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Discomfort zone

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

In the three collections of stories and one novella that he has published over the last 11 years, George Saunders has evinced little interest in his characters’ motivations. His protagonists are generally passive and self-pitying. They display as little complexity as those with whom they interact, who themselves tend to be either crudely cruel or stupid or both. However bizarre their adventures, Saunders’ characters learn little, although circumstances do occasionally present them with new evidence of their own pettiness, or the true depths of their despair. By story’s end, his creations have won no redemption, unless you count death, but even that usually arrives as another humiliation.

Don’t get me wrong. What I mean to say is that Saunders is one of the funniest, bravest and most interesting writers currently publishing fiction in mainstream American outlets. I’m not sure we deserve him, but we are lucky to have him. In a literary culture relentlessly orthodox in its demand that fiction be character-driven, redemptive and moral in the most simplistic of senses, Saunders spurns the accepted dogma, churning out viciously satiric parables that manage to be both hilarious and powerfully sad. If he skims over the convolutions of the individual psyche, it’s because he has his eyes on other quarry. Saunders’ prey, squirm if you must, is us.

The fun-house mirror can be more revealing than the one above the bathroom sink, and for all its distortions, the world of Saunders’ stories is recognizably, nightmarishly, our own. He paints a middle-class America taken to its logical extreme, with nothing left but empty consumer pleasures, advertising fantasies and a grim corporate ethic that can be summarized in two short words: Get yours! Theme parks figure largely, usually (as in the title story of his first collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”) in a state of serious dilapidation: A vigilante stalks teen gangs among the historic re-creations, a child is shredded by the wave-making machine. (“I think oh jeez, not another patron death on my hands,” worries one character.) There are “innovative edible plastic products,” a television show called “How My Child Died Violently,” a virtual reality module called “Violated Prom Queen.” There are see-through cows.

Did I suggest this was satire? It feels, too often, realer than the real. The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard coined the term “hyper-reality” to deal with preoccupations such as these, but reading Saunders’ fictions is a lot more fun, and more discomforting. There is no aloof detachment here. Grounding Saunders’ manic vision is a profound sense of mournfulness. “Even the heavens have fallen into disrepair,” observes a century-old ghost in one story. It’s just the smog, the narrator assures us, but we know better.

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So it’s no surprise that in the title chapter of “The Braindead Megaphone,” his new book of essays, Saunders asks, “Have we gone entirely to hell?” He answers quickly: no, not quite, not yet. For Saunders’ nonfiction persona is more optimistic than the one guiding his stories. It is more reasonable, more polite and, gulp, far less appealing. Taming his boldness, muting his outrage, Saunders reveals himself here to be a good and liberal humanist, which would be fine, except that it was his perversity that won our hearts.

“The Braindead Megaphone” is more of a grab bag than its subtitle suggests. It does include a few actual essays -- notably the title chapter and three loving elegies to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme, all writers important to Saunders’ work -- but also articles that Saunders wrote for GQ, reporting from Nepal, Dubai and the U.S.-Mexican border. Some pieces are closer to fiction than to non-: “Ask the Optimist” parodies an advice column, updating Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” for the age of corporate good cheer (“Don’t worry about it! It’s all good!”). Saunders throws in a funny if excessively cute letter from a dog to its master and an excessively cute but not very funny parody of a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It’s in that title essay that Saunders directly takes on the issues with which he grapples more obliquely in his short stories: the sheer dumbness of commercial media discourse, the desiccation of the imagination and the narrowing of cultural possibilities that follow from it. The essay takes its name from one of the hyperbolically extended metaphors of which Saunders is fond. “Imagine a party. . . . ,” he begins. “Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.” In fact, he’s a blathering idiot. “But he’s got that megaphone.” He dominates all other conversations, sets the topic and the tone, puts “an intelligence-ceiling” on the affair. After a short leap, we’re in Baghdad, “led by Megaphone Guy, via ‘Countdown to Slapdown in the Desert!’ ” The megaphone guy is not just George W. Bush -- he is also Bill O’Reilly and Diane Sawyer and all the “Opinion Kings,” left, right, and nowhere, who paid more rigorous attention to the postmortem contents of Anna Nicole Smith’s intestines than to that business about weapons of mass destruction. Saunders’ diagnosis is generally correct (“Is some of our media very stupid? Hoo boy”), but it is not particularly original. The usual suspects are to blame: a privileged media elite beholden to a few corporate behemoths, and the rest of us for not complaining.

But after all the alarmism (which is not unwarranted), Saunders’ prescription for change is pale and flaccid: “awareness of the Megaphonic tendency, and discussion of same.” Slow down, he suggests, try to be as “intelligent, and humane as possible.” His solution -- “small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic” -- may be suitable for a writer with time on his hands and a truly messy intellectual tangle to unravel but not for the crisis he describes: a society led contentedly from mass delusion to mass murder.

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Saunders’ reportage suffers from similarly pulled punches. What could be a more perfect stomping ground for George Saunders the Journalist than the city of Dubai, artificial playground for the super-rich, built and maintained by the super-exploited? The absurdities are naked: man-made islands shaped like palm trees, a seven-star hotel, a desert water park called Wild Wadi, a majority population of imported South Asian laborers without any political rights whatsoever -- this is the very “belly of radical Theming”! Handed such material in his fiction, Saunders would be nothing short of ruthless. Here, he meanders self-consciously, apologetically. The surrealism gets lost in the shuffle, the realism too. He closes with confused clichés: “Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts. . . . “

An article on the U.S.-Mexican border has its high points. Saunders crosses into Nuevo Laredo and back: “My nation appears in that moment as a very clean, anxiety-clenched fist, in the grip of which I feel comfortable and happy.” The Minutemen can’t help but look ridiculous. But here too, Saunders tries too hard to like and be liked, and he loses his grip on what’s at stake. Perhaps he’s following his own anti-Megaphonic counsel, attempting to whisper rationally despite the clamor around him, but he succeeds instead in not saying much at all. *


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