In Persuasion Nation [Buy Now]

Riverhead Press, New York
By George Saunders
240 pages

Everyone who reads him knows that George Saunders is one of the funniest writers at work today. What’s less remarked on is his capacity to wrench pathos from comedy. While other writers seek out beauty, Saunders restricts himself to America’s chintzy landscape, our vocabulary of bureaucratese and self-empowerment. No one in his fiction is remotely glamorous, or likable. Saunders presents 12-steppers on the brink of meltdown, theme-park actors impersonating cave people. And as if these fates weren’t belittling enough, corporate interests hover like vultures, ready to wring out every last ounce of productivity, or disposable income.

With In Persuasion Nation, Saunders shows where this constant state of being marketed to is leading us — and debt is just the tip of the iceberg. In the opening story, “I CAN SPEAK!™,” a service representative writes to a customer dissatisfied with a Velcro mask that can be attached to a baby’s head, allowing it to speak. “Jon” describes a world where orphans are auctioned off to a market research firm that uses them as “Tastemakers & Trendsetters.” While the kids are being exploited, the adults are getting hooked on the products their research creates — from drugs to synthetic happiness. “And the Aurabon® would make things better, as Aurabon® always makes things better, although soon what I found was, when you are hooking in like eight or nine times a day, you are always so happy, and yet it is a kind of happy like chewing on tinfoil, and once you are living that sort of happy, you soon cannot be happy enough.”

Saunders argues that our experiment with psychopharmacology has created a population with a tenuous connection to reality. We expect good times, but the skills we possess deal with their opposite. So our emotions fly from disappointment straight to rage, then flat-line at paranoia; fear of a lack of happiness, a lack of success — a lack of anything — pervades everything. Where David Foster Wallace paints a world utterly dehumanized by these conditions, Saunders finds great humanity in all-encompassing anxiety, whether it’s parents obsessing over the possibility that their child is “slow” or homeowners possessed by the idea that their castle will be invaded.

Even the violent can be articulate. In “Adams,” a father describes his struggle with a creepy next-door neighbor who shoots him nasty looks. “And I thought, If that was me, if I had that hate level, what would I do? Well, one thing I would do is hold it in and hold it in and then one night it would overflow and I would sneak into the house of my enemy and stab him and his family in their sleep. Or shoot them. I would.”

Saunders has had the problem that once he hits this note, he can’t find anywhere else to go. Rage has a way of flattening a story, becoming its own foregone conclusion. That doesn’t happen in In Persuasion Nation because he also mines a more naturalistic vein. In “Christmas” and “Bohemians,” he proves he can narrate without using a single Unnecessary Capitalization and still bring you to your knees; here he allows us to take on his characters’ anger and disappointment. In other stories, his narrators try their best to hold onto it. It’s in their best interests. It also defines the one part of them corporate America does not want.

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