Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: Wonk


I’ve been told for quite a while to read George Saunders. And just recently between a ‘This American Life’ broadcast and a New Yorker podcast, Saunders has infiltrated my system ‘aurally’. His intensely brutal sense of humour is something to be admired. His writing isn’t necessarily literary as it is conversational. It’s like reading as someone speaks.

In Persuasion Nation is a collection of stories which build up to being one long diatribe against advertisements, television, and mass market consumerism. Each is interested in defaming popular culture, a culture that is solely attune to the latest products and individual behaviour. For the most part the tales are touching or laugh out loud funny, but there are moments of dead time or aggrandizement.
‘My Flamboyant Grandson’ is a humorous tale about a grandfather who takes his theatre-and-Babar-obsessed grandson to the wildly lit world of a futuristic New York City. Along Broadway they experience personalised advertisements (in the future everyone will have advertisements tailored to your brain waves). Unfortunately as the grandfather and grandson are running late, the grandfather physically nudges an advertisement man/Citizen Helper (a title that just is reminiscent of Communism and 1984) and therefore has to go through re-education. ‘This, to me, is not America. What America is, to me, is a guy doesn’t want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let’s go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamorous reasonable voice.’ It’s an amusing statement, even though a bit heavy-handed and dripping with the narrator’s own propaganda.
My personal favourite story is ‘Adams’, where the narrator of this tale walks into his home and sees his neighbour Adams in his kitchen, barely dressed facing his kids’ rooms. And with that starts a neighbourly war, beginning with the narrator wonking Adams on the back of the head. This hysterical and biting short story goes into the theories of pre-emptive strikes, protection of children, neighbor gossip, and sick thinking – all of which loses its effect if I try to explain it. ‘Adams’ may be the shortest story in the collection but it is certainly the most memorable.

Joshua Ferris does a fantastic, dead-on reading of ‘Adams’ via the New Yorker podcast, which can be found here. Ferris’s articulation on the line ‘As if he is the one who is right!’ acknowledges Ferris’s mastery of the story and mastery of reading. In another’s hands, that probably would have been slurred. But he gives ‘Adams’ a wonderful reading and he and Deborah Triesman have an interesting discussion that does open the story to a more ‘political’ reading.
Saunders also has a new story in a recent New Yorker.

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