Tenth of December was a little disappointing. As I mentioned in my review of it, Saunders is mentioned so much by the literary greats that it’s next to impossible to approach any of his novels with low expectations or no expectations at all. But there was enough there that I wanted to return to Saunders. I flipped a coin a month or so ago to decide between Inpersuasion Nation and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. The coin made a good call.
Plainly put, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is hit after hit after hit. Every story here with the exception of the novella lands so well that you will without a doubt reread one or two as soon as you finish them. Each story is loaded with satire of the individual whether from an existential point of view or simply an American perspective. Saunders so clearly reveals himself as a genius by ten pages into the first story that it is a little frustrating to wannabe writers like myself. Saunders is an exemplar of showing and not telling. He almost does it too well. To the point where it becomes difficult to understand what the story is trying to satire or make a point out of. It takes a bit of reflection after each story to really grasp them, yet the process of reading the stories is so damn fun that the reflection is earned and worthwhile. Let’s get into it.
“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”
This story knocked me on the ground. A middling manager of a Civil War reenactment park gives live ammunition to a Vietnam Vet with a dishonorable discharge to take care of some local kids that have been driving away customers. After being underwhelmed by Saunders last time I read him, this story was astounding. It is unbelievably funny, completely unique, and utterly memorable. I’m not sure I’ve read anything so immediately dazzling all year. Every character and situation is completely realized. Not a single word can be thrown away. All the jokes land. It is a masterpiece.
Saunders some how finds a way to make a story less than ten pages long full of characters that are completely developed. “Isabelle” spans the lifetime of the main character, and that it doesn’t feel rushed or inadequate in any way is a testament to just how good the story is. Whereas at times in Tenth of December I felt that sudden twists and shock value were not used that meaningfully, “Isabelle” and the entirety of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is example of Saunders triumphing with his use of disturbing situations and imagery.
“The Wavemaker Falters”
Like other stories in the text, this story centers around a leading male character that feels himself to be woefully inadequate due to some failure in his life or lifestyle. He is quite literally haunted by the fact that he has killed a boy in the Wave Pool at the waterpark he works at; visited by the ghost each night. There is play in the title here, as we are left to ponder whether or not Saunders intends to say the machine faltered or the man at the machine faltered. I lean towards the latter. Once again, the characters in this story are so fully realized that it is a pure joy to read.
“The 400-Pound CEO”
It’s like George Saunders novelized Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morals. This story really makes you feel for an obese man who is essentially tortured all day by his coworkers. They don’t have a nice thing to say to him. Just when you think they do they pull the rug out from under you and are worse than you imagined them to be. Yet, the story becomes an examination of ideals and practice in character. Regardless of Nietzsche, this story is once again fantastic in every way.
“Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”
Once again we have a character that is haunted by a past mistake, but this time we are never really informed as to what that mistake was. Yet he is performing poorly at his job because of it and becoming unable to take care of an elderly woman. This story perhaps doesn’t realize its characters as well as the others. It succeeds in its examining of the nature of memory and what makes us who we are, though. This alone continues CivilWarLand in Bad Decline‘s unbelievable success in storytelling.
“Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror”
Reading this story is equivalent to examining a horrible cycle of transgressions people have against one another. Four pages in and you will already have no idea if anyone in the story is worth cheering for. The main character is someone you feel horrible for… for a moment. Then, in typical Saunders fashion, he reveals that there is more to her than meets the eye. Is she merciful or just as deranged as the rest of them? I felt bad for her in the end as she once again is denied autonomy (another recurring theme in this collection of stories).
More than anything “Bounty” is a scathing satire of America and our ideology. Slavery is still alive and well. There are liberal mouthpieces all over that say the right things but accomplish nothing. The people most affected by the system of oppression are strangers in everyone’s eyes and are treated differently because we know they are different. This novella is good, but is a bit heavy-handed at times (which is interesting considering that Saunders, in less space, is never so over the top. The wasn’t the best way to finish the collection, but it is far from bad.
As underwhelmed as I was with Tenth of December, I am equally overjoyed with CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. The title story itself is worth the price of the collection as it is perhaps the best fiction I have read this year.
Recommended to: Everybody! This is great and I don’t think it’s that niche. There’s nothing experimental going on or density to slug through. It’s just an all-around great experience.
Avoid as if it’s facing Clayton Kershaw… ever: This is a book you don’t need to skip. It’s fantastic.