Review Of Civilwarland In Bad Decline, by George Saunders

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/30/06


  Every so often I come across a writer I think will be bad, due to an image they cultivate, but turns out to be a good one, just as there are writers I think will be good, via reputation or personal recommendations, that turn out to be atrocious. Then, there are writers that split the difference. For example, a few months back I came across a slim volume of short stories called Civilwarland In Bad Decline, by George Saunders, at a local book discounter. It was only a couple of bucks, so I decided to give it a chance. In reading the opening and closing paragraphs of the stories, and seeing numerous ill-phrased lines, I felt that this writer was going to be the typical wannabe PC badass sort of writer that recrudescence like TC Boyle or Dave Eggers are, just from his hipster posing on the book’s cover, replete with coonskin cap, to his staccato cooler than thou pacing and short sentence structures. I figured it would give me a chance to write a humorously negative review, where I can show off that the H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain vein of criticism is alive and kicking.

  I was wrong, but only partly so. This book contains six short stories and a long novella. Three of the short stories are fairly good, and after having read the first half of the book one night, which was a pleasant surprise, I was hopeful that the second half would be as good. It wasn’t. Not even close. This is because Saunders is a very limited writer, in form and scope. At his best, his tales are quirky and humorous- in ways that would be humorists like David Sedaris or David Foster Wallace simply have never been. He also tends to write about worn down palooka sorts, but much more engagingly, and less bathetically, than, say, someone like Thom Jones. But, once his load is shot, there’s not much else to choose from. His stories become very formulaic. And if one can detect a writer’s formula in a mere seven stories, this does not bode well for a writer’s future, as even some of his online fans have groused that while they appreciate his unique takes on things, he and those takes are very repetitive.

  The book came out ten years ago, in January of 1996, published by Random House, then released in paperback by Riverhead Books, and boasts of being named a New York Times Notable Book Of The Year in 1996. Its official title is CivilWarLand In Bad Decline: Stories And A Novella. The titular story, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, was originally published in the Kenyon Review, in fall of 1992, and it sets the mood of all these tales, being set in a near future theme park filled with losers, where the main character dies with a shitload of guilt over an act that occurs in the body of the tale.

  Isabelle, was originally published in the Indiana Review in April, 1994, the reprinted in Harper’s, in September of 1994. It starts out strongly, then tails off. Yet, it has enough interesting points, as does the first story, to make one believe Saunders has great potential, even if his stories, as a whole, fail to cohere into something special. The third story, The Wavemaker Falters, was published in Witness, in November, 1993. It’s the best tale yet, but a pattern is clearly emerging, and one beyond the fact that these tales are part of a larger story cycle. It deals with yet another loser in the slightly futuristic setting of the first two tales, and he also feels guilt, this time over an accidental death he caused, only to find redemption in the end. The bulk of the story is very engaging, but the ending bogs down in predictability and cliché. I saw it coming the minute a minor character threatened the main character. All the other tales are similarly placed in time and space.

  The best tale in the book occurs directly midway. It is the fourth story, called The 400-Pound CEO, published in Harper’s, in February of 1993. Again, it follows another loser, this time an obese man with small dreams, who works in a specious business- the trapping and releasing of raccoons into ‘safe’ environments, when really they club the rodents to death- around the futuristic theme park, and has a quirky, macabre humor going, until yet another odd death occurs. Although the end is very predictable, it is quite well phrased, and thus clearly allows this short story to be the best tale in the book, and quite a good one on its own, although far from great. Yet, the Saunders ‘formula’ is by now clear. Follow a dumb post-Apocalyptic loser through his quirky and humorous travails. Watch as things get worse, due to his own stupidity, and total ruin threatens, then a sudden epiphany near the end redeems some prior awful deed, and seems to make everything worth living for.

