Eric Hanson

The first sentence in the first story in the first book George Saunders ever wrote goes like this: "Whenever a potential big investor comes for the tour the first thing I do is take him out to the transplanted Erie Canal Lock."

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It isn't a knock-your-block-off first sentence. Saunders has since written far superior first sentences. But, sitting in the comfortable chair of the future, 11 years after it was published, one can see that that first sentence has all the stuff that would make George Saunders one of the few American writers who gets America. It sounds grandiose, but it's true—there's the "potential big investor," "the tour," and the "transplanted Erie Canal Lock," which are, respectively, commerce, entertainment, and the bizarre cultural death match between the Authentic and the Counterfeit.

The story is called "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and it concerns a rundown historical theme park, its sad-sack employees, its CEO who says things like "superfantastic," a family of ghosts, and a gang of teenage terrorists who wound visitors, kill horses, and tie up an employee and cut notches in his penis. Throughout it are refrains of corporate silliness: "We've got a good ninety feet of actual [Erie] Canal out there and a well-researched dioramic of a coolie campsite. Were our faces ever red when we found out it was actually the Irish who built the Canal. We've got no budget to correct, so every fifteen minutes or so a device in the bunkhouse gives off the approximate aroma of an Oriental meal."

Most of his fiction is like this—stories of sadness and death, told in the nauseatingly breezy language of advertising, brochures, and television. It is so funny, so smart, so shrewdly righteous that it hurts. The blurbs are right. Saunders is obviously in the lineage of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. Now he's got a job at Syracuse University, a column in the Guardian, a MacArthur genius grant, and six books, one of which has been optioned by Ben Stiller. He is, rightly, successful.

But his new book is cause for ambivalence. It's a collection of essays called The Braindead Megaphone. The trouble starts on the cover, a pastiche of three newscasters (a black guy, an Asian lady, and a white guy) all smiling insanely in front of garish backgrounds. THE MEDIA, it screams, IS LIKE A BRAIN-DEAD GUY! WITH A MEGAPHONE! One hopes that the first essay, called "The Braindead Megaphone," isn't exactly what one already thinks it is.

One is disappointed.

Still, Saunders is a great writer, especially when he's fooling around with fantasies. In the title essay, he imagines that "the nightly news may soon consist entirely of tirades by men so angry and inarticulate that all they do is sputter while punching themselves in the face, punctuated by videos of dogs blowing up after eating firecrackers, and dog-explosion experts rating the funniness of videos...." That's funny and has 10 times the power of this banality: "our new braindeadedness has to do, I think, with commerce: the shift that has taken place within our major news organizations towards the corporate model, and away from the public-interest model."

There are some other banal essays about the state of the world and writing-about-writing. (Except for an introduction to Huckleberry Finn, which is very good and has a hilarious first sentence.) But then there are some excellent essays about him-in-the-world, the kind of pointed nonsense that reminds you why you fell in love with George Saunders in the first place. Like the ones about him hanging out with Minutemen at the Mexican border and him going to see a 15-year-old boy in Nepal who has, allegedly, been meditating for seven months without food. And (my favorite) him bewildered in the opulence of Dubai: "like four or five architects had staged a weird-off, with unlimited funds."

Here's the situation—George Saunders writing satire is good; George Saunders writing sincerely about what his satire is getting at is not so good; George Saunders writing nonfiction about him being confused in the world is good. What gives?

This gives: George Saunders is at his best at abstraction and exaggeration. In other words, at being stuck in his own head, which is when most of us are at our worst. The quandaries he wanders into are endlessly illuminating and entertaining; his answers, not so much.

Support The Stranger

George Saunders reads from The Braindead Megaphone at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S Main St, 624-6600) on Sat Sept 8 at 7:30 pm, and it's free.recommended

brendan@thestranger.com