BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Turning to the Future to Explore Our Current Condition : CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE: Stories and a Novella by George Saunders; Random House; $21, 183 pages

TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Like George Orwell, George Saunders writes in the future to show the latent illnesses of the present. This George, however, has learned his prose in a very different school. His severe social message is couched in the post- modern whimsicalities and absurdities of a newer master, the late Donald Barthelme. In the smithy of his soul, Saunders forges the uncreated consciousness of the times, using a Styrofoam hammer, grape-colored, to pound on Silly Putty.

The six stories and a novella of "Civilwarland in Bad Decline" extrapolate America, and find nothing at all good in it. Saunders uses theme parks gone mad, a virtual-reality video store, and an animal-rescue society run by a gangster. The novella presents a futurist America whose millions of "Flaweds"--genetically deformed as a result of unchecked environmental destruction--are isolated, jailed, lynched or enslaved. Saunders has attempted a surreal capitalist version of "1984" or "Animal Farm."

In some respects, he succeeds. Any 50 pages of "Civilwarland" are quite dazzling. Saunders can be wickedly ingenious and very funny. He takes a conversational line and disrupts it into comic disquiet. He takes the dismal commonplaces of our times--unemployment, crime, the disparities of rich and poor, ecological degradation, and fashions in self-realization and man-woman relations--and gives them an absurd half-turn into near-lunacy.

The theme park in the title story re-creates America in the mid-19th century. Visitors can see bits of the Civil War reenacted, take a look at a section of the Erie Canal, tour a saloon. The place is under continual attack by youth gangs. For security, the owner hires a Vietnam veteran with a reputation as a killer. He hides in the woods and shoots a half-dozen of the young toughs. He also shoots three bird-watchers and cuts off the hand of a boy who steals candy.

The narrator, assistant to the park's owner, protests mildly but goes along each time when the owner threatens to fire him. He needs to support his wife and children, he argues--though she leaves him anyway--and there are no other jobs. Massive unemployment and its demoralizing effect on individual values is a theme that runs through several of the stories.

"The Wavemaker Falters" takes place in another theme park; this one dedicated to the pristine outdoors. The trees are synthetic, though, the boulders made of foam rubber, and the trout stream is stocked with fiberglass fish. Farther up the mountain is the Center for Wayward Nuns--those with religious doubts and other problems. "The singing from up there never exactly knocks your socks off," the narrator says. "It's very conditional singing, probably because of all the doubt."

The narrator is under a cloud because he left the filter off the wave machine at the pool and a little boy was torn to pieces. His wife takes up with his boss when the incident leaves him impotent. He is visited every night by the boy's ghost (There was also a family of ghosts in the previous story; Saunders uses them as choral protest), who insists on talking about the future he might have had: dating, senior proms, zits. "Have a nice day," he says at the end of each materialization. At the end, the narrator is out in a storm, railing at his fate. "My torn and black heart rebels, saying enough already, enough, this is as low as I go."

Several of the protagonists rebel. One is the 400-pound employee of "Humane Raccoon Alternatives," a company that traps the animals and promises homeowners to release them in the wilderness, while slaughtering them instead. After his ex-convict boss torments him unbearably about his weight, he kills him. In jail, the employee reasons that God has gone off duty, leaving a substitute in charge; when He returns he will arrange for him to be born again--thin, this time.

In "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz," the operator of a failing virtual-reality operation--it gives its customers vicarious sex, violence and nostalgia trips--finds a way to keep solvent and support an impoverished old woman. He downloads her memory, and then his own, and sells the modules to a school for a contemporary history course.

Saunders is an imaginative ironist and an inventive absurdist, and for a while the collection is a delight. But it has two defects. One is the author's small gift for narration. "Bounty," in which a Flawed escapes and treks across America, is a series of scenes set one beside the other without much sense of development. The journey droops and peters out. In the short pieces, development is not so important; but they tend to repeat themes and images.

More seriously, there is little sense of moral engagement. Ever since Swift, "savage indignation" has burned in the social ironist, whatever the fantasy and whimsy of the story. In some cases, Orwell's for example, the indignation flares around a core of compassion. Saunders dances--well--on the edges of both, but when he stops dancing he sinks. The anger in Bounty's tour of America tends to ground its spark instead of feeding it. Compassion for some of the figures in the stories--the fat man, a dreadfully crippled child--seems an artifice at times; at others, a sentimentality.

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