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The Braindead Megaphone Paperback – September 4, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Best known for his absurdist, sci-fi–tinged short stories, Saunders (In Persuasion Nation) offers up an assortment of styles in his first nonfiction collection. Humor pieces from the New Yorker like Ask the Optimist, in which a newspaper advice column spins out of control, reflect the gleeful insanity of his fiction, while others display more earnestness, falling short of his best work. In the title essay, for example, his lament over the degraded quality of American media between the trial of O.J. Simpson and the 9/11 terrorist attacks is indistinguishable from the complaints of any number of cultural commentators. Fortunately, longer travel pieces written for GQ, where Saunders wanders through the gleaming luxury hotels of Dubai or keeps an overnight vigil over a teenage boy meditating in the Nepalese jungle, are enriched by his eye for odd detail and compassion for the people he encounters. He also discusses some of his most important literary influences, including Slaughterhouse Five and Johnny Tremain (he holds up the latter as my first model of beautiful compression—the novel that made him want to be a writer). Despite a few rough spots, these essays contain much to delight. (Sept. 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
George Saunders’s Braindead Megaphone uses the fiction author’s trademark ability to, as the Boston Globe puts it, "convert his sorrow about mankind into exquisite comedies of disappointment" and applies it to the sometimes surreal and often discomfiting world around him. While most critics appreciate Saunders’s attempt to provide a counterpoint to America’s vitriol-filled but ultimately meaningless media punditry, both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times ridicule his humanistic approach as naïve and overly optimistic. One’s reaction to Saunders’ essays seems to hinge largely on one’s acceptance of his liberal perspective, his faith in the power of narrative, and his primary assertion that "the stories we choose to consume take our measure as a species" (Boston Globe).
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Covering excess in Dubai, Saunders reflects amidst the predictable if dazzling glittery glitz how universal the Other remains, appealing by common human dignity and compassion to connect people no matter who or where. Under the snark, his essays at their best sustain the impact of his stories, where empathy mingles somehow with satire, and pop psychology send-ups deepen the poignant attempts of put-upon everyday people, corrupted by systems and co-opted by corporations, to maintain dignity against all capitalist odds. The profit motive reigns in Dubai; Saunders accepts in reporting for GQ his complicity, but he wonders what else he, gawking at Third World workers happy to toil in the desert, should or can do.
As for the media he represents, on the border near Laredo, he gently mocks his Minutemen companions, as an East Coast journalist. Accused of not being a properly neutral reporter, Saunders fires back: “We’re being neutral.” “By not making fun of you.” (152) While insistent on his liberal bona fides, Saunders here allows himself to hear out the often caricatured other side of the issue, and the border. He never gives in, but following his coverage, he begins to become more patient, and we share the tolerance for insights transcending sound bites or partisan treatment of hot-button issues
Beneath a smart-ass tone, Saunders keeps aware of the need for honesty. He wonders if we may be wired by one of two nodes neutrally. Some protect what they have, and crouch and hunker down to guard it. Others pop up, eager to share, open to the new. Perhaps, he reflects, our politics thus emerge.
This continues into an excellent introduction to Huck Finn. “Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies.” (203) Out of this conflict, Saunders maps the war within the American (and World) Psyche, ever contending. Apropos, he finds in Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme congenial fellow travelers.
What links these writers is a refusal to give into the narrative's comforts, and to allow uneasiness. As Saunders finds investigating a report of a boy meditating for seven years: “A human being is someone who, having lived awhile, becomes terrified and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear.” Visiting a Nepalese Buddhist shrine, wary of miracles, he still muses: “all of this began when one man walked into the woods, sat down, and tried to end his fear by doing something purely internal: working on his mind.” (216). Saunders diagnoses this as a possible remedy for our “ambient fear” of knowing that when we love, we realize “there must someday come a parting.”
While a few essays fall flat, feeling like sketches for stories better dramatized than satirized, and while his strength remains in fictionalizations of the predicaments he doodles in the lesser entries, overall this 2007 collection plays to the quirky elements that make his inventive tales so successful.