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Saunders still carries a mighty impact with me, though I must admit that I felt I had more of a behind-the-curtain peek with this one and some of the technique that makes his magic work--some ghosts, and using a kind of theme-park setting to set up characters as freaks or outsiders, to name a couple. Saunders has a confident hand in painting characters who are stuck under an ocean of misery, inflicted on them from within and without, though the method made the stories in this collection feel a little too similar for me. This collection culminates into a novella of a US where the deformed have been tagged and may even be sold off into slavery, its narrator on a quest to save his sister, a kind of Huck Finn enmeshed in The Road, but ultimately felt a little too episodic for me, tempting me to downgrade the collection as a whole, but the stunners here, namely "Isabelle" and "The 400-Pound CEO," are so heartbreaking, and the title story so competent, that my overall impression remains a strong one.
Recently George Saunders has received a lot of good press what with the critical success of his most recent collection, Tenth of December, and the award of a "genius" grant by the MacArthur Foundation in 2006. Saunders is sometimes referred to (or refers to himself) as the "best known unknown writer" in America. This reference is false. For my money, this title should be bestowed on Peter Taylor, although Saunders may be the "best known unknown writer" alive. But no. With his recent success Saunders has become practically a household name.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is one of Saunders's earliest efforts, appearing in 1996. It's a slim volume-179 pages containing six stories and a novella. The stories follow a predictable formula-a vaguely post-apocryphal future dominated by hapless narrators pulled between their sense of morality and the practical necessities of survival in a mean world. Bosses are ruthless, the innocent suffer, and business jargon dressed up as the ethics du jour rules the roost. Many of the send ups are hilarious, that is until one of the main characters gets a rusty knife plunged into his ribs. Even the ghosts in the stories are troubled, doomed to relive the tragedies of their earthly lives over and over again.
Saunders vision is bleak, which allows the small glimmers of hope in his fiction to shine. Although I laughed at the funny parts, ultimately I found his satire to be formulaic and depressing. His work recalls the songstress Peggy Lee's melody "Is That All There Is?". Given Saunders's recent literary success, apparently not.
Saunders is a master of the idomatic chatter of everyday characters and their tortured inner monologues. Unfortunately, Civilwarland suffers in comparison to his much better and more recent collection Pastoralia.
The problem is that the settings for the stories in Civilwarland are all very similar, often set in marginal businesses and in jokey theme parks. Although Saunders gets the management-speak perfectly, it becomes wearing as each story is virtually the same in setting and tone.
As much as I love his style, I found this collection hard going. One reviewer here at Amazon has said that you should read one Saunders short story every month and that seems about right to me.
The writing is brisk, clean, and very darkly playful. However, the stories themselves are relentlessly pessimistic. I found the darkness overwhelming even with the mechanical mastery of the writing itself.
Mr. Saunders has BECOME a brilliant writer but this first book is far from his best. One story, "The 400-pound CEO," is brilliant but the rest are clones of each other, the same style, the same quirks, the same darkness. Try another, more recent book such as "Tenth of December" to understand why everyone is talking about him.
So many parts of this book were lost to me in a blur or words and situations. Never difficult to read, but often just pointless, unremarkable, and shallow.
It was like a trip to an amusement park where the lines were all too short to not wait but too long to be amused the entire wait, the soda was cool but flat, and the cotton candy dropped off the stick 2 until you just decided not to bother going back a third time. You are still at the amusement park (Yay! Yippee), but you end up just wanting it all to stop.