I am a big fan of George Saunders’ short stories, having really enjoyed Tenth of December and Civilwarland in Bad Decline. In Persuasion Nation is another thematically linked collection which explores a world, somewhat like our own, where consumerism and advertising have taken over and individuality is being crushed in favour of conformity.
Split into four sections, each starts with a quotation from a fictional self-help book by Bernard ‘Ed’ Alton, called ‘Taskbook for a New Nation’ and this new nation is one where persuasion is all.
In these stories, the individual is pitted against the monolith of advertising and any kind of non-conformity is discouraged. It is a brave new world; parents buy computerised masks for their babies, to make them more articulate and interesting – a commodity to show off to friends. In ‘My Flamboyant Grandson’ advertising is tailored specifically for the individual and consumption has become a patriotic act. Try to avoid the advertising in any way and you are slapped with a hefty fine. A good citizen is a consuming citizen.
In one of the strongest stories, ‘Jon’, children are taken from their homes and grow up in a training camp where they become elite trendsetters, shaping advertising trends and becoming celebrities into the bargain.
In the longest, central story ‘Brad Corrigan: American’ we are in a Truman Show style nightmare, where reality television has gone to extremes in order to keep viewers and everyone is living life as a reality television contestant in their own show. In this environment, viewing figures are all and cancellation becomes a life-or-death issue.
On FinalTwist, five college friends take a sixth to an expensive Italian restaurant, supposedly to introduce him to a hot girl, actually to break the news that his mother is dead. This is the InitialTwist. During the dessert they are told that, in fact, all of their mothers are dead. This is the SecondTwist. The ThirdTwist is, not only are all their mothers dead, the show paid to have them killed, and the fourth and FinalTwist is, the kids have just eaten their own grilled mothers.
The majority of the stories here are surreal and darkly funny, capturing perfectly the ad-speak and euphemism that has invaded our lives through television and social media. Saunders has spliced together a future way of speaking which is both unreal and surprisingly recognisable.
No matter how surreal the worlds he depicts are, Saunders smart social commentary explores how individual lives become deformed and defined by commercial interests, whether we are aware of it or not. He is particularly good at examining how boundaries shift in small, stealthy ways until a new world order has been accepted.
In ‘93990’ a scientific study into the effect of poison on monkeys is derailed by one resilient specimen who is seemingly unaffected by that which is killing his fellow creatures, leading the scientists to unethical decisions. In ‘The Red Bow’ a man, whose daughter has been killed by an infected dog, harnesses the power of one dramatic symbol to convince his townsfolk to cull other infected dogs. What starts with a culling of just infected dogs soon escalates, until all creatures are being slaughtered. What began as a wish to protect children becomes a sanctioned movement with rules and fines for non-compliance.
In time we did in fact have to enact some very specific rules regarding the physical process of extracting the dogs and-or cats from a home where the owner was being unreasonable – or the fish, birds, whatever – and also had to assign specific penalties should these people, for example, assault one of the Animal Removal Officers, as a a few of them did, and finally also had to issue some guidelines on how to handle individuals who, for whatever reason, felt it useful to undercut our efforts, by, you know, obsessively and publicly criticizing the Five and Six Point Plans, just very unhappy people.
Not all the stories here are successful. The title tale ‘In Persuasion Nation’ is the most unusual piece and features a world where adverts fight back. It is a clever premise and despite featuring a scene where Abe Lincoln is attacked by a giant live chicken sandwich, it lacks the humanity and therefore the accessibility of his other stories. 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.
The ones that work best are the ones which focus on a protagonists attempt to hold on to a piece of humanity amid a world gone mad. In ‘comcomm’ a son needs to break the truth to his parents that they are actually ghosts who have yet to realise that they are dead, while in ‘Christmas’ a roofer gambles away all his wages despite knowing he need the money for presents for his children, because that is the role he has been assigned in life.
What pervades all these stories is a sense of powerlessness of the individual against the machine and the collection comes to feel like a warning of how society could become if large corporations remain unchecked. It sounds heavy, but Saunders is a very witty writer and there is a lot of humour, albeit dark in these pages.
What he does best in his short stories is present a world which readers will find repellent, whilst also realising that to some extent that very world already exists.
With his ear for language and his sharp skewering of human and corporate relations, like all good satirists his real subject is the present and he deftly captures the uneven power dynamic between the individual and the corporation. A totalitarian state is never far away in these stories and Saunders has wittily captured the tipping points, where compliance becomes acceptance, which in turn becomes law.
While I found this collection less compelling than his other books, Saunders takes risks and even if they don’t pay off, his work is never anything less that interesting and entertaining.
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20 Books of Summer: 18/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!