The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
by George Saunders
A review by Margaret Luongo
I'm sorry, but I feel that life should offer more than this.
-- "The 400-Pound CEO"
I like to tell my students that if they're going to write satire these days, they have to go way out there. In the aftermath of events such as Hurricane Katrina, how does a writer shock readers? In the face of real absurdities, what stories conjured from imagination could outrage people to the same degree that Swift outraged his readers with A Modest Proposal?
Outrage won't do.Whatever apparatus we have in place to register it has been disabled by the barrage of absurdities, particularly by the way these events are depicted -- at top volume, in bludgeoning sound bites. Unhappily, we have become so distracted by the loud-mouthed hatemongering of both major political parties that we think and feel superficially. We can't hear for all the shouting the more quiet messages, and the din discourages complex emotional responses.
For those who care to listen to a quiet voice, George Saunders has been writing humorous and humane satire since the 1996 publication of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. His stories have the ability to surprise and produce in readers the kind of slow-motion implosion far more moving and lasting than the short-lived sputter of the sound bite. Two themes weave through all of Saunders's work: the battle of love and kindness against mindless, fear-induced hatred; and the myth that if you're suffering in this land of unlimited opportunity and plenty, you must be to blame. If, as in "The 400-Pound CEO," your co-workers taunt you mercilessly, it's your fault because you're obese. If you live in the projects ("Sea Oak"), it's because your family has broken the social contract by spawning bastard children. If your goats are besieged by pestilent gappers (burrs with eyes and mouths, in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip), you must have done something to anger God. If, as in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, your already tiny country disintegrates under your feet, you probably have some defect God can't abide.
At the heart of Saunders's stories is this idea that God has made us imperfectly. As Jeffrey notes in "The 400-Pound CEO," "He gives us a need for love, with no way to get any." Human beings have an innate desire for love; according to Saunders, humans also have an innate fear, one that stems from a similarly innate inferiority complex. In Saunders's stories, these two urges -- to gain love and to prove that one is better than another (and thus more deserving of love and material wealth) -- compete, erupting in misunderstanding, murder, and degradations of all kinds, including, in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, war. In this latest book, Saunders revisits his pet themes, particularly the demonizing of the poor and the desire for validation that spurs prejudice, nationalism, and inhumanity.
The worlds that Saunders presents in CivilWarLand and Pastoralia feel familiar but slightly strange. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip takes place in another world -- Frip -- but one still populated by humans, goats, and fish. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil plays out on another planet entirely, with machine like characters that behave in recognizably human ways. The dislocation provides an obvious advantage: The ugliness of the characters develops fully, and we gawk and shudder at the rise of a nationalism that feels creepily familiar. In this way, the book functions as a warning. Saunders invites us to make some real-world connections to Phil, the leader whose rise to power hinges on his brainlessness -- literally. Phil has a defect in his equipment that causes his brain to slide off its rack when he becomes excited. Whenever it does, his voice becomes oddly commanding, and he spouts one-liners and sound bites that his flock find inspiring, moving, and hopeful: "Suddenly Phil didn't seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?" Phil isn't totally brainless. When it's pointed out that the "Special Friends" he's recruited to be his bodyguards and bad boys aren't exactly the brightest bulbs, Phil replies, "Oh, they're smart enough. They're exactly the level of smart I'm looking for."
Later, the Inner Hornerites are rescued by Greater Keller, a nation whose people measure the success of their country by the happiness of the majority of its inhabitants. They decide they must save the Inner Hornerites from the Outer Hornerites not because the Inner Hornerites don't deserve to be persecuted but because, without rescue, their "National Life Enjoyment Index Score" would plummet. The Greater Kellerites could not enjoy themselves as much knowing that others nearby suffer, and the drop in the Life Enjoyment Index Score constitutes "suffering." It's noted, too, that the Outer Hornerites could come for them next. It's this last bit that might particularly discomfit readers. Saunders represents many facets of American identity, some of which are endearing and shameful at the same time.
