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CivilWarLand In Bad Decline (1997)

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1997)

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4.22 of 5 Votes: 4
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0099595818 (ISBN13: 9780099595816)

About book CivilWarLand In Bad Decline (1997)

‘What a degraded cosmos.’We live in a world where cruelty towards others is becoming more and more accepted – how easy we rationalize our self-righteous anger against someone who cut us off, brought us an undercooked meal, said something stupid, etc., and even seen as funny. Saunders, like the ghost of Christmas future, would like to show us where that is leading us. Civilwarland In Bad Decline, his first collection of stories, paints a grim portrait of a near-future filled with everything from economic collapse, murderous CEO’s, moral degradation on a mass scale, and a world dominated (or enslaved) by the rich, callous and self-absorbed. His satire, which manages to extract a comedic flair from all the foreboding gloom, cuts to the core of our morality. Saunders presents us with the inner thoughts of the poor and the meek, the dregs of a future society not that unlike our own as he cautions us against our mistreatment of others and the self-important beliefs that drive us to sidestep our morality.George Saunders thinks we are all assholes, and he is probably right. While we feel safety in our knowledge that each story is removed from our own reality, the creeping dread at seeing our own world, our actions or those of people we know, elevated to such apocalyptic proportions is frightening. In nearly every story, the economy has driven us to a state where the wealthy dominate and all others are mere chattel, disposable employees who suffer horrific treatment just to scrape by. We see people pushed through degrading drudgery just to survive, dehumanized, enslaved and laughed at, and we see those who have risen above it only looking down with mirthful scorn. Each person is just a pawn in everyone else’s game. It is this self-centered view that led the world to such a predicament.     Dad said she should try to understand that other people, even ignorant people, even poor people, loved their children every bit as much as she loved hers.    ”Tell me something I don’t know,” she said. “The point is, I don’t love their kids as much as I love mine.” Immanuel Kant’s first Categorical Imperative states that ‘ Act only on the maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ Through his stories, Saunders argues that if we all look out only for ourselves, if we all ignore the needs of others, then we are doomed to this degradation of moral, ethical, and economic standards. The 400lb CEO is a ripe example of our cruelty towards others, as the reader witnesses the inner turmoil of a good man, albeit an obese man, as he clings to his morality while beleaguered by insults and jokes at his weight – his coworkers openly mock him to his face with no thought to how it might affect him. This instills a tragic belief that perfectly captures the essence of Saunders’ message:’ I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.’There is no end to the rationalizations made to gloss over the difficult truths of moral depravity. Much like the darkly comedic works of Flannery O'Connor, Saunders depicts obdurate, morally corrupt characters who cling to their religion. What terrible atrocities we can commit with God on our side. Money is another scapegoat, as in the title story where even murder seems less repugnant than bankruptcy and lowly employees are pressured into terrible situations in order to feed their families. There is no arguing against those in power, and exposing their depravity, or fighting against it, can only lead one to being squashed by the corporate gears, as in Downtrodden Mary. Some people truly are above the laws. It is the wicked that rule the world, and the good that are haunted by the ghosts of the slaughter. Those with a good moral compass always get crushed in his worlds, and often they are ridiculed or hated because of their honest and good beliefs. The ability to feel, to empathize, to pity, open one up to the cold, hateful aim of those whose hearts are so calloused and buried in filth and self-righteousness that they can't care for anyone aside from themselves.Saunders wants us to treat each other with respect, to keep an open mind and open heart. In his violent visions, we see the results of our acceptance of picking on the nerds, the physically less fortunate, the weak and the dumb. In the wonderful, and wonderfully terrifying novella Bounty, those with any deformity, the Flawed, are enslaved and dehumanized. While Saunders uses the parallels of pre-Civil War American slavery to flesh out the novella, as well as using racism to fuel the plot of the Ralph Ellison-esk Isabelle, the effect is more than just putting a new spin on a traditional literary examination¹. Saunders re-examines the past to portend the future, and extends the horrors encompass us all instead of stopping at boundaries of race, creed or gender. The world damns the Flawed, yet, as pointed out by an elderly Flawed ‘there’s not a person on this earth who’s not Flawed in one way or another.’ While we may excel in one area, we all have our deficiencies, even if they are not visible.In each story, the world is headed in a terrible direction that is, for the most part, seen as irreversible. Saunders is looking to us, those in the present, to course correct in order to avoid such a grim future. His futures, however, aren’t that dissimilar from our present. In nearly every story (which is a bit of a point of contention for me), the narrator works in a theme-park like resort where wealthy patrons can experience a simulated pure, natural world, often one of times past. While this is fitting with a world where everything is collapsing, polluted and destroyed, it isn’t much different from our present as we escape the world around us for virtual worlds. We live through our online selves, we escape our world to other worlds, such as seeking solace in times past, through video games and movies. These terrible bosses and evil corporate empires are all around us, and the mistreatment and fear mongering that keeps workers in line happens each and every day. Having just escaped a factory where it is clear that employees are not people – a place where nobody is concerned that the employees move about in thick clouds of aluminum dust, or use cancerous chemicals without masks or ventilation, a place where employees work 60-80hr weeks and have no say in anything, no rights, hope of raises, are dismissed at a whim, ridiculed, a place that is perfectly legal and accepted by society, yet maddening and deadly to work in, this is the sort of place that Saunders satirizes without having to jump too far (I apologize for this aside, I don’t intend it as any ‘woe-is-me’, but to share the eye-opening experience I had of how places like in The Jungle still exist today). As in Cormac McCarthy, Saunders shows how just because you can do something, doesn’t make it right. Just because you have the power over another life, you should not kill it, smite it, ridicule it, enslave it or abuse it in any way. Laws or social acceptance may be in your favor, but it still isn’t right and makes you a monster. We must be good to one another in order for the world to flourish.This collection is a joy to read. It is witty, downright hilarious at times while uncomfortable at others, and presents a really positive message despite dragging the reader through a world of muck to get there. I really hope Saunders continues writing for a long time to come and goes down as one of the great literary satirists. The writing is crisp and carries a strong forward momentum and Saunders comes equipped with enough techniques, such as his slight changes in dialogue presentation and his character’s lexicon to disguise that each character, all of them told in first person, have a very similar cadence and voice. While it has a few rough patches, the collection still manages to soar with its comedy and dark visions.4.5/5 ‘Seeing someone do something that’s not patently selfish and fucked-up is like a breath of fresh air, good clean fresh air, not that any one of us would know good clean fresh air is a vial of it swooped down and bit us on the ass!’¹ Slavery is not the only idea dredged up. Saunders use of economical collapse sets each story in a world where it isn’t all that surprising that people would bond together against what they fear. In High School we all had to examine how ordinary people could commit terrible atrocities, such as the Nazis and the holocaust, etc. (I apologize for the Reductio ad Hitlerum here, but it is necessary), allowing economic pressure and mob mentality to rationalize and assuage any moral qualms against even the most despicable of actions. In Bounty, it is a similar circumstance that allows people to view the Flawed as less-than-human and to not bat an eye at the Flawed’s horrific mistreatment.

