Last Updated on September 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769
In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders’s 1996 collection of satirical short stories and a novella, seven protagonists struggle to negotiate stylized, absurd, and oppressive environments with varied degrees of success.
In stylizing the future to such comic effect, Saunders highlights what a reader might also interpret as the ills of the present. His characters live in untenable, unappealing worlds—either barren and dangerous or cold and bureaucratic—plagued by resource instability, class division, excessive regulation, and violence. For the most part, access to joy in these environments has been relegated to shoddy, ersatz recreations of what life used to be: theme parks offering a rare glimpse at history; water park exhibits recalling peaceful, unspoiled nature; and virtual reality modules offering the chance to experience a fulfilling and meaningful life firsthand.
The protagonists navigating these infertile environments are, without exception, the downtrodden. They wrestle with guilt, shame, poverty, abnormality, loneliness, dehumanization, powerlessness, emasculation, and both literal and figurative impotence. Some are haunted by the memories of their actions or inactions, while others are haunted by actual ghosts who turn up now and then to remind them of their mistakes.
In a few cases, the protagonist does, to some degree, overcome the odds—the narrator of “Isabelle,” the narrator of “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” and Cole from “Bounty” all end their narratives in a place of peaceful equilibrium. But for the other protagonists, the endings are not so tidy. Most allow themselves to be consumed by their guilt, spite, or despair, finishing the story in an even worse position than where they were when they started. Jobs, wives, and lives are lost; one unfortunate character loses all three in rapid succession.
In the Author's Note, Saunders writes that one question is, in his eyes, at the heart of this book: “Why is the world so harsh to those who are losing?” The stories bear out this concern—at the end of “The 400-Pound CEO,” Jeffrey, the protagonist, muses in his prison cell on the same topic:
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 need for love, and no way to get any . . . 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.
If Jeffrey can be assumed, to some degree, to speak for the author, then his interpretation can perhaps be considered an answer of sorts to Saunders’s question.
Though Saunders’s narrative arcs trend toward the bleak and depressing, his linguistic choices are the opposite. He renders his barren landscapes and personal tragedies with playful, irreverent language throughout, creating an almost nihilistic sense of resignation and gallows humor among his characters.
In one particularly effective ongoing linguistic motif, the author employs aggressively formal word choice to both mock and emphasize the cold bureaucratic environments in which he often places his characters. In the titular story, for example, a man performs “Hatred Abatement Breathing” exercises after a fight with his wife. In “The Wavemaker Falters,” a man staffing a pool’s towel room is said to manage the “Towel Distribution and Collection” department, complete with regular reports on usage statistics. This hyper-literal language has the effect of flattening the environment the characters occupy, reminding the reader that what they’re reading is just as absurd and cartoonish as it sounds,...
(This entire section contains 769 words.)
even as the characters live through dire tragedy.
When read in succession, there are also familiar elements peppered through the different stories that jump out—characters named Leon, for example, appear more than once, as do characters working in the water filtration industry.
These stories were written over a number of years and were originally published independently of each other, so a reader can only speculate on whether this repetition is an inadvertent coincidence or a deliberate choice on behalf of the author. Either way, the effect is noticeable when the collection is read as a whole: coupled with the recurring themes, these repeated elements give the stories a distinct feeling of existing in a shared universe—one in which the world at large has deteriorated to a state of constant precarity and bureaucracy, rigid social stratification dictates the individual human experience, and literal and figurative ghosts constantly lurk at the edge of one’s peripheral vision.