Tuesday, January 26, 2021

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

I have made it a goal to read everything George Saunders has ever written and in another step toward that goal I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, recently. I'm a little behind on my reviews, here, but even as I closed it I was aware that this one would be a difficult book to review. I'll do my best.

Published in 1996, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was George Saunders' first published collection and includes 6 short stories along with a single novella. I had no idea it was a "cherished cult classic" when I bought it but I can see why it is. In reading it well out of publishing order, it's easy to see that Saunders' unique blend of humor, bizarre situations, violence, and fun taking immense jabs at the ridiculousness of life (especially employers) was on full display. 

In this case, most of the stories take place in a kind of amusement park/living history museum, each yet another strange, ridiculous situation with different narrators. 

When I described the title story to my husband, I realized just how incredibly difficult it is to pin down what makes a George Saunders story so special. In "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" an employee describes his frustrations with his job and the problem they're having with roving gangs that are entering the park and causing havoc by breaking things, painting graffiti, etc. As a response to recent gang damage, the boss decides to send a single security guard to watch for the gang members and scare them off but the gang shows up and makes a fool of him. A new employee, however, has the killer instinct and the boss is convinced that he'll be able to do the job. He does a lot more than just frightening off gang members, though, as the new security guard is pretty much an out-of-control psychotic and starts killing people. And, they're not always the bad guys. 

So, I tried to describe that and realized that what I didn't manage to portray at all was George Saunders' sense of humor. There's just something about his unique turn of phrase and how he sets up each situation that combines to make his stories funny and awful and real at the same time. They are fabulous. 

My edition, shown above, is a 2012 printing with a note from the author that is every bit as interesting as the stories themselves. He talks about being a young engineer, sneaking in writing time at work and trying to find his own style through various phases of imitation (James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway) while living through the salad days with his wife and two children. It's immensely moving and actually brought tears to my eyes as he talked about his overwhelming love for his family and how he looks back on those days when he had very little materially but was rich in love. Oh, my goodness, it was just beautiful! Of course, he also talks about how he finally discovered his true writing style and it's also lovely – about how he'd been trying so hard to be a serious writer and when he wrote something that made his wife laugh he realized that it was actually OK to let his sense of humor run free.  

Highly recommended - This particular set of stories requires a bit of a strong stomach for violence, which I don't actually have, and yet I loved them. I think the fact that the bloody and sometimes disgusting scenes are couched in the midst of humor makes them not just bearable but tremendously entertaining. They're twisted and dark and hilarious and gross and bizarre and wacky and so, so good. 

I'm looking for someone to introduce me to George Saunders so I can call him a "friend" and buy his new release. Not happening, so far. I guess I'll have to wait till 2022 to get a copy, unless I can nudge my husband into submission. I have dropped the hint that I'd like an autographed copy from the local indie so many times it's getting ridiculous. 

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  1. He has a new one coming out???

    1. Yes, and it has something to do with his love of Russian writers (something we share): A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Actually, Goodreads says it's already been released.


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