CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Analysis
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 entire section is 769 words.)