A little over a year ago, I picked up Tenth of December, the much-acclaimed short story collection by George Saunders, and was blown away. What I expected was stories about “upper class white people problems”; what I got was a collection of funny, sharp, satirical looks at America, with stories ranging from Renaissance Fairs to futuristic nightmares to corporate torture memos. I was floored and thrilled; here, I thought, was a short story writer who got away from tales of ennui and angst, telling stories that had a point but entertained, made you laugh, and still worked as rich, well-written works.
I didn’t realize when I chose CivilWarLand in Bad Decline as my follow-up that it was Saunders’ earliest collection; I knew it was acclaimed, like most of his work, and had a lot of love, and had a pretty great title. What I didn’t realize, though, is that it represented a point where Saunders was still finding his voice, to some degree. In the author’s note that follows the book, Saunders comments that there’s a reason that just about every story here revolves around amusement parks (even if they’re all dystopian nightmare amusement parks) – it was a way to force himself out of emulating Hemingway and Carver, and into his own more unique voice.
The downside, then, with CivilWarLand is that it doesn’t quite show as much range as the masterful Tenth of December. As mentioned, almost all of the stories revolve around bizarre Westworld-type amusement parks, and the few that don’t still revolve around escapist entertainment, by and large. As a result, the stories blend together a little more; while each has its own unique story and plot (the title story features the Civil War park forced to recruit mercenaries from Vietnam World to help clear out a gang problem, with predictably nightmarish results), the settings tend to blur together a bit more than you’d hope.
And yet, even so, that doesn’t keep the collection from being wildly successful, very funny, and even profoundly moving. Saunders has a taste for black comedy, and it pays off superbly here, with the tragicomedy “The 400-Pound CEO” being a real standout, as it tells the story of a morbidly obese man mocked by his co-workers who only wants to be loved. It’s both painful and hysterically funny, as Saunders contrasts his passive, lonely hero with the absurd cruelty of his co-workers and the bizarre actions of his employer. Meanwhile, stories like “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” show that Saunders is capable of profound emotion, as a man in control of virtual reality experiences searches for a way to escape his own painful life. And, of course, there’s that title story, that mixes world-building, violence, and satire into a potent and effective combination.
Yes, in some ways, these stories blend together, and sometimes hit a bit too hard on the same themes and tropes. But even so, it’s clearly the voice of an author that’s finding himself, and the fact that he brings such variation, even in similar tales, speaks well of the author that Saunders would become. And even here, where he’s taking his first steps, he’s still writing stories unlike much else out there, and creating worlds, characters, and prose that really demand to be experienced. It’s not as good as Tenth of December, but that doesn’t mean it’s not superb stuff indeed.