Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, December 25, 2009

George Saunders, _The Braindead Megaphone: Essays_

SAUNDERS IS AMONG my favorite contemporary fiction writers, so I was looking forward to this. It was slightly disappointing, however.

Like David Foster Wallace, Saunders has a kind of perfect pitch for the peculiar deformations and degradations of our current public discourse -- he can revealingly mimic the tone and texture of the self-serving news release and the dishonest government announcement, the high-gloss bullshit of management seminars, advertising, bureaucracies. In his best short stories -- for instance, the title stories in the collections Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation -- he enables us to see the actual cruelty and callousness this graceless, anodyne language tries to camouflage, and to sense the frustration of characters trying to describe their real pain with flimsy self-help book clich├ęs.

Unlike Wallace, Saunders does not have an interesting prose-voice that is distinct and separate from his parody-of-debased-discourse voice. He seems himself aware of this problem, which he tries to palliate with Ironic Capitalization, by means of which the disagreeably uninformed phrase "some village guy" becomes "Some Village Guy," Saunders signalling that yes, he does sound like a shallow American journo-tourist, but at least he knows he sounds like one. This tic might not have bothered me if I had been reading the essays singly in periodicals, but read three in a row and it decidedly grates.

There are some worthwhile things in here, though. "Ask the Optimist!" is really more of a story than an essay, Saunders writing as a relentlessly cheery advice columnist whose life falls apart over the course of the column -- lots of elbow room for Saunders's ability to mimic debased discourse here, obviously.

There are two lovely literary tributes, to Donald Barthelme's great short story "The School" and to Esther Forbes, author of Johnny Tremain, the first book Saunders loved.

And there is "The United States of Huck," one of the most interesting essays I've read on Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Saunders skillfully navigating between the Scylla of condemnation and the Charybdis of admiration in getting at what make Twain's deeply flawed novel one of the country's greatest pieces of fiction.

The high points, though are the first and last essays (or last but for some New-Yorkerish jeu d'esprit that gets tacked on at the end). "The Braindead Megaphone" is a funny but trenchant takedown of our viciously stupid, all-yammering-all-the-time media, and in "Buddha Boy," a kind of skeptic's pilgrimage to see a 12-year-old Nepalese boy who had supposedly been meditating for seven months without taking food or drink, Saunders describes a dark night of the soul in a remarkable narrative that achieves depth without ever entirely ceasing to be funny.

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