  The rest of the tales, which brink no deviation from the above formula, get progressively worse. Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz, published in The New Yorker, on October 5th, 1992, is a tepid tale with a couple of good scenes, and a sweet ending. It follows a futuristic scenario of offloading people’s memories for resale as Virtual Reality usage. Nice idea, poorly executed, but a sweet ending. Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign Of Terror first saw light in Quarterly West, their Spring 1992 issue, and again follows the Saunders formula to a T, but with none of the high points the earlier tales possess, and the book ends with a novella called Bounty, published in the April, 1995 Harper’s, and which won the 1995 National Magazine Award for Fiction. This is surprising only because it is clearly the worst tale in the book, a small comic piece masquing as a ninety plus page novella. It follows a typical Saunders loser, a clawed-footed narrator in the near future who is one of The Flaweds (brilliant irony, I tell you!), who flees slavery under The Normals that now run society, to find his sister. He then realizes that the fast food chain McDonald’s (a cheap commentary) is really the center of a cult called the Church Of Appropriate Humility, better known as The Guilters. Corporations and religions are evil- wow, deep, George. You can pretty much see the dull and lazy DFW-like end coming from afar.

  Overall, the book was better than I initially thought, but after my first night of reading, it really disappointed me. I almost hoped for something like TC Boyle’s dull tales, or David Foster Wallace’s horrid, from stem to stern, crap. Although Saunders is a better short story writer than those two overrated hacks, that there were so many opportunities for him to ‘raise his game’ and know he instead chose the easy way out, suggests that he really is a very limited writer, as even his own fans lament that fact. One simply has to mature beyond dystopian fantasies, where pickled fetuses and dying mules are seen as funny or presenting any real social commentary. His prose, and his narrators, tend to be off the rack losers, with little variation in tone or definition. In a sense, he is a modern Jorge Luis Borges, and suffers from all the seemingly inbred and stillborn ills that writer’s short fiction suffered from. The more you read of either writer the less original they seem and the more limited their cosmos, for everything blurs into a gray predictability, as it soon becomes evident that Saunders is derivative, most often, of himself. Thus, what may at first seem like satire is really incidental. It’s like making the error that the kid who makes fart sounds with his hands and armpits is really saying something deep rather than merely seeking attention.

  Given the odd nature of the tales, and their manifest flaws, despite the quality that pops up here and there, it should not come as a surprise that the reason Saunders rocketed to success was not because of the tales’ quality, nor big magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker, seeing that quality, but because his creative writing program instructor at Syracuse University was the published writer Tobias Wolff, who got his work published in those mags, and- what else?- blurbed heartily for the book, such as this: ‘(Saunders) has created a surreal, weirdly persuasive picture of the devolved future now taking shape in our own worst and most potent tendencies.’ Thomas Pynchon and the execrable Garrison Keillor likewise open wide and suck deeply.

  If anyone really thinks that Saunders’ ‘vision’ is persuasive, or within the realm of possibilities in the near term, they are a crack addict. Period. Saunders is, in a sense, very much like the New Yorker/Harper’s/Atlantic Monthly writers of the past. Reading their tales every so often makes one feel they are original, and better than most of the PC and PoMo dreck that is regurgitated today, but when their tales are collected together their homogeneity is manifest, and what seems daring when alone in one story, merely becomes a predictable version of a mere gimmick that may or may not work in one of a continuum of tales.  He is thus almost an O. Henry type writer, a century on, with the flaws and pluses such a genre writer has. He is capable of an almost clipped poetry, as when, instead of rhapsodizing on a sunset the way another writer might, he merely tosses if off, in The 400-Pound CEO, this way, ‘Big clouds roll in. Birds light on the dumpster and feed on substances caked on the lid.’ But, this is not the realm of magical realism, in the Latin American sense, merely comic book level pathetic irony, thus the humor is never of the guffawing type, merely the gross out sort, just as the extent of his social critique comes in lines like this, from the title tale: ‘Their gimmick is a fully stocked library on the premises and as you tan you call out the name of any book you want to these high-school girls on roller-skates.

  Since this book was better than I thought it would be, I will marginally recommend it, but any reader with clarity of mind will get bored midway through, and read on merely to confirm what they feel will happen to certain characters actually does. When they’re proven right they’ll momentarily feel pleased, then realize that is not the sort of positive feeling one wants to have when reading a story, and feel cheated. I was cheated, as Saunders has great potential but is only a barely passable writer. Yet, in life and the arts, potential means nothing, execution is everything. So, too, in the rackets, and as Saunders is a skilled con, I hope his later works fulfill more of the points that these bones rolled.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]

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