CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

I first came across George Saunders in a New York Times piece on his new novel, and due to its high praise, I proposed his first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), to my book club a few months ago. I read it in two days, and even though many of the stories are a bit repetitive in theme and content, on the whole I thought it was worth a read. It’s taken me a while to put my thoughts together but here they are.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline contains six short stories plus a novella called “Bounty”. On the surface these are amusing satires of the absurdities of modern service-oriented businesses, but beneath the comedy is quite a biting critique of American life. All the short stories focus on characters grasping for, or barely hanging onto, the bottom rung of middle America. On the whole these characters are a disenfranchised lot, not entirely hopeless, but perpetually on the brink, awaiting that final breeze that will send them over the edge. They struggle with jobs they hate, unendurable family lives, and unattainable dreams.

I told him about my El Salvador plan, expecting him to find it indulgent. But instead he said, “You know what? You have to do it.”

“Yes,” I said, with the force of revelation. “I do. I really do.”

“And you know why?” he said. “Because you know who you’re going to blame if you don’t?”

I did know.

“Myself,” I said with a knowing smile.

“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ll blame your wife and kids.”

Employment is of primary concern, and the characters slave away at bizarre, pointless jobs, for bosses who are outrageous and grotesque. There’s a Verisimilitude Inspector at a Civil War theme park, a fake water filter salesman, a wavemaker operator at a waterpark. All these characters feel powerless to quit, as they’re living hand-to-mouth and they always fear unemployment marginally more than they loathe their jobs and co-workers. Their work environments are as perversely artificial as their roles; there’s always an artificial stream, speaker systems simulating natural sounds, faux marble, fake boulders, fake stars, jewelry, and shrubs. These are physical manifestations of their artificial jobs, which never produce anything useful, and seem almost dreamt up specifically to make them miserable.

Despite the focus on employment, the characters never progress in their careers. They’re made to swallow free market propaganda even as it strangles them: they endure lectures on the importance of capitalism from a young man in a T-shirt that reads “I hold your purse strings in my hot little hand”, and on the Protestant work ethic from a man who wears an executioner’s mask as he sexually abuses women in a torture chamber underneath his office. They’re required to sustain an unflagging work ethic in the total absence of rewards for hard work or ethical behaviour. The business models of their companies involve either the explicit purchase of lies and fantasies (theme parks, holograms, memories), or they deliberately mislead their customers (“Humane Raccoon Alternatives” which brutally slaughters the animals, or water filtration systems which actually do nothing). They’re given euphemistic titles, most strikingly in “Bounty” where hookers are called “Personal Pleasure Associates”, tricks “Affection Recipients”, and slaves “Involuntary Labor Associates”. This is the American nightmare, Lynchian in its mixture of dreamlike surreality and depressing familiarity. Like Lynch’s films, Saunders’ stories are not explicitly political, but simply show the disparity between what people have been promised by the American dream and what they actually receive.

Family life is little better than work. The families are utterly dysfunctional, with none of the couples able to hide their mutual resentment. The fathers, generally the narrators and the most sympathetic, are well-intentioned, but impotent and cowardly. The mothers are nags, the children ungrateful and absent, and the wives and lovers constantly dissatisfied (often leaving for unbearable but solvent men).

As a result the characters in CivilWarLand are forever on the verge of nervous breakdowns, or even of going postal. For a superficially comical collection, there’s a horrific amount of violence: suicides, snipers, terrible accidents, maimings, disfigurements, torture, amputations, assaults, and sodomy, to name some of the incidents that come to mind. There are six separate shootings. These incidents are casual, often told in an utterly matter-of-fact way that makes it clear that they’re both commonplace and unavoidable. In the eponymous “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”, a nun attempts suicide but is saved, then “a week later she runs amok in the nun eating hall and stabs a cafeteria worker to death.” “The 400-Pound CEO”, for example, begins with a boss who “purposely backed his car over a frat boy and got ten-to-twelve for manslaughter”. In “Isabelle”, a black boy is drowned by two white police officers as they force his horrified younger brother to look on. The scrawny brother bides his time for years, finally hiding in the officer’s closet intent on vengeance, but when the man begs for his life to look after his terribly physically handicapped daughter, the boy instead shoots himself in the head, mentally handicapping the girl as well. In the next story, an artificial wavemaker at a water park crushes a boy to death while its operator ogles a girls’ glee club in their bathing suits. Paralysed by guilt, he loses his sexually-frustrated girlfriend to a more competent but insufferable co-worker, and by the time the dead boy’s father comes to kill him with a shotgun, he acquiesces, pissing himself and pathetically awaiting death (which the father inexplicably fails to deliver).

