IN BRIEF

Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders, Cape pounds 9.99.
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The Independent Culture
2 Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders, Cape pounds 9.99. Here is a set of stories that is very strange, very distasteful and, finally, very impressive. We are in a hellish America of the future, frayed by violence, so post-nuclear that its people are almost post-human (in the novella "Bounty" half the population is mutant and reduced to slave-status); or perhaps a present-day America at the extreme end of an arcane metaphor. "Reality" is simulated by hologram; everything from history to pornography, religion to guilt is artificially reproduced; pleasure takes ersatz form: "My first and favourite task of the day is slaving over the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle" begins one story.

Within this would-be world, Saunders sets out the mess of feeling both tender and ferocious, making sweetness and horror ricochet off each other. In "Isabelle", a racist cop devotedly cares for his paraplegic deaf-mute daughter, until a vengeful shotgun blast kills him - but there is redemption to come. In "Offloading for Mrs Schwartz", a porn-simulator grieves for his dead wife, until he finds an altruistic use for suicide. In an early- America theme park haunted by the ghosts of its dead owners and by real- life gangs, the narrator records his own violent end: "Possessing perfect knowledge I hover above him as he hacks me to bits. I see his rough childhood. I see his mother doing something horrid to him with a broomstick. I see the hate in his heart and the people he has yet to kill ..."

If it were less inventive, Saunders's invention might become tiresome. His emotionalism, too, could topple over into sentimentality if he didn't constantly employ violence as a treacle-cutter. In both areas, however, this fascinating writer comes close to the edge and just about gets away with it.

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