I can’t help but feel like a jackass for coming to the game so late. It has been over ten years since Civilwarland in Bad Decline was first published and introduced George Saunders to the literary world. As a guy who is constantly pounding the table about the value of short stories, I look a bit o’ the fool for having not read and known the value of Saunders’ debut collection. What a way to kick in the doors and make an entrance into the literary world.Saunders is amazingly comfortable in his own skin -- he’s running with a great stride in these stories, carrying the reader along with him effortlessly. Nothing ever seems forced. Both Flannery O’Connor and Mavis Gallant had that same ability, and in many ways Saunders is as adept at writing stories that seemed to have been set down on earth and exist (you never feel as if you’re reading, you are a witness).It is an American vision, albeit a twisted, dark, and tragicomic one. The world of Saunders’ stories is our America, but turned inside out, revealing our ugly insides. And that alone makes them a pleasure to read. On the surface most of the tales in Civilwarland in Bad Decline focus around theme parks or attractions that at first seem absurd, but as you read into the story, don’t seem that implausible. The Civilwarland theme park of the title story is savaged by teenage gangs, has authentic civil-war era tormented souls, and a reconstructed Eerie Canal complete with a historically inaccurate smell of Chinese food. There is the water park sporting a “Leaping Trout Subroutine” for authenticity and a very deadly wave pool. Oh and the not-so-perfect holographic projection franchise and the not-so-on-the-level raccoon disposal business and a science museum that includes pickled babies and cows with plexiglass stomachs. I almost forgot to mention the medieval times theme park staffed by mutants. But nothing works, or at least not the way it should. The bird count in Civilwarland is off so they have to kill several hundred orioles. The plexiglass cows keep dying. The wave pool sucks small children into the turbines. The holograph devices can actually siphon a customer’s memories. It is a strange America that Saunders presents to us, but not so far-fetched. It is just our foibles and desires and sins amplified to comic effect. This is usually why most people cannot go three lines without mentioning Vonnegut when talking about Saunders’ stories.But the superstructures that hold up all these stories are simple morality tales. Most, with the exception of “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” center around emasculated or down-trodden men having to face up to the consequences of their actions. It gives the stories their sadness and their hook. One moment you’re laughing at Saunders wit only to be sucker punched by the reality of a character’s situation. The narrator of the title story, discovering that his de facto security guard has taken his role a little too seriously upon capturing a teenage candy thief, is forced to bury a severed hand behind the theme park. As he digs, he’s confronted by the ghosts of the park -- a civil-war era family who really haven't gotten over the whole death thing -- launching the otherworldly collective into a Macbeth like hand wringing scene. It breaks your heart.And that is what makes these stories works so perfectly. They break you down, even as they have you laughing out loud. The best story in the collection, “Isabelle,” is almost an odd-duck as it is a straight tale of small town life. But it destroys you. It lays you out flat on a slab. The prose is simple, precise, razor-sharp. In all good short story collections, there is always one piece that justifies the cost of the others. “Isabelle” is worth the price of the book alone.The collection is not perfect. The final novella, “Bounty,” while entertaining in parts feels like an unneeded, over-extended exclamation point to the stories in front of it. If I had to guess, the publisher included it so as not to make the collection seem too short. And in some ways, the recurring themes can start to feel heavy-handed as you get four or five stories into the book. But Saunders always saves the day. His writing is so perfectly witty, sharp, and poignant, that you’re willing to drop the petty criticisms and follow the tale. That is a sign of great writing.