The comparatively run-of-the-mill violence is punctuated by an odd fixation with amputation. In “CivilWarland” a teenager is found “slapping the water with his own severed arm”, and the narrator has to bury the hand of a kid who has been stabbed to death by a vigilante he has hired. In “Isabelle”, the characters go behind a dumpster where a man “had lost his arm to the crushing blade”. In “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” a man relives memories of his youth: “He’s young again and the thresher has yet to claim his arms.” This preoccupation could be seen as a commentary on the state of healthcare in America, or perhaps how easy it is to be rendered powerless—disarmed—by forces both meaningless and totally outside of one’s control.

I had graduated from the Syracuse MFA program in 1988 and had been writing stories that owed everything to Ernest Hemingway and suffered for that.

If the details of these stories sound like nightmarish versions of each other, then you’ve got the correct impression that Saunders is reworking the same ideas repeatedly throughout the book. The author’s note reveals that he wrote them over seven years, in stolen minutes at a dead-end technical writing job, as he and his wife fell deeper into debt trying to support their two children. This type of job—unrewarding, demeaning, a perpetual struggle to make ends meet—shows up unmistakably in his stories.

This is Saunder’s vision of America. Synthetic to the core, yet risibly clinging to authenticity. Amusement parks and museums epitomize this futile groping around for some kind of veracity which is non-existent in modern America, and many of the stories take place in these locations. As in Delillo’s White Noise, the characters derive comfort from this charade to the same degree that it reminds them of death. Saunders’ creations ponder their awful lives by the artificial calm of artificial streams, or eat themselves over the 400-pound mark, while Delillo’s lose themselves in the endless colors of labels on tinned food Koyaanisqatsi-style, but the effect is the same: they seek desperately to submerge themselves in consumerism, and this simultaneously anaesthetises them and brings them closer to death. Their coping mechanisms are short-term fixes which eventually drive them mad.

The strongest story might be “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”, in which new technology allows memories to be removed from a dying woman’s mind in order to preserve them for posterity. She chooses the order in which she forgets things: “She says she can live without the sixties.” The younger generation can only absorb culture and history by this violent transplant, only understanding what they see, and in seeing it, they destroy it for those who actually experienced it. This displacement of time is familiar in modern media (Mad Men or Downton Abbey come to mind). It is the nexus of nostalgia, consumerism, and death, where history comes to be stripped, sanitized, and summarily killed.

This displacement has physical manifestations too. Buildings are atrociously abandoned and re-purposed, like Rockettown, a company town built to house workers building rockets, which later becomes a terrible ghetto after no rockets were ever built. Or in “CivilWarLand”:

Thursday after we’ve armed Samuel and sent him and the Patrol out, I stop by the Worship Center to check on the Foley baptism. Baptisms are an excellent revenue source. We charge three hundred dollars to rent the Center, which is the former lodge of the Siala utopian free-love community.

The physical displacement is matched by temporal displacement, and not just in “Mrs. Schwartz”. In “CivilWarLand”, we find the ghosts of a family that died in the 1860s, who don’t understand that they’re dead or the modern artifice that surrounds them, and are forced to relive their deaths. In “The Wavemaker Falters”, Clive, the boy the operator accidentally crushed, appears to him from other times and places in the past, always sad about being deprived of a potential future life.

The novela Bounty is probably the weakest work in the collection. It is a thinly veiled commentary on race relations in America, with lynchings, indentured servitude, and outright sale of slaves (“flaweds”, who are physically deformed as the result of some kind of ecological catastrophe), though the country’s division is transposed to west-east. The fat prosper while the weak starve; those different through no fault of their own are punished and enslaved. It works less well since it’s longer and since it more consciously attempts to engage with a societal ill. The abstracted neuroses and falsehoods of working in modern America, found in the short stories, serve better as a critique than this longer sci-fi tale.

The overall message seems to be that history was bad, but things are getting worse. There is a constant refrain of how we got here: “How does someone come to this?” (“Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”). Or in “The 400-Pound CEO”:

How do people get like this, I thought. Can they change back? Can they learn again to love and be gentle? How can they look at themselves in the mirror or hang Christmas ornaments without overflowing with self-loathing?

The other stories have similar questions. How did we come to this? How has America come to this? How can we be told to feel lucky in the face of such privation, meaninglessness, and humiliation? In this way, these outwardly humorous stories become a bitter critique of American society, of the failure of democracy in America, and the way that an illusion of freedom is used to repress people while simultaneously demanding that they grovel and seem grateful for the pittance they’re allowed. It’s not all doom and gloom as the stories are often quite darkly funny, but desperation is never far from the surface.

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