Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders

Anyone who has read The New Yorker even occasionally over the last two decades will be familiar with the works of George Saunders. His short fiction has become a mainstay in the pages of that venerable magazine and he counts himself along with Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant as one of its most constant and consistently good contributors. In Persuasion Nation, published in 2006, collects many of Saunders recent stories first published in The New Yorker and other leading magazines.

The subject matter of these tales is consumer society, the oppression of advertising, allegories of war, and our willful complicity in the face of technology out of control. These preoccupations are clearly Ballardian in scope, but they come with something that most of Ballard’s work does not – a tongue planted firmly in cheek. Indeed, it is Saunders’ humour that saves many of these stories from the dourness of straight-up dystopia. In tales like “I CAN SPEAK™” - about an artificial face that parents can put over their babies’ faces to make it appear as if they’re talking – or “Adams” – a hilarious suburban allegory for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq – the satire is ratcheted up so tightly that we cannot help but laugh out loud.

Critics have said that Saunders is able to paint a picture of the modern world without losing a sense of its humanity, but I sometimes felt that in this collection didn’t quite live up to that. The cynicism about the current state of America is here, and so is the humour, but I felt that some of these stories were a bit colder, more aloof than they needed to be. In tales like “Jon” and “Christmas,” I sensed there was a gap between myself and the characters (as well drawn as they were) that I could not close.

Still, there’s no denying Saunders’ enormous talent. These are sharp stories about alternative realities and bleak futures that will be give you much to mull over. If for no other reason, you should pick up this book for its final story, “CommComm”, which is a tour de force in quirky (and disturbing) science fiction.

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