CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

I like to take chances with algorithms. I do it all the time on YouTube because it’s free and amusing. With Amazon Kindle there’s a higher risk/reward margin. I took a chance with George Saunders’s book and once I finished reading it felt like I’d made a bad bet.

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times said, “Saunder’s satiric vision of America… [is] ferocious and very funny.” Zadie Smith, who’s my age and writes cracking good shorts, said, “Not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny.”

That’s all hot copy, right?

Comedy is a tricky thing for me to write. If I do produce funny work, it’s mostly by accident or it happened to suit whatever situation I was scripting. That’s to say I’ve never gone out of my way to try and write jokes, or satire. I respect those who can. I’m a huge fan of live comedy, and I’ve spent countless hours immersed in the art of standup. And one thing I’ve learned is that “funny” is subjective. For laughs to occur, an audience and performer must be in perfect sync.

I was not in sync with Saunders’s work. I chuckled once during the eponymous novel. That’s not to say that what he wrote wasn’t funny; it just wasn’t funny to me. I could see what he was going for. He painted vivid pictures of corporate America taken to an extreme conclusion, and I liked how he told his stories from the perspective of the downtrodden and third-class citizens. It was bleak, almost post-apocalyptic while existing in a supposed capitalist utopia, and the characterizations were all rich. I got what he was saying about how “the system” works over most people engaged with it. His capitalization for the numerous services and offices his characters had to navigate (Administration, Employee, Statement of Corporate Mission) hammered all this home with exhausting regularity, which, I suppose, was the desired effect.

More interesting to me was the lengthy author’s note. It turns out that Saunders took seven years to finish the collection of stories. In many cases, he wrote it a sentence or two at a time, usually during time-theft from his employer: “Biking along the canal I’d be composing in my head, and might arrive at work with a sentence or two all worked out. Then I’d dash through the atrium, into the men’s room, and try to get myself cleaned up, while not forgetting those sentences.” (Saunders, 1996, p. 180). I can’t even imagine what this way of working must be like for a writer. I consider myself blessed to have vast swaths of time where I can sit in comfort and draft to my heart’s content.

I’m a firm believer in the art of theft and repurpose when it comes to writing, but I’m hard-pressed to say that there was anything of Saunders that I felt worth taking. Again, it’s more that I’m not the audience for his work, and if I’m to stay true to the idea of writing for myself first, I’ll let—at least—CivilWarLand in Bad Decline float by on the endless river of books I’ve read and have yet to read.


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