20) Civilwarland Is In Bad Decline by George Saunders
I’m a big fan of George Saunders and, as I think I said in my review of Lincoln In The Bardo (his Booker-winning novel of 2017), I’m a particular fan of his short stories: Tenth of December and A Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil are both wonderful collections. So this collection, his first, was on my lengthy Christmas list of books and, thanks to my Dad, arrived as part of a hefty pile.
It’s great and entertaining stuff right from the off: Civilwarland is a theme park and, my word, it is in bad decline. Saunders has a wonderful, creative mind and is brilliant at plunging the reader in medias res as it is all kicking off. What’s wonderful about the scenarios and locations he paints is that they are just enough in touch with present reality to feel like a realistic future – indeed, many of the stories feel like they inhabit the logical endpoint of a Trump-ian America, populated by division, violence, struggle and capitalist excess.
The story that stuck with me the most, even more than the title story and the novella ‘Bounty’ that ends the book, was ‘Offloading for Mrs Schwartz’ which manages to be somehow simultaneously bleak, comic, poignant, dystopian and moving. Which is no small feat for a story about downloading (and wiping) our personal histories and memories as learning modules for schools. The main character of that story is one of the most selfless in the collection, but even he is in pure service to the money that he needs (to help someone else), and living in a time where there seem to be no ways out.
So, be warned: this isn’t full of sweetness and light, and it isn’t always as well-achieved as some of his later stories. But it is dark and very funny with great characters, and has countless moments of “well, that could happen if we carry on as we are” which will either prompt a sense of recognition in you or a slight feeling of horror; or both at the same time. For me, that’s Saunders’ genius: his ability to maintain the stories on the edge of plausibility and push us to the boundaries of taste, excess and humour, whilst also making us think about what the hell we are doing right now (and what it means). You can’t ask for much more from a writer and this collection, if anything, seems even more relevant 20+ years on from its initial appearance.
BUY IT NOW: Civilwarland In Bad Decline (Vintage Classics)