Just playing braindead: A review

One has to wonder what author George Saunders did to the good people at Riverhead Books, the publishers of his new humor-travel-political essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone. Whatever he did -- something involving kerosene and warehouses full of other authors' best-sellers, no doubt -- he certainly didn't deserve the Butt-Ugliest Book Jacket in History.

The Butt-Ugliest Jacket is indeed hideous, like something an earlier era would have had burned outright. You can see it briefly in the entertaining David Letterman clip above, in which Mr. Saunders discusses his "inner nun-itude" at a Chicago Bears game and knuckle-pulling in an Amarillo slaughterhouse, and a brief glimpse of the cover is all you'lll want. If you wish to avoid the close-up at the end, stop the clip around .10 seconds.

The book's title essay is about our dumbed-down media, so it's apparent that the jacket design is intended as a crass send-up of crass media cliches: The only way to convey the full extent of media vulgarity would be to out-vulgar it. This is a simple-minded bit of cleverness that used to be called the "imitative fallacy" (as in, "My novel is chaotic and unreadable because that's the way life is, innit?"). It's a fallacy in that it can be used to justify almost anything ("Don't you get it? The film turns sentimental and stupid at the end because it's an ironic comment on sentimental stupidity").

So -- with that said -- the fact is that Mr. Saunders' writing definitely doesn't imitate this ungodly eyesore. It's not clear what would -- archly unfunny literary treatments of drowning babies, perhaps -- but it's plain that whatever it would be, no one would probably want to read it.

Which does make it different from Braindead, two-thirds of which is enjoyable and smart and recommended. With Civilwarland in Bad Decline in 1996, his debut collection of short stories, Mr. Saunders poineered a bleakly hilarious kind of sadsack office satire, a satire of the American workplace and the corporate language and bureaucratic thinking that go with work today. The title alone is typical of this official report-speak, which combines idiot optimism with bland denial, refering, for example, to life-threatening diisasters as "Revenue-Impacting Events." Mr. Saunders' stories are often told from the viewpoint of a harassed, ineffectual underling or lower-middle-management type. He generally knows much better than his bosses how truly twisted things are but is powerless to correct them or even to convince his bosses of the dire situation because he's not fully aware of how evil or incompetent his bosses are.

In the new essays, therefore, it's not too long a leap for Mr. Saunders to step into the role of the hapless, clueless, well-meaning narrator -- while taking on such subjects as Mr. Bush's War (the dead brain) and contemporary media (the megaphone). He also visits the Disneyland-Meets-Arab-Oil-Profit fantasy city of Dubai ("The New Mecca") -- in its own way, as marvelous a travel report as David Foster Wallace's treatment pf cruise ships ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"). He checks out a Nepalese holy teen who seems to be surviving on nothing ("Buddha Boy") and pens some literary criticism that's actually illuminating and entertaining, no small feat indeed (the terrific "The United States of Huck" and "The Perfect Gerbil" -- on Donald Barthelme, clearly one of his great inspirations). While his fictional characters are generally kind of pathetic-poignant in a lost, nebbishy way, his own narrator self adds a richer dimension to many of these essays: a very sensitive empathy (sometimes too sensitive) wrestling with his own best and worst instincts.

So what about that other one-third? someone way in the back yells out. The one-third you didn't like? Glad you brought that up, I reply grudgingly while making a mental note to have the wise guy thoroughly tasered.

Update: New Genius Discovered! Check out the jump

First, Mr. Saunders loves Rube Goldberg metaphors. He gets started on a seemingly simple comic comparison -- the media as megaphone -- and then keeps elaborating on it, sticking in exceptions and nifty twists and unforeseen complications ("Imagine the Megaphone has two dials"). Gearing up this whole jury-rigged thingamajig is an entertaining comic effort in itself, one that often turns on the gullible author as much as it advances his argument -- like Buster Keaton working on some needlessly mechanical labor-saving contraption that, in the end and purely by accident, is just going to punch a cop in the face anyway. We watch, amused but admiring, as Mr. Saunders extends his metaphor one more inch, so he can eagerly wire on that new shotgun-and-pulley device that happens to be aimed at his foot.

The thing is, though -- particularly in the case of "The Braindead Megaphone" but also "Nostalgia" -- all this effort sometimes doesn't really expand or deepen or profund-ify his argument. Once the reader understands the basic comparison -- the media is a Big Noise that is out of control except when it's easily manipulated -- everything else falls into place pretty quickly without all of Mr. Saunders' wheel-cranking: the shameless, gungho run-up to the Iraq War, the truth-telling that's measured entirely by profits, the angry gulf that divdes Liberal from Conservative Commentator, when both are far more alike in education and class than either is to his workaday audience.

As a result, the following pretty much sums up the entire essay:

"Am I oversimplifying here? Yes. Is all our media stupid? Far from it. Were intelligent, valuable things written about the rush to war (and about O.J. and Monica, and then Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson, et al.)? Of course.

But: Is some of our media very stupid? Hoo boy. Does stupid, near-omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general? It would be surprising if it didn't."

Who could argue with this? End of story. Actually, though, he's just warming up, there are pages to go.

Second, there's a distinction to be made among Mr. Saunders' efforts as narrator, a distinction between the naive and well-intentioned sucker he sometimes plays on the one hand and the outright, Cletus-level lackwit he also plays. In short, Mr. Saunders sometimes play-acts stupid in a very Dave Barry, nose-pick manner.

The slow-on-the-uptake narrator has a long and fine comic history from Mark Twain back to the guy who wrote Genesis ("Snake? What snake?"). But it irritates here mostly because it limits what is actually a very sharp intellect, confining it to pointing out, gollleee, Sarge, them Brits sure call their policemen funny names like "bobby." The ploy with this dumb narrator device revolves around the reader knowing more than the narrator -- and can lead to the reader either getting tripped up or, more often, having his own wisdom and good taste confirmed. Guess which happens here, especially when it comes to Our Great American Yokel stumbling around England.

I've gone on at length about these two flaws in Braindead Megaphone because the book has received ecstatic notices from the likes of Entertainment Weekly and Critical Mass and because both of these points are tricky distinctions to make. They involve shifts in tone and emphasis and not failings in his overall approach. This is Mr. Saunders' comic territory, after all, which he runs very well, but we tourist guides must point out when he's playing King of the Castle and when he's the fool.

Thankfully, in Braindead, he's usually both. Enjoy.

Update - New Genius Discovered:
In his NYTimes review of Mr. Saunders' book, Will Blythe more or less agrees with book/daddy:

"The Willful Innocence that mars several of the political pieces might have been predicted from Saunders's often brilliant short stories, which generally feature hapless, good-hearted yobs as protagonists. He uses what I'll call the Apparent Doofus Technique, whereby an author invents a seemingly innocent character who will become illuminated in the course of the action and come to Greater Moral Understanding. The problem with this is that at the very appearance of the Apparent Doofus, readers know what is on the way -- not an education, but a Life-Enhancing Epiphany. ...

When it comes to writing about literature, however, all of the Seeming Naïveté that sometimes mars the political pieces falls away. What remains is a sophisticate's bright wonder. Saunders delivers canny insights only afforded a writer who himself has been lost in the Impenetrable Jungles of Narrative and has hacked his way out week by despairing week. By itself, the essay on Donald Barthelme's short story "The School" constitutes an entire M.F.A. program in 11 pages, and -- please note, aspiring writers -- it's thousands of dollars cheaper."

October 4, 2007 11:34 AM |



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