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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novellaby George Saunders
Taking its title from its opening story, set dystopically enough in a Civil War historical reenactment park, George Saunders's first book still sweeps my legs out from under me. Twain and Vonnegut are heavyweights named as his predecessors, but Saunders's writing belongs to no one else; and his reduced, distorted world that so much resembles our own belongs only to his writing: a sleek and casually dark prose, punctuated with hard hilarities and surprising vulnerabilities. I had only to open the book to be at once pulled in, then incurred gargantuan late fees at the library because I didn't want to give it back.
Synopses & Reviews
George Saunders has seen the future of America and it is funny. Bleak, yes, and sad and toxic and greedy — and very, very weird — but funny, too. With today's malls and theme parks and ecological disasters as their foundation, these stories build a tomorrow inhabited by fat executives in despair, genetic mutants in servitude, virtual-reality merchants in Chapter 11, and American Dreamers everywhere in trouble. A lot of this book's business is business in an America whose culture and economy are falling apart, business on the fringes, business on the skids. The marginal entrepreneurs who people its pages hawk everything from glimpses of a living see-through cow to raccoon meat to old ladies' memories. Deregulation rules and brigands thrive. But at the center of George Saunders's fiction stand those hapless souls who suffer most keenly. the injustices and inequalities that a Free Market dishes out — the guys who just can't make it or run into plain old bad luck. A self-abasing minion at CivilWarLand suggests a way to rid the premises of the teenage gangs that prowl the grounds at night, only to find the cure far more dangerous than the disease. Another poor sap, who runs a wavemaking machine, allows himself a moment of underling's vanity and accidentally kills a kid frolicking in the artificial surf. And in the picaresque novella "Bounty," a futuristic descendant of Huckleberry Finn with claws for feet travels across the ramshackle country to rescue his sister, also a mutant, who has been bought by a Normal for pleasure and, possibly, profit. These astute stories recall not only the work of Mark Twain but also such diverse figures as Jonathan Swift and Kurt Vonnegut. At once cautionary and, in their humor, entertaining and redemptive, they help us see our society and ourselves in new and startling ways.
"An astoundingly tuned voice — graceful, dark, authentic, and funny." Thomas Pynchon
"George Saunders' first collection arrives with ecstatic blurbs from Thomas Pynchon, Tobias Wolff, and Garrison Keillor, and what the hell, the guy actually deserves it. The author, a geophysical engineer, specializes in pitch-black satire. His stories take place sometime in the near future, and many of them feature entrepreneurial concepts to die for. One character runs the Burn 'n' Learn franchise, with "a fully stocked library on the premises and as you tan you call out the name of any book you want to these high-school girls on roller skates." Others work in virtual-reality theme parks, which offer shabby duplications of the Civil War or a Day at the Beach. Saunders has a great ear for professional jargon, and his descriptions of these dystopian Disneylands invariably ring true.
"In the title story, for example, the narrator manages a crew of Adjunct Thespians, Verisimilitude Inspectors, and Historical Reconstruction Associates. Another theme park — a fake farm called Our Nation's Bounty — includes among its exhibits a cow with a see-through panel in its stomach. ("The idea was to provide schoolchildren insight into the digestive process of a large mammal.") Given their satiric slant, these stories aren't particularly plot-driven. In most of them, the employees are falling apart at about the same speed as the business, and it's a race to see who will last longer. But Saunders' voice, deadpan and hilarious, keeps you coming back for more, and not even the occasional patches of tough-guy lyricism can succeed in derailing it." James Marcus, Salon
"The stories in this volume are peopled with grotesques — a misshapen girl nicknamed Boneless, a 400-pound businessman, a black boy with skin so fragile that it tears, an ex-convict con man who practices bondage and discipline. Some of these characters do despotic things, but Saunders presents all of them in their full humanity, never sentimentalizing, ever withholding judgment. This example of consummate mastery and literary control belongs in public libraries and in college and university collections." R.B. Shuman, Choice
"This book is a rare event: a brilliant new satirist bursting out of the gate in full stride, wildly funny, pure, generous — all that a great humorist should be." Garrison Keillor
"Scary, hilarious, and unforgettable....George Saunders is a writer of arresting brilliance and originality." Tobias Wolff
A New York Times Notable Book
From the author of Tenth of December...
"This book is a rare event: a brilliant new satirist bursting out of the gate in full stride, wildly funny, pure, generous—all that a great humorist should be."
"An astoundingly tuned voice—graceful, dark, authentic, and funny—telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times."
"Scary, hilarious, and unforgettable . . . George Saunders is a writer of arresting brilliance and originality."
"A cool satirist and a wicked stylist. The quirkiest and most accomplished short-story debut since Barry Hannah's Airships."
—Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review
"Ingenious . . . full of savage humor and originality [and] scorching brilliance . . . the author creates a nightmarish post-apocalyptic world that might have been envisioned by Walt Disney on acid."
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
"The debut of an exciting new voice in fiction. Mr. Saunders writes like the illegitimate offspring of [Nathaniel] West and Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps a distant relative of Mark Leyner and Steven Wright. He's a savage satirist with a sentimental streak who delineates, in these pages, the dark underbelly of the American dream: the losses, delusions, and terrors suffered by the lonely, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden and the plain unlucky. . . . Bizarre events pop up regularly in CivilWarLand like road signs on a highway, directing the reader toward the dark heart of Mr. Saunders's America. What powers the stories along is Mr. Saunders's wonderfully demented language, his ear for absurdity and slang, his own patented blend of psychobabble, techno-talk and existential angst. Mr. Saunders's satiric vision of America is dark and demented; it is also ferocious and very funny."
—The New York Times
"Mr. Saunders writes like the illegitimate offspring of Nathaniel West and Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps a distant relative of Mark Leyner and Steven Wright. . . . Mr. Saunders' satiric vision of America is dark, and demented; it is also ferocious and very funny".--"The New York Times".
About the Author
George Saunders's political novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil was published by Riverhead Trade Paperbacks in September 2005. He is also the author of Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, both New York Times Notable Books, and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a New York Times children's bestseller. In 2000, The New Yorker named him one of the "Best Writers Under 40." He writes regularly for The New Yorker and Harper's, as well as Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine. He won a National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2004 and his work is included in Best American Short Stories 2005. He teaches at Syracuse University.
Table of Contents
CivilWarLand in bad decline — Isabelle — The wavemaker falters — The 400-pound CEO — Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz — Downtrodden Mary's failed campaign of terror — Bounty.
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