boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Making sense of dystopia

Essays use pathos, whimsy to plumb a baffling world

Saunders's books include 'CivilWarLand in Bad Decline' and 'Pastoralia.' Saunders's books include "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and "Pastoralia." (Caitlin Saunders)

The Braindead Megaphone
By George Saunders
Riverhead, 257 pp., paperback, $14

George Saunders has become one of the most popular story writers in America for one essential reason: He's found a way to convert his sorrow about mankind into exquisite comedies of disappointment. While his first essay collection can't hope to plunge readers into the twisted dystopias that stud his fiction, it does make a heroic effort to reckon with the dystopic aspects of our world, one that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.

"The Braindead Megaphone" begins with a title essay that seeks to make sense of the rising tide of demagoguery in America. Saunders employs not liberal cant, but a broader and more strenuously reasoned argument against the civic impoverishment of the mass media. "The people who used to ask, 'Is it news?' now seem to be asking, 'Will it stimulate?' "

His satires target a popular culture that uses stimulation as its most reliable profit source. "The other day I was watching TV and it occurred to me that I've become a prude," he confesses at one point. "The show in question was innocuous enough, nothing shocking - just an episode of 'HottieLeader,' featuring computer simulations of what various female world leaders would look like naked and in the throes of orgasm."

These lighter pieces tend toward a certain Dave Barryesque zaniness, a little of which goes a long way. Saunders does better when he abandons his armchair and flings himself into the strange precincts of the planet. In the surreal oasis of Dubai, for instance, he spots a pack of American servicemen on leave.

"You can tell they're Navy because they're huge and tattooed and innocently happy and keep bellowing things like, 'Dude, [forget] that, I am all about dancing!' while punching each other lovingly in the tattoos and shooting what I recognize as Rural Smiles of Shyness and Apprehension at all the people staring at them because they're so freaking loud."

This precise and unstinting humanity is what distinguishes Saunders as a correspondent. He refuses to traffic in clever reductionism. He doesn't pretend to be an expert, or waste his words quoting them. Instead, he proceeds into the breach as a regular dude trying to make sense of the absurdities presented by the modern world, forever vulnerable to their pathos.

I am thinking of the lovely moment when, during his trip along the US-Mexico border, Saunders arrives at the point where the border becomes "a stripe on the concrete." He strikes up a conversation with two Mexican men. "Occasionally, a foot, absentmindedly kicking at a pebble, will wander out of its own nation, or one of us will briefly emigrate to keep the sun out of his eyes."

Saunders shows our southern border for what it is: a line in the desert that marks the flow of workers from a poor country to a rich one. The "immigration crisis," by contrast, comes off as a political gimmick aimed at inflaming the bigoted entitlement within the American spirit. His visit to a remarkably incompetent group of Minutemen vigilantes serves as confirmation. This is the essence of Bush's America: Those least inclined toward moral reasoning carry the largest guns.

At the other end of the spectrum is Saunders's oddly inspiring sojourn to see the so-called Buddha Boy, a 15-year-old who has allegedly meditated without food and water for seven months. Saunders flies to Nepal to investigate. On the way over, he sits next to a Kosovar, who tells him horror stories about the Serbian occupation. "He is kindly, polite, awed by the horrible things he's seen, grateful that, as an American citizen, he no longer has to worry about murdered babies or hacked-up friends, except, it would appear, in memory, constantly." These are the sorts of observations - both ruthless and tender - that make Saunders such a pleasure to read.

In the end, he spends a freezing, hallucinatory night in the wilds of Nepal trying to prove the boy a hoax - and finds himself face to face with a miracle. "It seems impossible he's not dead," Saunders remarks, upon catching sight of the boy the next morning. "He looks made of stone, utterly motionless, as impervious to the night as the tree he appears to be a part of." The piece, already a gripping mystery, evolves into a meditation on the tyranny of our desires.

Saunders's prose is often playfully wonky, a vestige of his training as an engineer. But he is also a passionate champion of fiction, from Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme to the young-adult novel "Johnny Tremain." Thankfully, his tributes shun the tortured jargon of academic criticism. He shares his own history as a reader, the particular needs that drew him to literature, and the specific means by which authors gratify those needs.

Ultimately, Saunders suggests that the stories we choose to consume take our measure as a species. As our imaginations wither, so, too, will our fates. In his supple treatise on "Huckleberry Finn," he writes: "In a culture that is becoming ever more story-stupid . . . it is perhaps not surprising that people have trouble teaching and receiving a novel as complex and flawed as 'Huck Finn,' but it is even more urgent that we learn to look passionately and technically at stories, if only to protect ourselves from the false and manipulative ones being circulated among us."

Amen.

Steve Almond is the author of the new essay collection "(Not That You Asked)."

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES