Set in impoverished areas in the southeastern United States, George Saunders presents an American satire through six short stories and a novella in the collection “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” Saunders explores the lives of seven different fictional characters through episodes of economic hardship, love lost, death, and disillusionment with the powers in place.
A gripping and humorously packed punch at the American Dream, Saunders captures the conflict between morals in a capitalist economy as his characters face value-compromising decisions. The short stories and novella also open up dialogue about racial tension, economic class rifts, lawlessness in an alienated culture, and tensions between generation groups. All the while, Saunders presents a demented and dark humor that leaves the reader nervously chuckling and flipping to the next page.
Saunders’ collection opens the reader up to a world often overlooked, and incredibly distant from our own. The author submerses the reader in the lives of characters crafted with distant and likeable attributes. He masterfully writes them as approachable.
Ultimately, we can empathize with these characters—an element that reconciles their disenfranchisement from their own world and accredits them as tragic heroes and heroines in their own respect. I’ve included a review of three of the short stories and the novella that shed light on Saunders’ hilarious collection.
The first short story, which shares a title with the collection as a whole, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” illustrates life on the set of a Civil War re-enactment campus withdrawn from the tenants of civilization. There, sectioned off from the rest of the world, the narrator encounters racial tensions instilled in the population against the Irish, youth in revolt as teenage gangs sabotage the sets and employees, economic class rifts between people in power and the meager status of the small business, and the blight nature of the American Dream as individuals continually fail miserably—blinded by ambition. In addition, the characters have to discern their morals in a lawless area cleaved off from the rest of society. Alone and pummeled with bad luck and even worse decisions, Saunders manages to instill an absurd sense of humor in the coming events for the characters.
In “The 400-Pound CEO,” the fourth short story included in the collection, Saunders offers a twisted account of a morbidly obese corporate office worker as he encounters cruelty regularly for his physical mass and the hopelessness in moving up the corporate ladder. Jeffrey, the narrator, takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster as fellow employees continually ridicule him for his weight and his love interest manipulates his helpless infatuation with her. Jeffrey’s somewhat positive, slightly naïve outlook reconciles the abrasive nature of the situation. Witty, and incredibly lovable, Jeffrey ends up falling into a scheme likened to that of Stephen Root’s character Milton Waddams in the movie “Office Space.” It’s up to the reader to judge the moral implications.
The sixth and final short story in “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” titled “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” tells the tale of Mary, a ninety-two year old working widow. The story, weighted with the suffering of an elderly woman outliving her friends and husband and also her ‘glory days’, embarks on an operation to make one last stand. Abused and taken for granted by her employer at a laughable mock science center, Saunders presents Mary to the reader with impoverished culture and the depressing motif of someone old awaiting death. Mary, disillusioned with the state of younger generations in their self-serving individuality, begins to push people’s buttons, coyly playing pranks and watching the system be pulled apart. Her lashing out also seems to reflect someone who feels forgotten by society due to her age, and this is her time for people to acknowledge her. In the end, you will have to decide if she wins or if her employers maintain their war on the old, dejected, and personal.
“Bounty,” Saunders’ novella, carries on the collection’s tradition of knocking the American Dream in the modern day as it conveys a post-apocalyptic America following the short stories set in the present. The narrator, a “flawed” or disenfranchised member of society, takes the reader through a demented precautionary tale. The novella satirizes religion, poking at the ‘practice what you preach’ card and religion’s attempt to comfort the disillusioned masses. It is a haunting reminder about the dangers of apathy and seeking efficiency. Saunders discusses human cruelty, hypocrisy, self-serving actions, and self-justification, which establish the novella as a daggering conclusion that ties the other stories’ themes together. The end glimmers faintly with hope, an unresolved attempt to console the reader that the fight is worth fighting. It accentuates man’s propensity to do evil and leaves the reader to consider man’s capacity for good.
“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”: one hundred and seventy nine pages of brilliant prose work. Why’s it worth reading? It reads fluidly, it addresses uncomfortable topics that shed light on our morality, presents problems that can be fixed now, and attempts to reconcile humanity with its alienated, outcasts, rejects—all while injecting the stories with ridiculousness and humor.
Sam Tezak, Guest Writer