The decaying theme park CivilWarLand finds itself hiring a mentally deranged Vietnam War veteran to protect the park from gangs; an obese employee at a faux-humane raccoon pest control agency suffers ridicule from his coworkers; a man working at a wave-making machine suffers the emotional repercussions of having accidentally killed a boy. These are the base situations of three of George Saunders’ six stories and a novella in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It is his first collection published in 1996 and written over the course of about seven years while working as a tech writer at a corporate office in New York. The collection puts characters in a strange dystopian era of America to mimic the true downfall in real American morals.
This is Saunders’ first short story collection, so the fact that two of these stories were some of the best I’ve read makes me excited to explore his more recent and mature works. His best story has to be The 400-Pound CEO. Its title is absurd and led me to believe I would be reading a more comic piece (after the three relentlessly cruel and depressing stories before it), but of course, this was not at all the case. The story worked on two levels: a critique of the capitalist corporate office and a beautifully tender look at the mental toll one goes through from ridicule whether that be fat-shaming or some other perceived difference from the norm. These two themes intertwine perfectly – how the ridicule placed all on the surface-level flaws of the corporate underlings (flaws that cause no one else harm) are thought to be the most base and disgusting. Whereas, those secret underground, masochistic flaws are being exhibited by the CEO yet are something no one can truly see, understand, or critique (without punishment). In the end, we see a laborers paradise, where the corporate workplace is now formed to care for the employees more than profit. But, as would happen in America, this is overthrown before it even finds its roots. The story then ends in one of the most moving passages I can recall (it is long, but worth reading again):
I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable.
Maybe the God we see, the God who calls the daily shots, is merely a subGod. Maybe there’s a God above this subGod, who’s busy for a few Godminutes with something else, and will be right back, a when he gets back will take the subGod by the ear and say, “Now look. Look at that fat man. What did he ever do to you? Wasn’t he humble enough? Didn’t he endure enough abuse for a thousand men? Weren’t the simplest tasks hard? Didn’t you sense him craving affection? Were you unaware that his days unraveled as one long bad dream?” And maybe as the subGod slinks away, the true God will sweep me up in his arms, saying: My sincere apologies, a mistake has been made. Accept a new birth, as a token of my esteem.
And I will emerge again from between the legs of my mother, a slighter and more beautiful baby, destined for a different life, in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner.
The title story, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, is the other brilliant one in this collection. It looks at a decaying America obsessed with war. It shows the breaking down of the family and the city, the value money holds over human life, how the history of the US has brought about gangs and crime yet how we deal with them severely as if we ourselves are innocent – simply trying to preserve our tradition. Our narrator is an example of the moral toll this type of society can and does lead to. The deaths of many in this country are not always directly on our hands, but they stem from the society that we are ok with maintaining if it gives us that shot at the supposed American Dream. They stem from our desire to succeed independent of the suffering of others, from our viewpoint of work holding far more importance than any other aspect of our lives, from the inability of the average employee to stand up to those above them. And again, we see these conclusions come to light in an astounding ending reflecting on mortality, morality, love, loss, death, and regret.
I’ll keep my thoughts brief on the other stories as the two previous ones are the stories that truly struck me. Isabelle was a tender and incredibly brief story about finding love and meaning in a world filled with pointlessness and a coming urban blight. It touches on the racial violence so pervasive in the police force and the de-gentrification of certain communities in order to form ghettos. The story does provide a glimmer of hope at the end, but only for those white characters, which, while the hope is satisfying, should absolutely feel unfair and almost underserved with everything happening around them. The Wavemaker Falters is a great story that succeeds in many of the same ways that CivilWarLand does, but it is a bit too close to the plot and themes of that story which made me feel like I was just reading a less polished version of it. If I would have read it before CivilWarLand, is still wouldn’t have liked it as much, but I may have liked it more. Offloading Mrs. Schwartz was a beautiful look at memory and loss, yet the world that was built around the plot was strangely formed to where I did not find myself fully understanding his purpose until far too late in the story. It may merit a reread now that I do have a better understanding of it, but it didn’t initially interest me like his others.
The final short story, Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror was Saunders’ look at our treatment of the elderly. Again, like all the short stories in the book, it is beautiful, heartfelt, and powerful. However, the level of bleakness reached in this one makes me question why such lengths were necessary. Of course, America isn’t a hopeful place for certain groups so that may be his reasoning. Yet, much of the time a glimmer of hope or a hint at a solution can not just make the story less depressing, but more powerful overall. Finally comes the novella, Bounty. It is an allegory on our view of outsiders in America: those of different races, religions, disabilities, etcetera. It shows the powerlessness these parties experience from those that truly hate them and those that, while they don’t hate them or see them as lesser humans, willingly benefit off of their suppression. It is also the story of these parties struggling between their own personal, safer happiness and that fighting for the happiness of their own people with their own possible demise. Now, I do think this may have worked better as a short story rather than a full-length novella (as some of the scenes felt repetitively bleak) but that does not take away from the fact that it tackles one of the more difficult aspects of American society, revealing its hidden and disgusting nature, but providing beauty and hope as well.
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