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out-there, surreal, touching...loved it. what really made me want to read the book was this answer he gave in an interview, regarding his vision and why he writes what he writes:"...I think at the very last minute of the world, after we've global-warmed ourselves, and it's 400 degrees and only the elite can live in these little refrigerators with plasma TVs, the people who are burning to death outside are gonna kind of be reaching for the hand of the person next to them or having a memory of childhood or finding some way of knowing pleasure in that. So I think in a way it's sort of a hopeful vision."when i met him after a reading, he told me that if he had known at my age how long it was going to take for him to make it, he doesn't think he could have done it. then, seeing the horror on my face, he said, "but for you, maybe it will be next year." the hope! like he says, "it lights you up a little bit."

With George Saunders receiving so much positive press these days, I decided to try CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Now having read the short story collection, I can understand the acclaim. The stories are imaginative, distinctive, unusual, full of bizarre characters inhabiting bizarre worlds. Those characters are more weird circus freaks than everyday neighbors, and those worlds are theme parks you've never visited before. Throughout it all, the tone is an odd mix of resignation, hostility, and offbeat humor. All this adds up to an original brew, a mix of trailer park squalor and science fiction gone awry.That said, I didn't like the stories all that much. Yes, there's understated humor throughout, but there's too much dystopian negative ambiance, too much casual savagery, and too little to feel good about. And stylistically, Saunders seems to be showing off--how odd a situation can I create, how over-the-top can I be, how telling a detail can I insert, how strange a deformity can I dream up... And though the scenario in each story is a different--and quite odd--theme park, there is a sameness to those scenarios and a sameness to each narrator's first person voice.To summarize, I can see why the critics rave, but conversely, I know why I didn't enjoy the stories and why I'm not so impressed.

