The Brief And Frightening Reign Of Phil, by George Saunders

It's American life, George, but not as we know it... well, not quite
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The Independent Culture

Few US writers take as many risks as George Saunders. His biggest so far is to renounce beauty: Saunders restricts himself to America's chintzy landscape and its vocabulary of bureaucrat-ese and self-empowerment. In this collection, we encounter 12-steppers on the brink of meltdown and theme-park actors impersonating cavepeople, while corporate interests hover like vultures, ready to wring out every last ounce of productivity or income.

The title novella introduces the residents of Inner Horner, a nation so small, just one person can be there. The six other Inner Hornerites must huddle in a "Short Term Residency Zone" carved from land owned by the Outer Hornerites. When natural disaster hits, a familiar escalation follows. A border dispute leads to hostilities, which, stoked by patriotism and dictatorship, culminate in genocide. "We're big, we're energetic, we're generous," says the new demagogue Phil. "If we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous!"

Consumption and growth are an American obsession, and Saunders has targeted just how far men and women will go in pursuit of them. "Jon" describes a world where orphans are auctioned off to a market-research firm that uses them as "Tastemakers & Trendsetters". While the kids are being exploited, the adults are getting hooked on products engendered by their research, from drugs to synthetic happiness. Saunders clearly believes that America's experiment with psychopharmacology has created a population with a tenuous connection to reality. Americans expect good times and have less and less ability to deal with the opposite. Emotions fly from disappointment to rage, then flatline at paranoia. Fear of a lack of happiness, or of success, pervades everything.

Not surprisingly, that can result in violence. In "Adams", a father describes his struggle with a creepy next-door neighbour. If he had that "hate level", then "one night it would overflow and I would sneak into the house of my enemy and stab him and his family in their sleep". Rage has a way of flattening a story: that doesn't happen here, because Saunders also mines a more naturalistic vein. In "Christmas" and "Bohemians", he proves he can narrate without using a single Unnecessary Capitalisation and still bring you to your knees. In other stories, his narrators try their best to hold on to their rage. It defines the one part of them that corporate America does not want.