In Persuasion Nation: Stories
by George Saunders
Satire with Feeling
A review by Anna Godbersen
The man kneeling in gravel to smell a flower on the cover of George Saunders's newest collection is lumbering, buzz-cut, and poignantly focused on one speck of natural beauty. He might be any one of the mixed-up heroes of In Persuasion Nation. These are men caught in a brave new world of ramped-up advertising and corporate speak; the world is not of their making, but they are giving it an earnest go. There is, for instance, Rick Sminks, Product Service Representative for KidLuv Inc., whose bureaucratic letter to a disgruntled consumer of the I CAN SPEAK!™ (a product that gives six-month-olds the appearance of saying sophisticated phrases) reveals his own fraught but loving efforts as a father. Or Brad, the star of "Brad Carrigan, American," a brutal send-up of TV nowadays, who is TotallyFukked by his wife and neighbor (that is, he is caught on camera, Punk'd style, being led to believe that his wife is cheating on him), in between ads for Kill the Ho and the unveiling of his friends the Winstons' Extreme Surgery. But there is a dark side (or, I guess, a darker dark side) here: A band of ravaged corpses, from a small country torn by ethnic strife, has landed in his backyard, and he would really like to reverse the crassness and excess of his show and help them, if only he doesn't get written off first.
This stabbing at some kind of righteousness in an illogical and hyper-marketed world is perfectly encapsulated by "Jon," the best story here, in which a teenager tries and fails and tries again to leave the only world he has ever known, a never-ending focus group on crack. He likes the safety of his prison, of course -- not to mention, the free designer products and the happy pills -- but when his girlfriend gets pregnant, he starts wondering what else there is. "When I think of what we will think of, I draw this like total blank and get scared," he says of leaving, "but tell the truth I am curious, I think I am ready to try." Saunders is a hilarious, wicked, and pitch-perfect satirist of our times, of course, but for a satirist he has a whole lot of heart.
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