Who We Are
In "The Red Bow," the crown in George Saunders' new collection of short fictions, In Persuasion Nation, and a contemporary fable to rival Shirley Jackson's classic story "The Lottery," a little girl named Emily is mauled to death in a schoolyard by some dogs, one or more of which might be rabid. The father of the girl—who tells the story—together with his brother Uncle Matt, Father Terry and some other villagers has to decide what to do. It goes without saying, to them, that first you shoot the dogs who did it and then burn them to rid the town of any trace of the disease. But is that enough? One of the dogs, who was on the loose before it was caught, had gotten into a neighbor's yard and bitten another dog. Do you kill that dog too, even if the dog shows no symptoms? Yes, you do, just to be safe. But the village's dogs all played together and were possibly exposed—what about all of them, even the perfectly healthy ones? Well, Uncle Matt reasons, "could it be we are in a better-safe-than-sorry type of situation?" here, and that for the sake of the other children, we ought to get rid of the whole lot of them? "I for one am never going to forget that night," says Uncle Matt. "What we all felt. I for one am going to work to make sure that no one ever again has to endure what we had to endure that night."
And, with Uncle Matt leading the charge, they make sure, all right. Uncle Matt draws up a Three-Point Emergency Plan, which entails destroying all infected or suspected infected dogs—which in practice means destroying every dog in the village—and then he persuades the villagers to vote unanimously to approve the plan. Then Emily's mother comes out of her bedroom for the first time since the tragedy to exclaim, "Kill every dog, kill every cat . . . Kill every mouse, every bird. Kill every fish. Anyone objects, kill them too." And, in this atmosphere of paranoid hysteria, this seems reasonable too. Even the fair- but weak-minded narrator finally accedes: "What I'm saying is, with no dogs and no cats, the chance that another father would have to carry his animal-murdered child into his home, where the child's mother sat, doing the bills, happy or something like happy for the last time in her life, happy until the instant she looked up and saw—what I guess I'm saying is, with no dogs and no cats, the chance of that happening to someone else (or to us again) goes down to that very beautiful number of zero."
Well, of course. That scorched-earth policy work is not the issue; it's the scale of the response that is, and what makes the story so powerful is how Saunders portrays so vividly how that scale can so easily be tipped into grotesquely violent reprisal when the victim is "innocence," how untold horrors can be perpetrated in innocence's name. The story, of course, rings all sorts of 9/11 bells: the girl is the towers; Uncle Matt is George W. Bush; the village is a terrified America where voices of dissent are stifled in times of crisis and the rest are worked into a frenzy of revenge; and the killing of the village dogs is a War on Terror that goes so far beyond the initial and legitimate enemy—Bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan—that it results, as the LA Times recently reported, in 50,000 Iraqi civilian deaths in a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. And the story manages all this with that narrative faux-naivet that is the trademark of Saunders' best stories—which are among the best any American has written in the past decade.
In Persuasion Nation is a very ambitious book—it's more a story cycle, in fact, than a collection, united by a vision that sees America as "persuasion nation," a country driven by the dictates of a three-headed hydra: late-model consumer capitalism, unfettered technological progress, and that crude American optimism and bland good cheer that refuses to deal with its homegrown evils. (Evils that are outside, they know what to do with: kill them the way you kill the dogs.) When Saunders latches on to a tight form and focus, as in "The Red Bow," the results are stunning; when he doesn't, the stories' effects are diffuse and scattershot. A novella-length work like "Jon" mostly works. In this story, we have a teenage title character who lives and works in some corporate compound—which he never leaves—where he and his co-workers do nothing but watch commercials and test consumer products. They're given Aurobon, a drug to quiet their curiosities and anxieties, and are shown a pro-masturbation video (called "It's Yours to Do With What You Like!") to siphon off their lusts. But Jon falls in love and gets his girl pregnant, and his girl decides that she doesn't want to raise her child in this environment and demands that he prove his love to her by leaving their safe, product-filled, Aurobon-ated life for real life outside the compound. The twitchings of conscience and fear that Jon undergoes as he makes his decision are touching—Saunders has developed a vocabulary and style to convey dumb innocence that's often dead-on—and the ending displays a glimmer of hope in the possibilities of fighting the power that's been mostly missing in Saunders' fiction to date.
Then, again, "Jon" doesn't move beyond, in any substantive way, what a whole modern tradition of jeremiads from 1984 and Brave New World to The Handmaid's Tale, Brazil and The Matrix have been warning us about for a century now. What's more, unlike the work of the contemporaries whose thematic company Saunders keeps—the DeLillo of White Noise, the Franzen of The Corrections, even the Wallace of Infinite Jest—Saunders doesn't penetrate to any interesting degree the sources of our national traumas or the abiding drives and neuroses that keep the three-headed hydra alive and kicking. The cartoonish faux-naivet that worked so brilliantly in an older story like "Pastoralia," (about the hell of working in a theme park) founders when the stories take on larger targets, like consumer brainwashing or the ways suburban life takes on the qualities of sitcoms—targets, incidentally, that are hardly new, and were done much better in, say, Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants, way back in the 1960s.
I battled my way through this collection, often impressed with Saunders' sheer inventiveness and certainly with his command of the demotic argot of people who spend all their time shopping, watching TV and working bureaucratic jobs. But the book also depressed me because Saunders' satire can be so broad and obvious that it makes his "message" feel toothless and anemic and a little silly. It makes fiction itself, as a form of social criticism, seem socially irrelevant, in fact. I picture a captain of industry or major advertising exec reading this and even getting it, totally, and then flicking it away like a fly. ("Good thing fiction doesn't matter," they'd mutter.) Except in "The Red Bow," which ought to have a long afterlife in contemporary fiction anthologies, there's not enough critical ballast in these stories, not enough of a sense of necessity so that the stories could change people's minds. It could be that Saunders is too nice a writer to get as tough as he needs to be. But he chose his targets, and if you're going to go after the big guns, you've got to use some big guns, and he's still using bows and arrows.
IN PERSUASION NATION BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; RIVERHEAD BOOKS. HARDCOVER, 228 PAGES, $23.95.
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