The past couple of months, two activities have dominated my leisure time: reading and watching NBA hoops. After reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I was reminded of a hoops argument that I think should carry over to modern literature as well. The argument has to deal with the unceasing quest for the so-called next Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan was the transcendent athlete, if not public figure, of my childhood. There are a generation of kids who still drink Gatorade, buy Nikes, and wear Hanes solely because at some point in their childhood they wanted to be like Mike. Whenever I play a pickup game, or even just shoot around I find my tongue subconsciously hanging out of my mouth when I drive to the basket. What separates Jordan from similar figures is he actually justified this adulation. Watching Jordan was watching a real life folk hero. I remember my Dad, who isn't an NBA fan, during the MLB strike of 1994 ranting about how all professional athletes are overpaid, then pausing and adding "with the exception of Michael Jordan. This is a guy who averaged a couple grand a minute during the late '90s. The Flu Game, The Shrug Game, The Blindfolded Dunk, The final shot of the 1998 Finals. No other athlete since Babe Ruth has been able to summon similar myth-making moments. Yet as soon as he retired (for the second time) the media and basketball fans have become obsessed with finding the "Next Jordan." Around a dozen guys have been nominated as candidates, and while these guys are all extremely talented, it's doing them a disservice to compare them to Jordan. Jordan is Gretzky, Young Sandy Koufax, Mohammed Ali before the draft, and The Beatles combined, a truly once in a lifetime talent. I've started to notice a similar thing going on in literature concerning David Foster Wallace. More and more it seems the DFW comparisons are used talking about contemporary authors. For Christmas, I received two books explicitly name checked Wallace on the back cover. This really doesn't bother me, and I don't think it causes the reader or the publishing industry any harm. When I think about it, there's nothing like a good DFW comparison to get me interested in a newly published book. But at the same time, I worry a little bit about it. The problem with the next Jordan controversy is that while Vince Carter has (or more aptly once had) the capacity for in-air improvisation that Jordan had, Dwyane Wade has the ability to put a team on his shoulders and almost single-handedly win playoff series, and Kobe has the clutch instincts and competitive intensity Jordan had, none of these guys are on MJ's level. While these guys, and others I haven't mentioned are very good to extraordinarily good at individual faucets of the game of basketball, Jordan was the best at everything you can ask a shooting guard to be good at.I wouldn't go so far as to completely equate the respective greatness of MJ and DFW, but there is an analogy here. Because, let's face it, anybody who reads an author expecting a David Foster Wallace doppelgänger is probably going to be disappointed as those who expected Harold Miner to be the next Michael Jordan.Now that that's said, while this argument came to me while I was reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I'm not sure this review is the best place to expound upon it. For starters, George Saunders writing style and story telling are both fundamentally different from DFW's. If you were to make a Venn Diagram of George Saunders and DFW, the overlapping segments of the circles would be a mere sliver, at least based on this book. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if Saunders never read any Wallace before he wrote any of these stories. There are certain traits that Saunders and Wallace share. Both are able to write about a world that is fundamentally different from ours in very profound ways, but, at the same, make the reader feel some sense of almost eerie familiarity. Be it descriptions of wheelchair bound Quebecois assassins who were disabled in a bizarre rail-jumping ritual, or an account of an employee at a Civil War Era theme park seeking advice from the ghosts of an actual Civil War era family, both writers have an uncanny ability to treat the other-worldly in a causal manner. They both have incredible imaginations, but are able to resist what must be an overwhelming urge to let the "otherness" of their narratives overly dominate the storytelling. I feel like I'm doing people a disservice when I tell them what the plot of Infinite Jest is about. While the world Wallace constructs is unbelievably intriguing, that's not what the book is "about." If you go into the book expecting to learn about The Entertainment and find out what's wrong with Hal, you're going to be somewhat disappointed. I feel similarly about the stories here. While the settings might suggest genre fiction, Saunders' writing reminded me more of Raymond Carver than Philip K. Dick or DFW. My one quibble may be is that while Saunders is definitely a unique storyteller, and I enjoyed all of the stories, there is nothing that really resonated with me or kept me up thinking at night. Beyond the polish of the background, I'm not sure exactly how much is new there. I haven't come close to reading the complete DFW bibliography (or Saunders'), but it still pisses me off to no end that one day that wells going to run prematurely dry. Because, just as there was nothing like watching Jordan in his prime, there is nothing out there quite like reading David Foster Wallace. What makes experiencing greatness so extraordinary is the uniqueness inherent in it's nature. Like I said, I'm not sure how far anybody has ever gone with the Wallace comparisons to Saunders, so I'm not sure if any of this applies. And there's nothing wrong with comparing recent experiences with fondly recalled past experiences. But I worry that holding something to the level of past greatness, be it MJ, DFW, The Beatles, Brando, Scorsese, etc., does a diservices to both the new experience by holding it up to a standard that is impossible to reach without some glimmer of nostalgia, and the old experience by causing us to forget how unique the first was.
—A.J. Howard

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