In 1993, an unknown named George Saunders published a story called “The 400-Pound CEO” in Harper’s magazine that I remember had serious readers of literary fiction reeling—and celebrating the sudden change in the literary weather. A ferocious satire of the world of the corporate office that savaged the blithe cruelties of the bottom-line “Hey, business is business” mindset while portraying its victims as comically but painfully sympathetic grotesques, the story heralded a new talent that had readers and critics wondering if we had a new Nathaniel West (The Day of the Locust, Miss Lonelyhearts) on our hands. It turns out that, given the evidence of Saunders’ two books of short stories (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia) and his new slyly audacious novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, we do. But this is a nicer West—a West whose rage and wicked representation of greed and oppression never obscure a sad, hopelessly sweet identification with its victims.
In the “CEO” story, Saunders laid out a credo of sorts: “I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the differences between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.” In those two story collections, Saunders took on the manifold weirdnesses of American pop culture (and the ways it perverts our spirits) in ways that left self-styled spokesmen of postmod pop like Douglas Coupland or Bret Easton Ellis in the dust, finding company with Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.The stories are late-20th-century parables of the American Dream gone even more obscenely wrong than Vonnegut or Wallace have envisioned it, all written with a tenderness that makes the obscenity all the harder to take.
In The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders has expanded his ambitions. This one’s a parable about political power, a kind of post-nuclear Animal Farm that’s been stripped of Orwell’s socialism so that all that remains is a pitiless, pitiful and bizarrely sweet rendering of the ways people with power abuse people without it. It takes place in an unmappable landscape that’s as featureless as a planet in a dream. Here the seven citizens of Inner Horner—who are made up of grotesque combinations of exposed human organs and the kinds of industrial parts you might find at a dump but are still the nicest characters in the world—do their damnedest to stay in the tiny confines of Inner Horner, but they keep falling into Outer Horner, with whom they have a border agreement to stay in the Short Term Residency Zone until they can squeeze back into Inner Horner. When one day Inner Horner unaccountably shrinks (!) and the Inner Hornerites topple into Outer Horner proper, the Outer Hornerites (similar amalgamations of organ and hardware) respond:
“Weird,” said Melvin.
“Gross,” said Larry.
“What do we do now?” said Freeda.
“I say we expulse the invaders,” said Larry.
“That sounds pretty good,” said Melvin. “How do we?”
“We just, uh, you know, expulse them,” said Larry.
But expulsing turns out to be impossible, so a bitter, middle-aged Outer Hornerite named Phil (who has been spurned in love by Carol, an Inner Hornerite, but remains captivated by her “glossy black filaments and transparent oscillating membrance, the delicate curve of her exposed spine, her habit of demurely scratching one bearing with a furry glovelike appendage . . .”) hits on the idea of taxing the Inner Hornerites for the use of Outer Horner land, an idea the Outer Hornerites take to with odd enthusiasm, considering the Inner Hornerites own nothing except a tree and a small stream and the clothes on their backs (if they have backs). Blindly undeterred by Inner Hornerite poverty, Phil and the Outer Hornerites cheerfully proceed to take the tree, the stream and the clothes, and when they’ve utterly taxed out the citizens of Inner Horner, they find a new source of tax revenue in “disassembling” the Inner Hornerites themselves for parts. Though this sets off a minor rebellion and a calling out of Outer Horner’s president—a hilarious incompetent with no memory and an adviser so sycophantic that he’s described as “a mirror and two beady eyes”—Phil pulls off a coup and establishes his “brief and frightening reign” with no other idea in mind but to abuse the Inner Hornerites into oblivion. The day is only saved by a literal deus ex machina, a “Creator” whose hand appears out of the sky to rid this world of Phil and his depredations and to, at least temporarily, right the moral order.
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Amidst his political parable-izing, Saunders has a pure comic gene that keeps the narrative giddily delightful, but any reader can’t help but see the allegorical intentions. Outer Horner is the U.S. in the more gory and nationalistic forms it’s taken, particularly since its embrace of torture as a policy; Phil is the American presidency (though not Bush; it’s more a combination of chief executives from, say, Nixon on down); and the Outer Hornerites are Americans convinced of their utter innocence, generosity and virtue.
In another era—the late ’60s or early ’70s, for example—a book like this would have been taken up by a large cult, eager to read in contemporary parallels and act on them—the way people took up Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle or Brautigan or Hermann Hesse back then. That, to put it mildly, ain’t bloody likely now. Saunders’ novella is so startling and beautiful that it can renew our imaginations about the nature of hypocrisy and political oppression. But there’s also about Saunders’ work the shrug of acknowledged impotence: he knows his book, politically charged as it is, won’t do any damned good. Still, he beats on, boats against the current, borne by the delights of language and his unabashed love of the tender victims he imagines.
THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; RIVERHEAD TRADE. SOFTCOVER, 144 PAGES, $13.