Like The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is illustrated, and in some cases, the illustrations add an alarming layer of recognition: Something that seems vaguely sinister in the reading suddenly emerges as a newly terrifying entity -- see Phil's "Special Friends."
In general, the illustrations and the book's small size are appealing and inviting; it's as if Saunders wants us to feel comfortable, as if we're about to settle down with a cozy and charming tale. If you lean left politically, you'll feel especially comfortable -- unjustifiably so. You'll think you're being invited to laugh at our current administration, especially during the first two-thirds of the book. You might feel a little smug as you enjoy the send-up. That would be a mistake. In the end, Saunders worries the state of humanity as a whole. It's our morality and humanity he's concerned with, in a way that transcends the superficial parrying of political parties. I felt chastised at the end for relishing what I perceived as attacks on the current powers-that-be, but I was also relieved to find Saunders's work deeper than that. My initial reaction, in fact, proves Saunders's point: We love to have our views validated. The illustrations and the diminutive size of the book may be a testament to his genius. The same goes for his humor.With less humor and lightness, the read would be unbearable. The subject is devastating enough, and Saunders's treatment of it encourages engagement rather than alienation.
Indeed, Saunders's narratives are infused with so much love for humanity and our sad condition that the message isn't one of hopelessness. At the end, the choice is ours: to choose kindness over fear and hatred. The message is particularly relevant now. I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that those who show love in the face of hatred usually get creamed in Saunders's stories. "The Falls" in Pastoralia is one notable exception. At the end of "The Falls," Morse understands that the girls in the capsized canoe will drown -- and he will too if he tries to save them: "It was a no-brainer, no one could possibly blame him for this one, and making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water." Even though Morse is doomed, there's a dignity in his final choice that redeems the rest of his sad life.
"The End of Firpo in the World," also in Pastoralia, delivers a different kind of grace. As the beleaguered Cody dies in the street, a stranger tells him "You are beautiful. . . .God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight." This sounds a lot like the message from the God at the end of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. In his death throes, Cody imagines apologizing to his mother for being such a "FIRPO," and she tearfully thanks him for admitting it. As usual for Saunders, this moment of grace is somewhat twisted: While Cody transcends his earthly pain, he mentally insults the kind stranger in exactly the way he had been put down in his own life.
Similarly, the murder of the protagonist of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" brings about his "perfect knowledge," though the knowledge comes too late to help anyone:
I see the man I could have been, and the man I was, and then everything is bright and new and keen with love, and I sweep through Sam's body, trying to change him, trying so hard, and feeling only hate and hate, solid as stone.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil ends in a more static way. Saunders highlights what amounts to a permanent human condition of imperfection. The characters are trapped in an endless cycle, one that mirrors our own. Our fundamental flaw -- to see ourselves validated in everything and everyone around us -- isn't going away any time soon:
Except sometimes Leona comes to visit. She does not find The Phil monstrous, but strangely beautiful, and sometimes sits in the thicket for hours, dreaming, for reasons she can't quite explain, of a better world, run by humble, compressed ball-shaped people, like her and Sally, who speak, when they speak at all, in short sentences, of their simple and heroic dreams.
Though the God reshuffles the parts of Inner and Outer Hornerites until there is only New Horner and New Hornerites, Leona can't shake the feeling of us-and-them. Even words from the Creator's unseen lips (the Creator appears only as a pair of hands) can't unseat this most basic of fears:
THIS TIME, BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER. REMEMBER: EACH OF YOU WANTS TO BE HAPPY. AND I WANT YOU TO. EACH OF YOU WANTS TO LIVE FREE FROM FEAR. AND I WANT YOU TO. EACH OF YOU ARE SECRETLY AFRAID YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. BUT YOU ARE, TRUST ME, YOU ARE.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil will not shock or outrage. Sickening surprise comes instead when Saunders focuses our attention on the real problem, which is not one of political ideology, but one of basic human folly. The characters remain trapped in a cycle of fear, insecurity, and hatred. The epiphany of self-knowledge is meant for the reader, and it functions not as an excuse but as a call to end the inhumanity of partisan politics and nationalism.
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