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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil Paperback – September 6, 2005

3.8 out of 5 stars 50 customer reviews

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Book Description
Welcome to Inner Horner, a nation so small it can only accommodate one citizen at a time. The other six citizens must wait their turns in the Short-Term Residency Zone of the surrounding country of Outer Horner. It's a long-standing arrangement between the fantastical, not-exactly-human citizens of the two countries. But when Inner Horner suddenly shrinks, forcing three-quarters of the citizen then in residence over the border into Outer Horner territory, the Outer Hornerites declare an Invasion In Progress--having fallen under the spell of the power-hungry and demagogic Phil.

So begins The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Fueled by Saunders's unrivaled wit, outlandish imagination, and incisive political sensibility, here is a deeply strange yet strangely familiar fable of power and impotence, justice and injustice--an Animal Farm for our times.

Praise for George Saunders
Author of Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline

"An astoundingly tuned voice--graceful, dark, authentic, and funny--telling just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times."
--Thomas Pynchon

"Mr. Saunders writes like the illegitimate offspring of Nathanael West and Kurt Vonnegut. [His] satiric vision of America is dark and demented; it is also ferocious and very funny."
--Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A master of distilling the disorders of our time into fiction."

Amazon.com Exclusive
Want to know the story behind the story of award-winning author George Saunders's new novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil? Then read "Why I Wrote Phil," an exclusive essay from Saunders concerning the genesis of his new work, which has been praised as possessing "an absurdist wit as playful as Monty Python's and a vision as dark as Samuel Beckett's."

Read George Saunders's Essay, "Why I Wrote Phil"

More from George Saunders


CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

From Publishers Weekly

The shift of target to Iraq War–era America proves problematic for major 1990s satirist Saunders (Pastoralia), who here checks in with an allegorical novella centered on the tiny imaginary nations of Inner and Outer Horner. The citizens of Inner Horner, live-and-let-livers who have a lot of unproductive discussions, are countable on two hands, and they are not-quite-human: one man's torso is simply a tuna fish can and a belt. (There are 15 b&w illustrations scattered throughout.) When their nation suddenly shrinks, the group spills into Outer Horner, and a border dispute results. It paves the way for the rise of an everyman Outer Horner dictator named Phil—a jingoistic, brute-force bully. The eventual fortuitous military intervention by Greater Keller, a neighboring technocapitalist nation of latte drinkers, comes after much lingering over the mechanics of Phil's coup. (There are multiple references to the "spasming rack" from which Phil's brain periodically slides.) Despite press-chat comparisons to Animal Farm, the book lacks Orwell's willingness to follow his nightmare vision all the way out to the end. Saunders delivers some very funny exchanges and imaginative set-pieces, but literally has to call in a deus ex machina to effect Outer Horner's final undoing. It's entertaining, but politics and war don't really work that way, allegorically or otherwise. (Sept. 20)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 134 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; y First printing edition (September 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594481520
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594481529
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #297,905 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

