In 1995, while writing his bleakly satirical debut story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders was a sensitive new father slinging PR for an engineering firm. At one point, it fell to young Saunders to put the right spin on Brookhaven National Labs' local accomplishments. “The groundwater had been contaminated with radio nucleotides,” Saunders explains in a recent phone conversation from his home in upstate New York, where he teaches writing at Syracuse University. “And this was my job for three months, to research all the situations in which a company had spun something awful in a positive way.” His favorite finding? “Kodak was opening a hazardous-waste incinerator in a residential neighborhood, so they threw an ice cream social at the base of the incinerator to show everyone that it wasn't so scary.”
Luckily, Saunders made it out of the distended belly of the publicity/marketing/spin beast, and dropped the caustic, moving CivilWarLand onto the fiction landscape like an A-bomb straddled Strangelove-style by Homer Simpson and George Orwell. In Saunders' vision, America becomes a dystopian spectacle where bizarre theme parks are governed like totalitarian states and a nice young man can be gruesomely beaten to death by a Doritos bag and his own snack-crazed grandparents.
The author's superb new collection, In Persuasion Nation (which he's currently promoting on a book tour; catch him tonight at 7 p.m. at Canvas Gallery), explores that most singular of forces behind the grim festivities at the foot of the Kodak kiln — spin. Saunders is fascinated by the quiet fictions and fantastically awful politics that grow out of “this human ability to take anything you're doing and put spin on it.” In his stories, spin is both the good guy and the bad guy. Corporations and governments employ absurd euphemisms to obscure their misdeeds. Market research firms wire child employees to think in television commercials. At the same time, Saunders' lowly heroes need the comforting language of ads and business jargon to rose-tint their bleak worlds.
In several of Persuasion's stories, the characters have allowed the marketing world to rise up and go haywire. “My Flamboyant Grandson” occurs in an alternate-reality Manhattan where the penal code legally compels each American to “Celebrate His Preferences” by viewing personalized holographic advertisements every few steps. There, a kindly grandfather is hectored by Gene Kelley and Buck Owens to purchase electronics and a Starbucks Country Roast, while his young grandson Teddy sees “only his hero Babar, swinging a monkey on his trunk while saying that his data indicated that Teddy did not yet own a Nintendo.”
In a world where indie hero Spike Jonze creates kick-ass ads for the Gap, and Marvel Comics has attempted to copyright the word “super-hero,” Saunders' nightmare of Times Square sure doesn't feel too far off. If we do reach the point where Babar can personally guilt-trip an 8-year-old about his purchasing habits, though, it will be our own fault. Part of us wants to be told the ice cream social makes the incinerator safe, and that same part of us wants our corn spun into partially hydrogenized snack form. This is what Saunders has called “the daily struggle between capitalism and grace. … If we didn't have that part of us that craved Doritos, then they wouldn't exist.”
In the 10 years since CivilWarLand was written, Saunders' satire has gotten keener, but the sweet, pitiful moments of redemption he writes for his characters are more triumphant. “I've had a fortunate run,” he says, “where the kids are healthy and everybody's happy, and I've had some success but not unreasonable amounts, and I thought, 'Well maybe I'd like to pay credit to that part of life.' The world isn't always this completely irrational, dystopic place that's shitting on you. There's another side of it.”