Hidden persuaders 

In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders

George Saunders isn't the best writer in the English language, but he may be its best bad writer. Author of such collections as Pastoralia and his latest, In Persuasion Nation, Saunders reveals an ear for slang and scrambled syntax that borders on genius. Consider the following declaration from the childish title character of "Jon": "Honey, uh, honey, there is a certain feeling but I cannot name it and cannot cite a precedent-type feeling, but trust me, dearest, wow, do I ever feel it for you right now."

Saunders persistently finds the pathos in ignorance as well as the humor. "Jon" depicts a community of attractive, vapid teenagers literally raised in seclusion to be the perfect test market for a nation's products, until one couple becomes pregnant and considers life without sedatives or commercial mediation.

His first collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, almost exclusively depicted downtrodden losers with rotten home lives and the worst jobs at crappy theme parks. With In Persuasion Nation, the author more directly targets marketing and the media, and moves further into surrealism. In the title story, outright war breaks out between rival characters of mean-spirited TV ads, so, for instance, a sword-wielding bag of Doritos decapitates a dutiful grandson. In "Brad Carrigan, American," the conscience-stricken main character of a constantly evolving sitcom tries to care for the victims of terrible, televised tragedies while such zany sidekicks as a canine puppet wise around him.

In doodles like "My Amendment" (one crank's letter to the editor objecting to "Same-ish Sex Marriage" between effete men and masculine women), Saunders affirms his status as the most gifted contributor to the archly ironic journal McSweeney's. Saunders shows an even greater imaginative scope than most of his peers, and pushes himself past his trademark caustic satire. Such realistic tales as the grim "Christmas" and the more open-spirited "Bohemians" show keen sensitivity to class dynamics among the poverty-stricken. "The Red Bow" provides a kind of parable to the War on Terror and national security when a tragedy involving infected dogs turns a small town into a mini police state.

Unexpectedly, Saunders finds room for hope in his gloomy, corporate-controlled worldview. The put-upon heroes of "In Persuasion Nation" and the final story, "CommComm," even achieve different kinds of spiritual transcendence. If only they knew how to put it into words.



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