What I find so interesting about George Saunders is that while everyone seems to love his fiction, no one wants to sit down and read a bunch of it in a row. For instance, I only managed to make it through his latest collection of short fiction on my fourth attempt. The idea of delivery in such an instance makes me wonder why it so neglected in literary criticism; perhaps the flagging sales of short story collections can be attributed to this notion that readers don’t want to read eleven in a row.
His third collection of short fiction, In Persuasion Nation, is typical of the satire on our media-obsessed, consumer-driven culture. And though his work seems to be a bit absurdist, maybe a little too unusual for the average reader, it seems to work because even in some of the oddest stories he manages to hit an emotional core that is the envy of more traditional authors.
The stories in this collection seemed to work best when they were more traditional. For example, ‘The Red Bow’ presents the grief of a father and community over the mauling death of a little girl. Another story deals with the gambling impulse that leads a blue-collar worker to squander his opportunities to provide a Christmas for his family. Though the narrative voice is obviously Saunders with the slight nod towards absurdity, the realistic settings give the work a resonance that the more outlandish situations seem to lack.
The more absurdist the stories get the more a reader can rely on a biting satire of consumer culture. In ‘Jon,’ orphans are sold to a marketing group that uses them to test new products. Unfortunately, the story fails to move as the title character never really connects with the reader. In the title story, bands of advertising characters fight each other for dominance, the lesson being that all of life exists to promote some product or service and defying such a fact is impossible. ‘Comm Comm’ managed to evoke a sense of the Saunders at work in Civilwarland in Bad Decline (a book I enjoyed greatly), something none of the other stories managed to do.
In Persuasion Nation is an interesting collection and worth a look if you enjoy his essays in The New Yorker or are a fan of satire. But it is best approached intermittently; reading the stories consecutively will burn you out in a hurry.