Monday, September 10, 2007

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

Review of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders (who, after In Persuasion Nation, I have now given up on for good). Toronto Star, 2006.

To say that it would be easy to parody George Saunders is no insult. It means only that he’s managed to developed a distinctive and recognizable writing style. After all, the American writers who’ve been lampooned the most over the years – with annual contests devoted to the stuff in each case – are Faulkner and Hemingway, which is good company indeed.

The danger, though, is that writers with idiosyncratic voices may start to sound like they’re parodying themselves. Flourishes become habits, and the fresh becomes familiar. Eventually, a highly distilled style that remains more or less unchanged over several books comes to have the same effect as no style at all, so acclimatized do readers become to the author’s tics.

George Saunders is approaching that point. He’s known for his two short-story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, and slightly less known for his excellent children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. His new novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, will seem familiar indeed to readers of his past work.

Partly this is because of the subject matter. Like all of Saunders’ work, Reign of Phil is a black comedy about regular folks struggling to get by in a world that’s vaguely surreal but is still burdened with all the punishing monotony and soul-deadening bureaucracy that marks our own. The main difference is that in the new book, the surreal qualities are more obvious and dramatic.

Reign of Phil is about two countries, Inner Horner and Outer Horner, the former being “so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.” While in Outer Horner, the Inner Hornerites are confined to a Short-Term Residency Zone that’s apparently only a few square feet in size.

Trouble starts when some kind of minor earthquake shrinks the borders of Inner Horner to the point where no one can stand within them, and the seven Inner Hornerites are forced to encroach on Outer Horner land. In response, the local Outer Hornerites “tax” them – stripping them of what little money they have, and after that their clothes – and threaten worse, eventually embarking on a mini-genocide. All of this under the direction of “Phil,” an Outer Hornerite of no particular accomplishment who takes the changed borders as a chance to warmonger his way to leadership.

This is all related in the typical Saunders style, which is marked by some very specific comic devices. There’s the abundance of official terms and labels that the characters have to deal with – like “Short-Term Residency Zone” – and which no one ever seems to shorten, even in casual conversation. There’s the repetition of deliberately clunky phrases like “octagonal shovel-like receptacle.” There are the folksy qualifiers, the use of “That is” to begin explanatory sentences and “sort of” in the descriptions of people or actions.

All of this can be funny for a while, of course. But at this point, I for one hope to someday read a George Saunders story without any capitalized corporate/political jargon, and one that isn’t set to exactly the same narrative pitch as all the others.

Still, as a political satire set in a fantastical otherworld, Reign of Phil does manage some broad but effective humour. All of the characters are imagined as sort of semi-humanoids, each with their own bizarre, sketchily described physiognomy. For example, Phil’s brain is precariously mounted on a rack, and whenever it falls off the rack and onto the ground, as it often does, he begins bellowing violently jingoistic platitudes “in a suddenly stentorian voice.” And the media, which shamelessly promotes Phil’s power-grab and sadism, is represented by “three handsome well-groomed squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles.”

Little details like that are funny in a superficial way. But on the downside, they also push the story, which as an allegory is already once removed from reality, further into the level of abstraction. It’s hard to completely visualize any of the characters – we can picture only discrete details of their bodies – or even to imagine what the land they live in is supposed to look like. Our bewilderment in this regard may be fun, but it’s a minor, second-rate kind of fun, one that distracts us from the deeper pleasure of considering how the events in Outer Horner mirror those in our own world.

Not that there are any clear answers to that last question (and nor should there be). Saunders’ overall point is clear enough – best summed up as “be nice to other people and don’t listen to warlords,” I guess – but readers will have their own interpretations of specific elements in his story. Such as the Greater Kellerites, a race of affable, giant coffee-drinkers who reluctantly save the day. Or the even more deus ex machina coda, which is best left for readers to discover on their own.

The book has its strong points, and Saunders isn’t completely relying on familiar tricks. Near the end, he very cleverly and funnily renders the garbled thoughts of Phil, who’s been without his brain for too long. Unfortunately, the good stuff here can’t dispel the feeling that this was an exercise more than a fully realized novella. Anyone who hasn’t read Saunders should – but they should start with any one of his three other books. Reign of Phil will likely be remembered as a footnote to his catalogue.

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