Just finished "In Persuasion Nation," and, while I found it enjoyable and consistently challenging, it left a rather bitter aftertaste (I decided not to post a review here, since my comments have more to do with the ideas the books raises than with its literary merit.)
Saunders is clearly one of the most incisive and ferocious critics of consumer culture writing fiction today, but he's certainly not one of the subtlest. His m.o., generally speaking, is to take those ugly impulses at work within the everyday scenes of post-industrial capitalism and amplify them to painful levels. The results are often very funny - in a broad, even slapstick way - but what at first seemed a forgiveable lack of nuance in his writing eventually started to seem to me like a more disturbing limitation in his thinking about contemporary culture.
To be specific, the collection concludes with two stories that are primarily concerned with redemption, and redemption of a pretty clearly religious sort. Saunders can't, in good faith, be accused of being a Bush-era fundamentalist in postmodernist clothing, but, in many respects, I think his ways of conceptualizing life in 21st century America have a lot in common with the Manichaean worldview of the Religious Right. More simply put, Saunders seems to have such a grim and cynical view of cultural life today that the only alternative he can imagine is a kind of beatific transcendance of it all.
By so consistently exaggerating the very worst aspects of a consumerism-driven culture, Saunders at once occupies and recreates the same polarized landscape that has produced a generation of disillusioned reactionaries. From this 'all-or-nothing' perspective, our culture has become so utterly and irrevocably bankrupt that the only option left to good, "light-craving" people is to renounce the whole unholy mess in favor of, at best, a kind of New Age-y Drop Out, or, at worst, a creepily old-fashioned kind of Great Awakening.
Honestly, I felt a bit depressed after finishing the book. Here's one of the very few writers out there who's really willing to expose the dangerous and brutal aspects of our "fun-obsessed" society, but his alternatives, ultimately, seemed no less sinister in their too-easy recourse to metaphors of Redemption, capital R. Lots more to be said on these topics, of course, but I'll just try throwing a first pitch out there & see if anyone wants to take a swing.
Mr. Conner, While I agree with all of your points, Saunders has chosen to skirt so far out of the norm because every other medium (sports, tv, radio etc...) stay only within their self formed confines. Never do they point out the inherent dangers of consumerism, and why would they?
So here we have Saunders, showing the worst of all possible worlds while presenting "too-easy recourse to metaphors of Redemption". He is up against a Right that uses Religious Salvation as it's carrot to his metaphors.
Silly as Salvation sounds, to a non-christian such as myself, you have to admit it's a cannon to go up against. This American society only wants easy answers, maybe Saunders is testing his readers--seeing if they'll try to follow the sinker.
Great points. I've liked it when Saunders' tells a story through a character with a conflicted view on wild parody America going on around him. Like in "The Red Bow" and "Jon." These characters still on the fence feeling some unease with their culture but still active participants ring the truest. Then again those characters are the easiest for me to relate to, so I'm a bit biased.
Yeah, the transcendence theme running through Saunders' work can be a little frustrating with its convenience (I'm thinking of the ends of CommComm and Phil). But, is there a better anti-thesis for a culture that has reduced so much of human experience to commodity than to suggest that there's something so huge, powerful, pure and transcendent that it eclipses even what we currently believe as God? That's really a great question, has experience been belittled and made ironic to the point that Saunders' "Grand Awakening" is an accurate polarization? Maybe the reminder of simple answers equating to 'everything is awesome' is important nowadays.
Good discussion. I feel the advocation of some sort of new-agey transcendence is the m.o. of a great deal of authors, both now and in decades past, but it comes into starker relief when a writer (like Saunders) focuses on subjects dealing with modern society, rather than timeless subjects like marriage or work. When a writer sees things that are wrong with a society, but can see no real solution to them, divine intervention seems an easier choice than throwing one's hands up and saying, "Nothing can be done."
Look no further than the end of Phil for this. Hell, look at one of the closing dialouges of 1984, when the protagonist is asked by a government agent if he believes in God. When he responds he doesn't, he's asked (and I'm going from memory here, so this may not be totally accurate), "Well, who else do you think could possibly stop us?" The protagonist/Orwell doesn't seem to have an answer to this.
On a sidenote, I'd really recommend U.S.! by Chris Bachelder to everyone. It deals with this problem (how can writers effectively engage with their society) in a really clever way, and I can see Saunders fans enjoying it.
I haven't read Persuasion Nation, just a few stories from Tenth of.. but there, I took away not a New Age-y Drop Out renunciation, although Buddhism, which he practices seems to strive for a detachment i don't wholly understand, but rather a call to perspective, the differentiation captured in the eastern distinction between self, and Self. From the latter perspective, every human being is inviolate, and not to be an instrument of another self's project, not "useable" as we are consumed with doing in drive to achieve. The story in Tenth, Spiderhead, which i just read, made me think about emotion in a new way. We don't choose lust or romantic love, we are subjected to these impulses to behave in certain ways towards others just as Jeff, in the story, murdered in a moment of mindless teenage rage. It is so important to have this perspective, it is only from this "religious" or what I might call, larger, more fundamental perspective of the connectedness of all life, that compassion is born which for Saunders is the highest calling, that of human decency. Without compassion, respect, and correlative awareness of the way emotions and drives such as the sexual drive can derail us just as the drugs administered in the story do, we are driven, not drivers. The horribly tragic irony of the story is that only in choosing death is he able to achieve this most honorable of all human acts, love of other as myself. But Saunders isn't saying that this is always the way it is. The extremity of the story is to make the point that we need this perspective as we go thru life, to know that what we feel or feel compelled to do at any moment is not chosen, it is given, the choice, once one is aware, is how to act in response to the given, the feelings, the biological urges, etc. THis is human being's burden and calling. Anyway, going to read Persuasion Nation after i finish Tenth and see how he developed his storytelling from there. Thanks for your provocative comments