George Saunders’ biggest problem is one of the most absurd problems anyone, let alone a writer, could possibly have. His problem, in a weird way, is that he is too good. When Saunders is hitting on all cylinders, say in stories such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Tenth of December, the pages fly and a reader becomes impossibly invested in the story. Saunders accomplishes so much, so efficiently, that he can encompass the full rise and fall of a great novel in less than ten pages. Such talent can spoil a reader and, in a bizarre way, work against Saunders simply due to the expectations that he generates with every page. This is remarkably unfair to Saunders, but the mere fact that he rises to meet such expectations is yet another reason to continue to have them.
What makes In Persuasion Nation interesting as a short story collection is twofold. First, while it is noted far and wide that Saunders is our chief American satirist, In Persuasion Nation takes his most direct shot at what America claims to stand for compared to what it really stands for. Of course, in typically Saunders’ fashion, this shot is taken through a Pynchonian romp of quirky and indescribable characters being put through absurd situations that, on face-level, seem to have little to do with reality. Yet, this distance between reality and satire was a delight to find, as it was what CivilWarLand in Bad Decline lacked as a collection, particularly the final story, which at times could be called ham-handed. And this leads directly to the second aspect of In Persuasion Nation‘s appeal: the obvious growth as a writer. Not only does Saunders reveal himself as leaps and bounds better than we already knew he was and could be, but he also becomes much bolder, willing to take a lot of risks that earlier stories could have used. In the best possible way, Saunders steers into a very Pynchonian vein while maintaining stories and prose that are uniquely his own.
But make no mistake, the meat of the collection is what drives it. Adam Johnson’s Emporium is a collection of great writing and ideas, but it leaves a reader feeling underwhelmed. This is not a mistake Saunders makes in this collection. He is primarily interested in American entertainment and advertising, and in this way the collection at times can ring a bit of DFW, but not venturing too far into that seemingly cornered market. It is this aspect that gives the stories even more leeway into the absurd while remaining highly poignant and often disturbing. While Saunders’ black humor remains ever-present in each story, there is also no denying how much more serious these stories feel than earlier ones. That he manages to house such seriousness behind stories that include a brief epic about a fight between a man that chooses Doritos over his grandson and a man who tied a brick to his penis is nothing short of remarkable. And in a way this is Saunders’ best quality: the fact that he is so difficult to take seriously, yet simultaneously impossible not to. A reader cannot possibly avoid a giggle at such a situation as described above, yet while reading it that same reader knows that more than anything, the story they are reading is a scathing indictment of American Consumer Capitalism and that the parallels are ignored only through willingness.
Yet, it must also be said that unlike the other two collections of stories I have read by Saunders, In Persuasion Nation has no story in that truly stands above the rest. Whereas Tenth of December and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline‘s title stories were clearly a notch above the rest of the stories that accompanied them (though Sticks will always hold a special place in my heart). Perhaps this is not a bad thing, however. Unlike his other collections, In Persuasion Nation has little rise and fall; instead setting a standard with the very first story and having no issues reaching it consistently with nearly every story after. While Jon was likely my favorite of the collection (sidenote: I cannot be the only one who noticed how similar this story was to Escape from Spiderhead in Tenth of December. Jon being a far better story), it’s difficult to pick any of them as being clearly worse or clearly better. Which, for a book of stories, is an accomplishment in itself.
Recommended to: This is a good place to start with Saunders. I wish I had read this before Tenth of December.
Avoid as if it is a meatball sub and you are wearing white pants: This collection is loaded to the brim with Sci-Fi elements, but one should expect that going into Saunders anyway. Regardless, if Sci-Fi is not your most loved genre, you may find his love of using it distracting.