Reading Civilwarland in Bad Decline last week felt worryingly prophetic. George Saunders collection of short stories and a novella feature an America of the future – an America of historical theme parks, environmental disaster, deformed outcasts and a tyrannical government. These theme parks, pastoral compounds of the past, promise refuge and safety from the chaos of the outside world, but only for those who own them or use them. Not for the workers, the different, the Flawed. If this all sounds a little heavy and serious, it may be, but this is also a wickedly funny collection – sharp, witty, stylised and incredibly clever.
The title story is set in Civilwarland – a park that simulates life in the mid-19th century, but could do with a revamp.
When visitors first come in there’s this cornball part where they sit in this kind of spaceship and supposedly get blasted into space and travel faster than the speed of light and end up in 1865. The unit’s dated. The helmets we distribute look like bowls and the paint’s peeling off. I’ve argued and argued that we need to update. But in the midst of a budget crunch one can’t necessarily hang the moon.
The narrator is scared of losing his menial job in the park, so keeps to himself the fact that he is haunted by the ghosts of the McKinnon family who used to work the land and stays quiet when a Vietnam veteran is hired to take care of the gangs of teenage drinkers in the park, with live ammunition. When Civilwarland’s decline comes, it comes fast.
The protagonist of The Wavemaker Falters is also haunted by a ghost, this time, by the ghost of a boy he killed. The unfortunate child got caught in a wave machine at the theme park when the narrator wasn’t paying attention and now they are locked together in a mutually unhappy relationship.
Even though he’s dead, he’s basically still a kid. When he tries to be scary he gets it all wrong. He can’t moan for beans. He’s scariest when he does real kid things, like picking his nose and wiping it on the side of his sneaker
He tries to be polite but he’s pretty mad about the future I denied him
Saunders has a propensity towards the dark side of humour. His characters in this collection are down-trodden – disaffected workers with mean bosses, horrible colleagues and unforgiving spouses. He allows us to hope that things are going to improve for this motley collection of people, but it rarely does. In The 400-Pound CEO, an overweight and bullied worker kills his boss and takes over the company, but his victory is short-lived. In Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror, the titular character’s attempts to take a stand against animal cruelty in the theme park she works in backfire quite spectacularly.
As hard as the lives of his characters are, Saunders always allows them hope – and it is this aspect of the collection that saves it from being merely smart and clever. The danger with Saunders style of story – an outlandish premise, surprising turns of both phrase and plot, clever word-play – is that they can appear shallow, style over substance. But that is not the case here. There is a distance between what the characters dream of and what their reality is and it is within this distance that the reader finds the humanity, the depth and the emotion.
This is seen most clearly in the surprisingly affecting story Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz. Here, the narrator runs a franchise of a virtual reality store where customers can choose their favourite experiences – ‘Legendary American Killers Stalk You’ or ‘Violated Prom Queen’- and briefly enter another world. Another haunted man, our narrator cannot forget his girlfriend who was killed after they had a horrible fight and the guilt of what his last words to her is eating him up. After discovering a way to download people’s memories for profit, he decides to download his own guilt to a disc, giving him a clean slate, a new life. In a final desperate attempt to be a better man, he wipes his memories and replaces them with a note on his sleeve that reads
“Your heart has never been broken. You’ve never done anything unforgivable or hurt anyone beyond reparation. Everyone you’ve ever loved you’ve treated like gold.”
The effect here is Strange Days meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and like both those films is heart-breaking in detailing how far people will go to lose the weight of their grief. This genuine affection for his characters allows Saunders to balance his satirical leanings and present ordinary people in extraordinary situations who are doing the best they can.
The worlds that Saunders presents here, with his ear for language and his sharp skewering of human relations is one of environmental disaster and Darwinism writ large, may be presented as the future but as with all good satirists his real subject is the present and he deftly captures our need to escape into different worlds and different realities in order to avoid the inadequacies of our daily lives.
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