- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (April 26, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0812987683
- ISBN-13: 978-0812987683
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (179 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella Paperback – April 26, 2016
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George Saunders, a geophysicist, maps out magical realism with this short story collection. He puts an American spin on that sensibility in the sensationally good title tale, where things in a "Westworld"-like amusement park go extraordinarily wrong, but in ways in that make perfect sense to any denizen--or reader--in the modern world. CivilWarLand is hilarious, yet ultimately sad and moving--and isn't that life in a nutshell? And how can you resist any writer who cooks up titles as good as "Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror"? --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In this debut collection of seven dystopian fantasies, some of which have appeared in the New Yorker and Harper's, America in the near future is a toxic wasteland overrun by vicious thugs and venal opportunists who prey on the weak and misshapen. Saunders's feverish imagination conjures up images as horrific as any from a Hieronymus Bosch painting: a field full of braying mules toppled over from bone marrow disease; a tourist attraction featuring pickled stillborn babies; and cows with Plexiglas windows in their sides. The black humor and vision of American enterprise and evangelism gone haywire are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's early works. In the novella "Bounty," for example, the clawed-foot narrator, who flees slavery under the "Normals" to find his sister, sees a McDonald's that is the headquarters of the Church of Appropriate Humility, aka "the Guilters." "In Guilter epistemology," he observes, "the arches represent the twin human frailties of arrogance and mediocrity." Despite the richness of the vision and the occasionally heart-melting prose, however, there is little difference in voice to distinguish one story from another. Read in one sitting, they blur into a bleak and unsettling vision of the world to come.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
I didn't realize when I chose CivilWarLand in Bad Decline as my follow-up that it was Saunders' earliest collection; I knew it was acclaimed, like most of his work, and had a lot of love, and had a pretty great title. What I didn't realize, though, is that it represented a point where Saunders was still finding his voice, to some degree. In the author's note that follows the book, Saunders comments that there's a reason that just about every story here revolves around amusement parks (even if they're all dystopian nightmare amusement parks) - it was a way to force himself out of emulating Hemingway and Carver, and into his own more unique voice.
The downside, then, with CivilWarLand is that it doesn't quite show as much range as the masterful Tenth of December. As mentioned, almost all of the stories revolve around bizarre Westworld-type amusement parks, and the few that don't still revolve around escapist entertainment, by and large. As a result, the stories blend together a little more; while each has its own unique story and plot (the title story features the Civil War park forced to recruit mercenaries from Vietnam World to help clear out a gang problem, with predictably nightmarish results), the settings tend to blur together a bit more than you'd hope.
And yet, even so, that doesn't keep the collection from being wildly successful, very funny, and even profoundly moving. Saunders has a taste for black comedy, and it pays off superbly here, with the tragicomedy "The 400-Pound CEO" being a real standout, as it tells the story of a morbidly obese man mocked by his co-workers who only wants to be loved. It's both painful and hysterically funny, as Saunders contrasts his passive, lonely hero with the absurd cruelty of his co-workers and the bizarre actions of his employer. Meanwhile, stories like "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz" show that Saunders is capable of profound emotion, as a man in control of virtual reality experiences searches for a way to escape his own painful life. And, of course, there's that title story, that mixes world-building, violence, and satire into a potent and effective combination.
Yes, in some ways, these stories blend together, and sometimes hit a bit too hard on the same themes and tropes. But even so, it's clearly the voice of an author that's finding himself, and the fact that he brings such variation, even in similar tales, speaks well of the author that Saunders would become. And even here, where he's taking his first steps, he's still writing stories unlike much else out there, and creating worlds, characters, and prose that really demand to be experienced. It's not as good as Tenth of December, but that doesn't mean it's not superb stuff indeed.
This being the first George Saunders collection I've read, while I've been aware he has received great critical praise, I had no idea he was so funny. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is his first published volume, containing six short stories and a novella. In many, a key setting is a rather dystopian and dysfunctional historical theme park--though it's unclear from story to story whether it's the same historical theme park. Each is something of an exploration of class, in that those who enjoy the park's amusements are rich, while those running it behind-the-scenes definitely are not. Saunders says in an afterward that the question that has motivated his writing is, "Why is the world so harsh to those who are losing?"
Within the collection, the two outliers are "Isabelle," a short story that is very different stylistically from the others--both in that it is neither funny/satirical, and it takes place in a recognizable "real world"--and "Bounty," which follows the style of the other stories, but is a novella. And these two outliers set the two ends of the spectrum for me of the entry I liked best and the one I liked least. "Isabelle," I felt, was a little masterpiece, a spare but touching story. "Bounty," on the other hand, took the whimsical approach of the other stories, but as a novella went on just too long. I understand Saunders will next be publishing a novel. I will look forward to seeing how he handles that long form.
As I will look forward to reading other Saunders stories. I'll recommend him to those who still have not heard of him. The praise he has gained is well-deserved.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is one of Saunders's earliest efforts, appearing in 1996. It's a slim volume-179 pages containing six stories and a novella. The stories follow a predictable formula-a vaguely post-apocryphal future dominated by hapless narrators pulled between their sense of morality and the practical necessities of survival in a mean world. Bosses are ruthless, the innocent suffer, and business jargon dressed up as the ethics du jour rules the roost. Many of the send ups are hilarious, that is until one of the main characters gets a rusty knife plunged into his ribs. Even the ghosts in the stories are troubled, doomed to relive the tragedies of their earthly lives over and over again.
Saunders vision is bleak, which allows the small glimmers of hope in his fiction to shine. Although I laughed at the funny parts, ultimately I found his satire to be formulaic and depressing. His work recalls the songstress Peggy Lee's melody "Is That All There Is?". Given Saunders's recent literary success, apparently not.