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I've only just recently launched my investigation into the world of Saunders - CBD was my first (felt right to start at the beginning) about a month ago. I was so excited and near-rapturous with the completion of this book that I immediately moved on to the next in the series: Pastoralia and now have just finished The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.
Thinking back on Civilwarland, I remember a lot of the stories with a real clarity, but more am just grateful for the lasting feeling of accomplishment that Saunders illicited for me in the reading. The tales are dark and gruesome in a more obvious way here, than in later stories. And there's a rawness - some transmission of the excitement or discovery that he perhaps felt writing these first stories (?) that comes right to the surface, bites on to your face, and doesn't let go.
I honestly stood leaning against a tree to finish the last 40 pages of the final story because I couldn't take another step without finishing the journey. I lied about where I'd been when my colleagues asked why I was late back to the office, and spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about the world I'd just left.
This feels like a book I'll want to re-read every year, and enjoy more for the return. I'm grateful that this book exists; it helped me dream myself away from all the cyclical cr*p my mind has been fixated on for so long. I can't say how exactly the effect worked, but it was probably magic.
All of Saunders's stories are starting to run together for me. That's not necessarily a bad thing. He retells the same story over and over, really, but I really dig it. I say this because every story's theme is basically the same thing: bad guys trying to do good things. I use the term "bad" loosely because here's the rub: we're all bad. We're all bad people just trying to do good. Saunders's stories are a call to action: Do Good.
Now, the details:
"The Wavemaker Falters" is my favorite in this bunch. Clever symbolism and wordplay punctuated by tragic dark humor. "Leon's been rising steadily since we went through Orientation together, and all told he's saved three Guests and I've crushed the s*** out of one."
"CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," the title story is strong. It's like "Pastoralia" (published later, but read first by me) with a supernatural twist. Also, maybe arming crazy gun nuts to protect our safety from scary teenagers isn't a good thing.
"Bounty", the novella in this collection, is like an extended cut of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." With the weird mutations of the Flawed--clawed toes, vestigial tails--I see where Karen Russell gets her inspiration from.
"Isabelle" is a kick in the teeth. I don't know what else to say.
"Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz" is a heartstring puller. The closest thing to a three-hanky weeper you'll find in a George Saunders collection.
"Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of a Terror" is an amazing title that deserves a slightly better story, but, hey, transparent cow. I think this is a real experiment. This story feeds my desire for corporate sabotage.
"The 400-Pound CEO" reminds me to try hard, try so hard, not to judge people or be mean. This is hard for me. Saunders's stories are plum full of empathy. The narrator says "What do my colleagues know of Dad? What do they know of me? What kind of friend gets a kick out of posting in the break room a drawing of you eating an entire computer? What kind of friend jokes that someday you'll be buried in a specially built container after succumbing to heart strain? I'm sorry, but I feel that life should offer more than this." When people are down, we, as a society, keep them down. And then they want to stay down.
These stories are utterly, devastatingly sad. I was not expecting that, so I'll say that first.
The first few stories in the book, I didn't enjoy completely, because I wasn't used to Saunders's voice; this was the first thing I'd ever read by him. He seemed to be "trying too hard" and "writing like an English teacher" (which he is). Those were my two main complaints... he makes a big deal of having outrageous things happen suddenly... a ghost appears, a human appears and shoots someone, etc... It irked me, and made me reluctant to play along with him and experience the surprise. Like a kid going through a haunted house and staring flatly at the corny Jason-masked guy who jumps out at him.
But anyway, by the time I got to "The 400-pound CEO" I was smitten, and by the time I finished that story I was weeping uncontrollably.
He's good, he's really good. Give it a try. I didn't find any of the stories funny, personally.
I am somewhat familiar with the concept of "living history museums." That being said, I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline with my mouth hanging open in shock. I mean.... how did he know? The exaggeration that makes it hilarious is not so far from the reality of struggling museums doing anything and everything they can think of to boost ticket sales!
Well, just imagine it this way. A few hundred years from today, they might turn your home town into a museum. Of course, museums are dedicated to authenticity... So, they build a stages all over town, hire actors to loudly scream out highly improbable scenes from your life on every street corner, and everyone has a bad foreign accent that might be British, might be Irish, or might just be a speech impediment.
As a director of one museum actually stated, "I won't let history get in the way of a good story."
In that same spirit, I will promise you that CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is one terrific story that will entertain with humor and the amazing skill of the author. It is not to be missed.
This book is funny and prophetic. Americans should really consider what the future may be like if they continue their rampant pollution of our constitutional system and our ecological systems. One of the reviews inside the cover says it best, 'the characters doggedly stick to their morals despite extreme obstacles.' In virtually every story, a character is faced with a serious choice, one where weaker minds would give in to the pressures of the world, but they choose to remain true to their identity, for the sake of their sanity and encounter whatever the world dishes out. And you can see how they are able to cope, not because things went well, but because they know who they are. They second guess themselves, but they don't beat themselves up. This book made me feel better about decisions I'd made in my own life and made me a stronger person. It also made me a better writer and storyteller.
On top of it all, each story sticks to the theme, which, although carny, is meant as a warning. America could easily become like this if we don't return to our highest ideals.
No wonder he won the MacArthur grant shortly after this.
George Saunders is one of the best short story writers alive today, but these are not your ordinary short stories. I've heard them described as weird, funny, dark, complex and strange, but extremely entertaining. Impossible not to get caught up in the stories. I especially enjoyed the title story "Civilwarland in Bad Decline". There is something in the use of the word "bad" in the title that should give you a clue you are entering a new world of short stories. Enjoy!