Sad Sacks in Lock Step, Haunted by Penitent Ghosts

The typical protagonist of a George Saunders story is a sad sack with a humiliating job (often involving a costume), a hot-to-trot wife, a sick child and the threat of a pink slip looming. Cutbacks at work lead to further humiliations. Finally, the wife, the boss or the co-workers insist that the protagonist prove his loyalty and devotion by sacrificing some basic virtue, such as kindness or honesty. He’s expected to cover up a murder, inform on friends, strap a dying infant to a rooftop on a sunny day. (Did I mention that these are funny stories?) If our hero succumbs to the pressure, the author kills him. Sometimes, he kills him anyway.

There are a few such stories in Mr. Saunders’ third and darkest collection, In Persuasion Nation—a smorgasbord of satires, from the mild to the dementedly brilliant. One of them, “Brad Carrigan, American,” follows the misadventures of a pretend family on a floundering “reality” show. Brad knows that his distaste for the poop jokes and violent plot turns foisted on them by the all-powerful producers are losing him points with his pretend wife, and that he’ll be written off the show if he doesn’t “accentuate the positive.” He tries to suppress his compassion for the still-living corpses—victims of a far-away ethnic cleansing—that have somehow appeared at their home as backyard décor, and muster some enthusiasm for the new trend of FunGeese—malleable garden sculptures created by spraying live Canadian geese with a styrene coating which kills them yet leaves them flexible enough to arrange into wacky poses. “Interesting is good, Brad,” his ratings-conscious wife reminds him. “Surprising is good.”

One evening, the Carrigan family gathers in front of the television to enjoy a show-within-a-show called FinalTwist. On FinalTwist, five college friends take a sixth out for dinner, ostensibly to introduce him to a girl, but “actually to break the news that his mother is dead. This is the InitialTwist. During dessert they are told that, in fact, all of their mothers are dead. This is the SecondTwist. The ThirdTwist is, not only are all their mothers dead, the show paid to have them killed, and the fourth and FinalTwist is, the kids have just eaten their own grilled mothers.”

Like the loving God who appeared at the end of Mr. Saunders’ novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005), Mr. Saunders lets his fantasy worlds go entirely to hell before he reaches in to tweak the ending. When Brad’s character is cancelled and his personality dissolved, Brad hopes he’ll at least reincarnate as someone who acts on his compassion sooner, who doesn’t waste his life “on accumulation, trivia, self-protection, and vanity.” You can feel the weight of the author’s approval behind this belated epiphany. (Don’t worry about Brad—if he doesn’t get the message now, there may be other chances: The dead in these stories tend to stick around.)

Although human frailty gets its share of wallops, Mr. Saunders’ most frequent target in this collection is consumer culture, as in the savage title story, a fable of competing brands in which hapless actors and anthropomorphized junk-food products cycle through repeating vignettes of cruelty to attract sales. You may never look fondly on a Dorito again.

The eponymous hero of “Jon” is a young man raised from infancy as part of a sheltered elite of product testers (the teenagers are celebrities in the world outside their glass-walled enclosure). His brain implant continually supplies advertisements (“location indicators” or “LIs”) to fill the place of actual memories and in answer to the slightest emotion. When his new wife suggests they ditch their implants and make a life with their baby outside the program, Jon is terrified, imagining the paucity of his own thoughts. How can they communicate without their shared software? “If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of,” he thinks, “I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor! If I want to say, like, Carolyn, remember that RE/MAX one where as the redhead kid falls asleep holding that Teddy bear rescued from the trash, the bear comes alive and winks, and the announcer goes, Home is the place where you find yourself suddenly no longer longing for home (LI 34451)—if I want to say to Carolyn, Carolyn, LI 34451, check it out, that is how I feel about you—well, then, I want to say it!”

Mr. Saunders is often compared to Kurt Vonnegut for his playfulness, his genius for the vernacular, and his pained recognition that it’s not only under totalitarian regimes that you’ll find cultural lock step: People love to conform, even if they have to chew off their own nonconforming bits. What sets Mr. Saunders apart is that his ideal of goodness—protection of the weak, bravery, open dissent—has a pop-spiritual basis. In “CommComm,” perhaps the strongest story in the collection, a beleaguered office worker fails to tell his spectral parents that they’ve been murdered. He can’t bear to let them go. A happy ending becomes possible only when he breaks the news to them, moments before he himself is murdered. “Feels super,” says his weary mother, finally tuning in to the celestial choir. “‘Like you had a terrible crick and then it went away,’ Dad says. They smile, step through the wall, vanish in two little sudden blurps of light.”

Despite the consolations of the afterlife, In Persuasion Nation has sharper edges than Mr. Saunders’ first two collections. It’s tempting to read it as a war protest, and to picture the author grinding his teeth over the compliant, brand-loyal American masses, not so much blind to suffering as eager to follow the leader and accentuate the positive.

Regina Marler is the editor of Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex (Cleis Press) and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate.