Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

A funny very short novel (novella really) by the reigning master of satire. Phil is a robot-like creature who runs roughshod over the handful of residents of a neighboring country so small only one inhabitant--and only a part of that inhabitant at that--can fit in it at one time, so that the citizens all rotate, the rest standing as short term residents in Phil's land. And if that sentence makes sense to you, you've probably read Saunders before. If it didn't well, you should go see for yourself.

When I first read Saunders' early short stories, which largely mock corporate culture and mass consumerism, I really loved them, but over time began to feel if he didn't find some new aspect of the USA to make fun of, he was going to lose steam. And then Bush II came into office. And Saunders' fiction (I'm generalizing some here) and nonfiction seemed to focus mainly on the antics of our duly unelected government. And I don't have any problem with that, except for the fact that Bush II and co. are very easy targets--their actions, whether you agree with them are not, are so big. And in some ways I'm more interested in realist fiction and nonfiction about these times rather than satire--what is it really like to be profiled or spied on by your govt, what is it really like to go to war when all you wanted was a college education, what was it really like to live in Iraq under Hussein, what is it really like to live in Iraq now etc etc. So the moments when The BFR of Phil (which came out in 2005) works best for me are actually the least overtly allegorical ones--it's not the self-reporting media nor the goon drafting tactics of Phil--but rather the stranger aspects of the fiction that made me think and react the most. The stuff that goes well, you think what's going on is bad--just see where else it could lead.

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