Since his stories first appeared, George Saunders has been one of our most enjoyable writers. But the arrival of his latest collection, In Persuasion Nation, signals a new anxiety in his work, a painful concern about the violent distractions of our post-9/11 entertainment state. These misgivings have driven him to eschew the satisfactions of his previous fiction, in favor of more challenging experiments.
Two of the book’s longer stories take place in a kind of TV netherworld. Brad, the hero of “Brad Carrigan, American,” is a character on what seems a soon-to-be-cancelled TV show. Like so many Saunders protagonists, Brad has a chuckleheaded, hunky-dory lack of understanding about the cruelty of the world. This infuriates Doris, his adulterous wife. “Why do you have so many negative opinions about things you don’t know anything about, like foreign countries and diseases…?” she asks. Because he is excessively compassionate and keeps defending helpless beings, such as Buddy, his castrated dog, Brad is cancelled from his own show and condemned to “devolve into a shapeless blob” and repeat “poor things” because “these are now the only words he knows.” The good guy is destroyed for being good.
The vicious title story, “In Persuasion Nation,” also features characters from television, this time from commercials, including an orange that has been stabbed by a candy bar called Slap-of-Whack, a man named Jim whose penis is torn off, and a heap of mush that was once a man’s head.The victims form a vigilante gang called the “orange/Grammy/man-briefly-involved-with-a- Ding-Dong/piles of mush/penisless man coalition.” They attack and kill their various tormenters until a scrap from the Slap-of-Whack bar is transformed into a god and kills them. Later, a polar bear inspired by the coalition attempts to fight the new god and is murdered by an axe-chop to the head. One more good guy is thus dispatched, another murder in an endless cycle.
The excellent story The Red Bow is just as violent, but trades a sense of the fantastic for a harrowed, claustrophobic intimacy. In this story, a small town blames its pets for an atrocity and massacres them in response. It reads as if a madman were whispering in your ear, and stings with remorse and paranoia.
Saunders also dabbles in so-called conventional fiction. In Christmas and Bohemia, lower-class Chicago is every bit as morally dystopic as Saunders’s other worlds. The weak are punished simply for being vulnerable.
And yet In Persuasion Nation retains the signature Saunders virtues that make his work appealing. These stories are blazingly fast, and his sentences are both funny and heavy with sympathy. In Jon, the collection’s best story, a disappointed wife tells her husband, “You break my heart, that night when you came to my Tarp you were like a lion taking what he wanted but now you are like some bunny wiffling his nose in fright.” Saunders solves the post-modern problem of inventing a Frankenstein language from the ruins of our murdered public discourse, and does so in a way that does not condescend or simplify. He makes the near-impossible look easy.
As long as he remains the master of the sentence, George Saunders will likely keep his audience, no matter how bleak his vision gets. In the meantime, he is busy taking risks, pushing at the boundaries of his talent, and American culture.