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With this piece the imbedded hypocrisy of the movie is brought sharply to the forefront. Saunders uses parody in response to parody, creating a dialogue which questions the motives of the filmmakers and cautions those who would allow their moral distemper to turn against them. For anyone who has followed the work of George Saunders, his reaction to the film was unsurprising, for the people he defends in this piece are the very ones he has been creating for years.
They are the masses of ill-educated, befuddled consumers desperately attempting to retain their individuality in the face of all-encompassing corporate identities. They are those trying to make the best of the violence that pervades their lives and explain away the insensitivities of those who surround them. His villains are joyously blind to their crimes, as if controlled not by their own will but by Saunders's true enemy: consumerist-fuelled callousness. His heroes are corporate guinea pigs, theme park employees, monkeys. Their dialogue is put forth in the half-formed, text message-addled parlance of the shopping mall, an inarticulateness which, for Saunders, seems to represent a lack of comprehension not only verbally but morally, and across an entire culture.
The first entry in In Persuasion Nation, Saunders' latest collection of stores, "I CAN SPEAK!™," takes the form of a letter written by a salesman for KidLuv Inc., the maker of a prosthetic face for infants which mimics the facial movements of speech and produces pre-recorded messages. The letter is a patchwork of corporate-speak and the employee's unfiltered thoughts that tries to allay the fears of a mother and customer who has expressed concerns about the product, among them the observation that it causes her child to flinch. It is both touching and disturbing to observe the employee cancel his own doubts about the mask, particularly when explaining his own child's progress while wearing it:
Because suddenly he is articulate. Suddenly he is not just sitting there going glub glub glub while examining a piece of his own feces on his own thumb, which is something we recently found our Billy doing. Sometimes we have felt that our childless friends think badly of us for having a kid who just goes glub glub glub in the corner while looking at his feces on his thumb. But now when childless friends are over, what we have found, Ann and I, is that there is something great about having your kid say something witty and self-possessed years before he or she would actually in reality be able to say something witty or self-possessed.
"The Red Bow" is an analogy of the spiral of anger and violence. A disease is passing through the animals of a community, making them insensible with rage and causing the death of a small girl, the symbol of which is the red bow that had fallen from her hair during the attack.
The girl's uncle, previously unemployed and affected by a quiet shame, becomes the leader of a movement to destroy the animals that had carried out the violent act. As the disease continues to spread to other species, the uncle becomes increasingly movtivated, calling rallies and making t-shirts emblazoned with the victim's image overlaid with the red bow, eventually calling for the destruction of every animal in the community.
What Saunders is showing us is the middle section of a catastrophe, the catalyst of which is a single act of senseless violence. There are hints as to the beginning of the crisis (the father, who is the narrator, recalling his child's shoe falling noisily onto the pavement as he carries her lifeless body into his home, the mother locking herself in her bedroom in despair) and the culmination is implied by the slow escalation of panic within the community. Saunders's interest in this tale, however, lies in the period after the initial loss and before the true massacre occurs: the moment where grief becomes madness.
The violence of the spreading disease affecting the animals along with its parallel in the crowds gathering to bring it to a halt can easily be expanded to represent a conflict on a global-scale, the most obvious of which being America's response to the World Trade Center disaster.
Saunders's more subdued stories -those without the high-rolling moral overtones- prove to be his most emotionally evocative. "Christmas" tells of the experience of a young white man working alongside two black men on a roofing crew in Chicago, and their Christmas party spent gambling in the workshed.
Though his dialogue is consistently startling and honest, Saunders achieves his highest form in this story. In it we get a rare glimpse of what he is capable when giving an undissembled depiction:
Mid-December then and still no snow. Strange Chicago crèches appeared in front yards: Baby Jesus, freed from the manger, leaned against a Santa sled half his height. He was crouching, as if about to jump; he wore just a diaper. Single strings of colored lights lay across bushes, as if someone had hatefully thrown them there.
After losing $3,000 at dice, one of his co-workers makes his way across a busy intersection in order to cash his bonus cheque. The narrator drunkenly stumbles after him in a half-hearted attempt to convince him to quit while he still has something to take home to his family, and before standing by while he loses the rest of his wages, he pauses to take in the hopelesness of the situation:
"No no no," I mumbled, vividly drunk, suddenly alive. What had happened to me? Christ, where was I? Whither my promise, my easy season of victories, my field of dominant, my dominant field of my boyhood, boyhood playful triumph?
Driving home after the party he reflects:
There comes that phase in life when, tired of losing, you decide to stop losing, then continue losing. Then you decide to really stop losing, and continue losing. The losing goes on and on so long you begin to watch with curiosity, wondering how low you can go.
Saunders is at his most abstract in the eponymous story, in which we are presented with a series of advertisements, each more grotesque and sadistic. These include a man tricking his friend into attaching a brick to his penis in order to steal his car, an orange which is brutally discarded by a fruit snack bar and a boy who is torn apart by his grandparents for his bag of Doritos ("Who do you think you are?" the young man screams at the Doritos bag. "Do you believe yourself to be some sort of god? You're a bag of corn chips, with tons of salt and about nine coloring agents! That's all! That's all you are!!"). The subjects of the ads which have been humiliated and mutilated come back to life to take their revenge, leading to this gloriously surreal paragraph, reminiscent of a Dadaist poem:
The members of the orange/Grammy/man-briefly-involved-with-a-Ding-Dong/piles-of-mush/penisless-man coalition drag the remains of the members of the Ding-Dong/Doritos/Timmy/grandparents-who-love-Doritos/Kevin/Slap-of-Wack coalition outside, and bury them in a shallow mass grave.
It is difficult attempting to find the line where humour ends and disgust begins in such stories. In another vignette Abraham Lincoln is interrupted by a giant fast food sandwich while giving the Gettysburg address:
Cannons fire from the battlefield and scores of GrandeChickenBoatCombos begin drifting down via tiny parachutes, and the suddenly euphoric members of the nineteenth-century crowd trample Lincoln and the graves of the Union dead to collect their rightful GrandeChickenBoatCombos. Even the Union dead are trampling their own graves. One sad Union ghost, missing a leg, gets only part of a bun.
The energy and madness of these stories matches that of advertisements themselves, meeting their vacuousness with a moral outrage and abhorrence that is tempered only by the inanity of the settings. The risk that Saunders takes by placing his work within the blurry realm between hardline socio-political commentary and farce, however, is that of removing himself from serious consideration from either the political or the cultural sphere.
Ultimately, that which makes Saunders such a unique voice -his strident moral outrage, his unabashed utilization of the lowest of pop culture, the ambiguity of his humour- are the same qualities that could doom him to irrelevance. When irony and sarcasm are brought to such alarming levels, one's moral structure comes into serious risk of implosion.
In the last paragraph of "Borat: The Memo," the intern suggests a scene for the sequel to the movie:
As audience leaves theatre having just seen "Borat" we film them as they are sprayed with a stinging toxic foam, which drives them into paroxysms of itching, which causes them to strip naked; then we release seventy or eighty "attack dogs," at which time we approach, asking for donations for AIDS relief in Africa. This could be classic!
Saunders has only written three collections of short stories and has already primed himself to make an enormous impact, though only time will show whether, as the intern says:
People [will] finally see, once and for all. . . . what hypocrites Americans really are. SEE ALSO: www.inpersuasionnation.com
SEE ALSO: www.georgesaundersland.com
A longtime infrequent contributor to LAS, Neil David Burkey is a painter, writer, sculptor and all-around artistic type. He currently lives in London, England, where he is, at long last, a legal resident.
See other articles by N.D. Burkey.
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