“It’s safe to say no novels have yet engaged with the post-Sept. 11 era in any meaningful way,” opined Rachel Donadio in an early August issue of the New York Times Book Review. Though the veracity of her sentence lies on that marshy word “meaningful,” I’d argue that she’s incorrect. In the past year or so our top and/or most famous fiction writers have been confronting that exact era—Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Ian McEwan’s Saturday; the recent offering from Jay McInerney; even “The Suffering Channel,” the final story in David Foster Wallace’s most recent fiction collection.
Which brings us to George Saunders—a top-shelf satirist whose fourth book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, delves into politics post-9/11. Saunders has written two funny collections of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, as well as one adultish children’s novella, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. In his best stories, Saunders constantly riffs on the same theme: a narrator, usually male, has a horribly soul-shredding job that conflicts with his family back home, which he loves and wants to protect. He can’t give up the absurd job because the well-being of that family depends precisely on him remaining at it.
But, since 9/11 Saunders has been expanding his set list. He’s written some funny, politically charged essays, and even his fiction (in stories like “The Red Bow”) has implicitly taken on the widening dread sown by the past four years. Now comes his latest book: a sort of political allegory cartoon.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil concerns two nations, Inner Horner and Outer Horner. Surrounded by Outer Horner, Inner Horner is so small that only one of its citizens (seven in all) can reside within the country at a time. The rest wait in the Short Term Residency Zone. One day Inner Horner shrinks and the Outer Horner Militia promptly announces that they’re being invaded.
The rest of the novella—the book is a trim 130 pages, done up as a wicked cool orange paperback with illustrations by Benjamin Gibson—concerns these “trespassing” Inner Hornerites and how to deal with them. Soon an Outer Hornerite named Phil takes charge and imposes a tax on the squatters, which of course they can’t pay. As the Inner Hornerites get more desperate, the Outer Hornerites become more ruthless in extracting it. (Inner Hornerites are eventually disassembled.)
None of the characters here are human. Cal, Phil’s first victim, is comprised of a belt buckle, a tuna can, and a blue dot. Phil’s own brain sits upon a rack, eventually falling out with deleterious consequences for Phil’s diction. The president of Outer Horner, a total flake with multiple chins and continually sprouting mustaches, is conned out of the Presidential Cravat in one of the book’s best set pieces.
Part of the strength of Saunders’s other stories is that they are recognizably absurdist. Even though we don’t work in, say a pre-historic exhibit in some theme park, if we did it would make a certain bit of sick corporate sense if we had to fax in a Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form. (“Do I note any attitudinal difficulties? How do I rate my partner overall? Are there any Situations which require Mediation?”) Saunders’s earlier stories are funny in a way that both makes you shoot milk out your nose and recognize the intractable absurdity of your own modern life. But where satire always brings a lesson in its teeth—how absurdly trapped you are in your absurd career! ha ha!—a political allegory like Phil forces the slobbery moral right into your lap.
Resolved, literally, by the hand of god swooping down to fix everything at the end, Phil is neither totally satisfying as a story or as a political allegory. Though there are covert riffs on everything from the Patriot Act to the lapdog media to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the book doesn’t teach us any lessons we haven’t already had seared onto our brains from actual, verifiable fact. It’s not translating our political situation into anything new, merely simplifying it. In the end, Phil’s reign isn’t that frightening, because his reign and his world are so obviously artificial, while ours outside is so frighteningly not.
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