There are two reasons to read In Persuasion Nation, the new collection of short stories by George Saunders. One, you will laugh your plump little ass off: Saunders is likely the funniest writer of contemporary fiction going. Two, while you're laughing you'll get a dose of satire that's as corrosive as it is liberating, a cultural critique so thorough as to almost be methodical.
A characteristic Saunders story is indeed about persuasion. But because the sell transpires within the all-engulfing womb of ConsumerWorld, the nominal seller is clearly as sold as the nominal buyer. The key to the transaction is the words they use ... a way of communicating that makes both parties tools of the big machine. Saunders' narrators (most of these stories are first-person) use bureaucratic or marketing language to mask their motives, disavow personal responsibility, pre-empt opposition and stifle thought.
The default mode is denatured mall-speak, with its passive bullying and needily needling interrogatives. Opening story "I Can Speak!TM," for example, comprises a letter from a sales rep to a woman dissatisfied with a programmable electronic mask that gives her infant son the illusion of coherent speech.
Or say your dog comes up and gives Derek a lick? You might make
Derek say (if your dog's name is Queenie, which our dog's name is
Queenie): "QUEENIE, GIVE IT A REST!" Which, you know what?
Makes you love him more. Because suddenly he is articulate. Suddenly
he is not just sitting there going glub glub glub while examing a piece
of his own feces on his own thumb, which is something we recently
found our Billy doing.
The rep's ingratiation, his condescension, even his attempts to humanize himself, all in the interest of moving product, are funny. But the humor illuminates a culture in which mere humanity is inadequate, and even babies are considered marketing opportunities, incomplete without digital enhancement and an easily commodified personality.
Other stories are likewise set in the barely-future, satire enhancing the plausible. In "My Flamboyant Grandson," devices called "Everly Readers" scan special strips in the shoes of the old man and his grandson visiting Times Square, assaulting the pair with holographic sales pitches keyed to their consumer preferences; or, as the aggrieved grandfather puts it, "telling me things about myself I already knew."
A suite of stories bordering on parable also blaze word-trails to self-justification. The narrator of "The Red Bow," his daughter bizarrely killed by rabid dogs, follows his onetime layabout Uncle Matt into a fanaticism of canine extirpation, rallying an entire suburban community around the irrefutable and infinitely malleable symbol of the dead girl's hair bow. ("Could be fine," says Matt of one dog. "But also could be he's sick but just at an early stage.") In the hysterically funny slapstick allegory "Adams," a paranoid man launches a series of pre-emptive "wonks" against his hated next-door neighbor: "Now we're even, he said. I came in your house and you came in mine.
"Only I had pants on, I said, and mini-wonked him in the back of head."
If one of this collection's few flaws is the inclusion of two stories in the form of letters by unself-aware narrators, a key strength is Saunders' ability to confound our sense of what's articulate. His characters blindly function within, or struggle to free themselves from, the warm pliant envelopes of focus-grouped consumerdom or false, with-us/against-us political dichotomies. But like the phlegmatic lab drone in the brutally efficient dark comedy "93990," in doing so they both express their condition and inadvertantly critique it.
The conflict is reified in the science-fictional "Jon," in which a teen-ager who has known life only as an institutionalized, literally plugged-in test-marketer for consumer products must decide whether to join his pregnant girlfriend in casting himself from this digital/pharmacological Eden. The lovers' very imaginations have been colonized by their Matrix-like immersion: "Then she touched my face very tender and said, The suspense of waiting is over and this year's Taurus far exceeds expectations already high in this humble farming community."
Among Saunders' best is the post-postmodern "Brad Corrigan, American," its titular hero a person/character inhabiting an existential twilight between TV and life ... a "real" situation comedy, manipulated by unseen forces, whose premises and values Brad begins to question, in vain. While a few stories in Persuasion Nation permit simple humanity to triumph, however, the terms of Brad's life are irrevocable: As in Saunders' America, life in a sitcom-world of endless material surplus, where everyone is motivated by greed and vanity, cannot change, even when the real real world impolitely intrudes in the form of the charred ... but still verbal ... corpses of ill-fated foreigners.
Saunders' tour de force, the title story, begins by describing a series of television commercials in which the highest values are avarice and cruelty in the single-minded pursuit of pre-packaged snack foods. "In Persuasion Nation" quickly evolves, however, to depict a revolt of abused ad characters against their oppressors, explore the metaphysics of the brand logo and ultimately ... again ... test the limits of challenging the rules of a rigged game.
Just when you think Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University, has ridden his particular train of thought to the line's end, the collection closes with "CommComm." The narrator is a Department of Defense spinmeister handling obnoxious co-workers, construction-site mishaps and two senile parents. But one co-worker turns homicidal, the parents are really ghosts, and Saunders renders the pathos of his hero's reliance on self-help tapes even as he spoofs it. Ringing with notes you didn't imagine Saunders hitting, "CommComm" is both empathetic and coruscatingly funny, a comic but deeply poetic mystery.