Dispatches from dystopia 

Amid a ruined society, George Saunders makes you smile

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It's perhaps too obvious to say, but the best literature is both entertaining and socially conscious. The best literature finds clever ways to tell crucial truths that are far removed from mere fluff or polemic.

In this way, George Saunders' stories could be categorized as "best literature," in that they are at once uproariously funny and frightening, entertaining and informed; they embrace a dire future with hysterical fear.

In his third collection of stories, In Persuasion Nation, Saunders' dystopias continue to be hilarious more accurate than science fiction and more madcap than Dada. In these 12 wonderfully baffling stories, Saunders rages against the machine in harlequin rags.

In many of IPN's stories, Saunders continues his trademark doublespeak of corporate instructional manuals to present heinous ideas cogently.

In "I CAN SPEAK!," product-service representative Rick Sminks, speaking on behalf of KidLuv Inc., proffers synthetic voice boxes and SimulLips that parents can attach to their toddlers so the toddlers can discuss Einstein's findings and make pithy witticisms. It's a story that lampoons both over-concerned parents and the institutional machinations imposed on younger and younger kids, loony sophistry as alarming as it is amusing.

Often, Saunders aims his astute eye at advertisement: In the title story, a giant Twinkie, a polar bear, a Slap-of-Wack candy bar, Harriet Tubman, disembodied heads and a bag of Doritos are characters tell me you're not smiling who exist in a world where everything is a commodity, including God.

In "My Flamboyant Grandson," citizens are required to wear chips in their shoes so as to be constantly assaulted by product advertisements specific to their buying habits; when the protagonist has the gall to remove his shoes, he is promptly brought in for questioning.

Other stories explore the repercussions of personal distance in a surveillance society: "The Red Bow" and "Adams" show the violence of paranoia, that states of fear are also ones of latent rage, highlighting the dangers of excessive safety and the familial ramifications of lost civil liberties. "My Amendment" takes aim at same-sex marriage detractors by presenting the absurd idea of also being against samish-sex marriages marriages between mannish women and womanish men.

Saunders isn't merely bizarre, though: Almost all of the stories in INP are driven by a poignant central humanness.

"Jon," the standout among these standouts, pits a classic dilemma whether to take a risk on love in a unique setting. The title character finds himself in an entertainment internment facility, raised and taught by archived video commercials to remain "In," even when his similarly indoctrinated wife and child flee. The courage of Jon's heart is pit against the trappings of his comfort.

"Brad Carrigan, American" is the wince-inducing story of a man unknowingly living a life within a sitcom, whose personal interaction is scripted, whose loved ones are mere characters, whose life purpose is entertaining vidiots. Unable to cope with the falseness of his reality, he eventually gets written out, subsumed to nonexistence.

In Persuasion Nation is an exciting haberdashery of great ideas executed greatly. Not only exciting in the world of short stories, which has mired itself in the throes of subtle relationship tension for decades, Saunders is one of no kind, an uncategorizable, delightful misfit who burgeons creativity, a satirist with a rapier-sharp wit and a genuine heart.


In Persuasion Nation

By George Saunders

Riverhead Books, $23.95/hardcover


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