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George Saunders – American satirist par excellance

The mutual hatred that’s shared between France and America is a little amusing. In American eyes, the French are a bunch of ungrateful effete snobs who would be speaking German today if it wasn’t for American intervention. As for the French, well, there’s a reason why they love Jerry Lewis – that’s how the French view Americans. This is despite the shared participation in both of their respective revolution of the 18th Century.

Both of these bigotries are unrealistic, as ethnic hatred has a tendency to be. These are massive, complex states that have undergone insurrections, wars, turmoil, economic and social disasters, and a perpetual battle between right and left. George Saunders represents the truest essence of Independence Day in America, with an emphasis of the former word.

Saunders started out on the wrong foot. Saunders was an Ayn Rand Republican, born and raised in that Democratic bastion, Chicago. He went to Indonesia to practice his craft as an industrial engineer, working on resource exploitation in the coal mines of the third world. It was here that Saunders had a revelation: The right wingers that he was working with, these noble builders of worlds in the Randian sense, were in fact “stinkers”. Selfish, racist scum with little regard for anyone. They beat or had sex with the local kids, spent their money on booze and drugs, and generally obliterated any heroic notions you may have had about them. Saunders went back to the States a changed man.

His writing also changed. Saunders was no longer the self-serious, self-avowed “Hemingway-slut” that he was before the trip. Instead, he began writing nonsensical sketches, which gradually warped into the full blown stories and essays that are under examination here. While some are darker than others, they share a mutual admiration/despair for America, ruthlessly skewering the neo-liberal ideology and consumerism that have led the country astray.

In Persuasion Nation is certainly the bleaker of the two. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s funny in the sense of “Laugh so you don’t cry”; these stories hit very close to home, especially for North Americans. That’s the point of course – the purpose of decent agitprop is to enrage the spectator to the point where they actually get off their respective asses and do something. Still, there’s a sliver of despair throughout all of these stories, a cold wind directly from Ingmar Bergman country.

The Braindead Megaphone is moderately more hopeful, and at the very least more entertaining. If In Decision Nation attacked consumerism, The Braindead Megaphone went after the jingoistic, mindless state of the media in America. The title essay is worth the price of admission alone – I have never read a more ferocious, insightful attack on the Western media in my life. “Ask the Optimist” is another wonderful short story, skewering America’s predilection towards looking on the bright side, even if it means ignoring blatant, disturbing facts that point otherwise.

One more thing to impart before I go: America is a vast country, and while the international image may still be one of Sarah Palin appearing on CNN, there’s so much more to this republic than mere right-wing, consumerist nationalism. George Saunders exemplifies this notion. The American spirit of independence is still alive, and can be found in this skewering of America itself.

Next week we’ll be exploring the preeminent satirist of the US, and of Saunders himself – Mark Twain. Bastille Day in France is on the way as well, so expect more revolutionary fervor.

 

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