictable, or short on imagination. The title story of "In Persuasion Nation" — about a doomed rebellion against the brutal and degrading skits used to advertise consumer products — is his wildest yet. Set in the psychic space of a series of television commercials (all of them absurd, some of them grotesquely violent), the story is at once insanely inventive and calmly convincing. Like a good ad, it's persuasive.
We meet a polar bear with an ax in its head. Every day, the bear repeats the same dreary scene: caught in the act of stealing Cheetos from an igloo, he submits to head-splitting retribution ("He remembers the enraged expression on the father Eskimo's face as he draws back the ax, the frightened yipping of the Malamute puppy, the shocked way the Eskimo kids cover their O-shaped mouths with their mittens") — then trudges home with the ax planted in his skull. The next morning it begins again. Naturally, the poor polar bear becomes an existential hero and engages in a fraught theological discussion with a sinister and seemingly all-powerful floating green symbol.
If you're having trouble assimilating the floating green symbol (it began life as the torn corner of a candy wrapper), consider the creed that stoked its mighty strength: "They are born into vignettes, and these vignettes are their homes. These vignettes are what give their lives meaning. If they were not intended to do their vignettes in exactly the way they do them, why would they feel so strongly inclined to do them in that exact way? Therefore, the way to live righteously is to enact one's vignette with as much energy as possible, and oppose, as fiercely as possible, those who would undercut the proper enactment of the sacred vignettes. This is one way — perhaps the only way — for a lowly being such as itself to be in touch with the supreme power."
As you struggled through that loopy meditation, did it cross your mind, just before the messianic crescendo, that we are all "born into vignettes"? If so, the surreal Saunders magic is working.
If not, rest assured: he can also do old-fashioned realism. In "Bohemians," about a clutch of misfit kids from "unraveling households" in a working-class neighborhood, Saunders demonstrates a delicate human touch. The narrator, a 10-year-old boy, is packed off for a week to the house of Mrs. Poltoi, one of two Eastern European immigrants on the block, the one the kids all hate: "Mrs. Poltoi . . . had spent the war in a crawl space, splitting a daily potato with six cousins. Consequently she was bitter and claustrophobic and loved food." And yet the old lady and the boy unexpectedly bond. At one point she lets him teach her his spelling words: "It was tense in a quiet-house way. Things ticked. When Poltoi missed a word, she pinched her own hand, but not hard. It was like symbolic pinching. Once when she pinched, she looked at me looking at her, and we laughed." There's movement beneath the surface of these simple sentences, a ripple of emotion that makes the laughter, the budding friendliness, ring true.
I'm a sucker for the sentimental streak in many of Saunders's stories — and yet I'm neither surprised nor disappointed when he mocks sentimentality. Roger, the compulsively brutal narrator of "Adams" — a thoroughly unpleasant, stunningly effective story — feels justified in his violence because he's protecting his family against Frank Adams, his possibly pedophile neighbor. The violence is comical, but only because Roger's euphemisms make a beating sound like slapstick: "I wonk him in the back of the head and down he goes. When he stands up, I wonk him again and down he goes." As the violence escalates, Roger reminds himself what he's fighting for: "I looked in on my sleeping kids and, oh my God, nowhere are there kids as sweet as my kids." Death, for him, means being deprived of his two children: "no more little Melanie and me eating from the same popcorn bowl, no more little Brian doing that wrinkled-brow thing we do back and forth when one of us makes a bad joke." With brisk economy, in six short pages, Saunders pushes this ridiculously maudlin thug to the point of murder.
Saunders's ghosts (they haunt all three collections) are particularly appealing. In "CommComm," the rueful narrator lives with Mom and Dad, who are dead but don't know it. They were shot in their own house by robbers who "came in quick, on crack, so whacked-out they forget to even steal anything." The night his parents were killed, the son had gone on a date and stayed out till morning ("If I'd been home, I'd be dead too") — and as a result, he explains, "When I'm late Mom and Dad race around shouting, Where Where Where? It always ends in this bitter mutual crying. It's just one of their things. Like when it rains, they go up to the ceiling and lie there facing up. Like when feeling affectionate, they run full speed toward each other and pass through, moaning/laughing."
As usual, Saunders offers a glimpse of a sad and scary near-future in which marketing swamps our lives. In one story, products are "assessed" by human guinea pigs who've been surgically implanted with devices that play advertising images in their minds like memories. (Actual animal testing of a clinically sadistic sort is the focus of a brief, repellent story about a monkey who makes monkeys out of the laboratory technicians who torment him.) In another story, citizens are required to wear shoes with data strips in the soles containing updated consumer preferences. Scanners embedded in the sidewalk retrieve the data and the urban pedestrian is targeted with a blitz of customized high-tech ads: screens "out-thrusting or down-thrusting"; "sound-only messages" beamed straight into the ear; life-sized holograms of celebrities calling out your name with personalized endorsements. Take a stroll through Times Square (where the story is set) and check out the towers, liquid with moving images, selling goods and services day and night — then tell me George Saunders has an outlandish, gimmick-cluttered imagination.
The dozen stories that make up "In Persuasion Nation" achieve a delicate balance between the grim and the funny, tipped in the end toward bliss by a lyrical passage in which two dead men (more ghosts) "go" — that is, they make a journey to join something that can only be described as "Nothing-is-Excluded": "Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below, and we hear their prayers, grievances, their million signals of loss. Secret doubts shoot up like tracers, we sample them as we fly through: a woman with a too-big nose, a man who hasn't closed a sale in months, a kid who's worn the same stained shirt three days straight, two sisters worried about a third who keeps saying she wants to die. All this time we grow in size, in love."
A wonderful way to say goodbye.
Adam Begley is books editor of The New York Observer.