George Saunders's political novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil was published by Riverhead Trade Paperbacks in September 2005. He is also the author of Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, both New York Times Notable Books, and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a New York Times children's bestseller. In 2000, The New Yorker named him one of the "Best Writers Under 40." He writes regularly for The New Yorker and Harper's, as well as Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine. He won a National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2004 and his work is included in Best American Short Stories 2005. He teaches at Syracuse University.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Barnettt on September 26, 2005
Format: Paperback
First, I'll say that George Saunders' two short story collections are two of my favorite books. I've reread them more times than I can count. I also go to the trouble of tracking down his new short stories as they appear in various periodicals. I'm a pretty enthusiastic admirer. So I went straight down to the bookstore and bought it on the day it was released. And then I returned it the next day. I couldn't finish it (and it's only about a hundred smallish pages.) It read like a pretty cliched book for children written in an imitation of Saunders' voice. For those who are familiar with Saunders' work, I would say: Read the first ten pages or so in the store to get an idea of what this is. To those unfamiliar with this author, I would say: Pick up either "Civilwarland in Bad Decline" or "Pastoralia"; this book is definitely not representative of this man's talent.
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Format: Paperback
Another winner from one of contemporary literature's funniest and most original writers. If you're a fan of Saunders's previous story collections -- "Pastoralia" and "Civilwarland in Bad Decline" -- you'll read this in one sitting, and then immediately start all over again. (At least that's what I did.) If you're unfamiliar with Saunders and enjoy surreal, topical fiction, this is one you should definitely check out. The critics' default comparison to "Animal Farm" is not entirely inaccurate as Saunders does seem to favor the absurd allegory over traditional realism, but don't assume that he's a second-rate Orwell imitator. For one thing, his stories are infused with more pathos and heart than Orwell's, and more hope than Vonnegut's (another frequent comparison). In short, if the top writers working in America today were to play a game of king of the mountain, Saunders would have a good shot at pushing others off the peak. But if the handling of his subject matter is any indication of how Saunders regards his fellow man, instead of pushing he'd extend his hand and help pull others to the top, all the while making sure everyone had enough room and a steady foothold. Buy and enjoy.
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Format: Paperback
Often hilarious, certainly timely, and übersilly, "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil" is an inoffensive antidote for the urge to indulge ourselves in shallow patriotism, jingoism, or gloating at the supposed superiority of ourselves and our culture.

Try an experiment: read "Phil" and then watch the evening news - on any channel - and see if you don't experience certain physical effects stemming from the concoction: a)the shivers at the terrifying similarities of good satire & reality, and b) nausea at the inanity currently passing itself off as enlightened public discourse.

Saunders has put together a solid if occasionally superficial (for me, a requirement of a well-constructed allegory) critique of what happens when a great society goes about - seemingly at will - losing its grip on what makes it authentically great. I found that one of the most frightening aspects of this little satire was that the degraded state of the current public rhetoric - catchphrases wrapped in soundbytes oozing with platitudes - seems to have made writing "Phil" entirely too easy for Saunders. The book is easy to read and yet provides a valuable check for how we frame our remarks about what is wrong - or right - with our culture.

In short, if you think you might enjoy an entree cooked by Mark Twain and then spiced by Karel Capek and finally smothered in some nonsensical mystery sauce that Dr. Seuss whipped up, then what George Saunders is serving up in "Phil" just may be for you.

Recommended to readers anywhere where folks need to rediscover how beneficial it is to be able to laugh at yourself.
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Format: Paperback
like its setting, "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil" is small. this shouldn't be too much of a surprise considering that saunders's two other major works have been short story collections, but one wonders why this story wasn't included in a collection rather than being sold as a stand-alone piece. in this reviewer's humble opinion, it does not merit the $10 price, even for the lovely illustrations. as for content, the story is a kind of surrealist satire involving a man with a brain problem (in that half the time he doesn't have one) gaining control of an entire landscape, and the chaos that he initiates. there are some piercing observations here, a hilarious take on modern media, and extremely inventive ideas for characters made of a combination of organic and mechanical materials. there are some funny moments (toward the end, phil begins to experience a kind of linguistic spasm in which his speech becomes jumbled, perhaps the one moment that evokes our current president most strongly), and the ending is poignant without being overdone. saunders is an extremely deft writer but the story was not fleshed out or given enough attention to warrant being its own book. I would recommend reading something else of his first.
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Format: Paperback
In George Saunders's latest work, a plain-speaking dimwit (Phil) takes control of a prosperous nation, Outer Horner, by dubious means. Phil has a long-standing personal grudge against a nation called Inner Horner, which is poor and completely defenseless. After deliberately misleading the people of Outer Horner about the threat posed by Inner Horner, Phil launches an unprovoked military assault on the citizens of Inner Horner. The ones that aren't killed are enclosed in a barbed-wire prison, stripped of clothing and deprived of sleep. The hapless media organizations of Outer Horner are only able to repeat mindless slogans in support of their leader, who condemns anyone who opposes him as unpatriotic.

Fans of Saunders's previous work will enjoy the oddball style and content of this "novella," which is actually more like a lengthy short story. His writing style really is unusual and creative, and here he makes up in part for the lack of text with some nifty hand drawings. Not a bad way to spend an hour.
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