This provocatively engaging collection illuminates the thought processes of one of America’s masters of literary gamesmanship.
Though the magazine pieces that Saunders (In Persuasion Nation, 2006, etc.) has written for the likes of the New Yorker, Harper’s and GQ provide an inviting introduction to the unique stylist, devoted fans of his fiction will find their appreciation (and understanding) deepened as the author analyzes the effects that the writing of others has had on him. Not surprisingly, the Chicago-raised writer turned “Eastern liberal” (his description) expresses affinity and affection for such native Midwestern humorists as Kurt Vonnegut (whom he celebrates as a seminal influence) and Mark Twain, while his geometric analysis of a short story by fellow experimentalist Donald Barthelme provides insight into both Barthelme and Saunders. Especially revelatory is “Thank You, Esther Forbes,” in which Saunders details how his childhood reading of that author’s award-winning Johnny Tremain showed him how and why sentences matter. Yet things are never as straightforward as they seem with Saunders, and what this volume characterizes as “essays” is in fact a typically tricky mix from a writer who resists pigeonholing. Pieces such as “A Survey of the Literature,” “Ask the Optimist!,” “Woof: A Plea of Sorts” and the utopian closer, “Manifesto: A Press Release From PRKA” (kind of the prose equivalent of John Lennon’s “Imagine”), could have fit just as easily into one of his story collections. Longer, reported pieces such as “The Great Divider” (on border immigration issues) and “Buddha Boy” (on a seemingly miraculous meditator) display a profound empathy that resists knee-jerk response. Perhaps the most conventional essay here, and one of the most powerful, is the title piece that opens the collection. Saunders employs “The Braindead Megaphone” as a metaphor for mass media and shows how arguably talented, intelligent individuals have achieved a collective effect of dumbing down the national discourse.
Much smarter and more stimulating than the typical author’s clean-out-the-closet collection.