Heather Wilson's Reviews > CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
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Aug 29, 11

Read in August, 2011

Wow. I think I gotta take a break from fiction after reading Civilwarland in Bad Decline. There is nothing I can say to describe its whole composition that isn't already written on the cover: dark, ghastly, endish; Cormac McCarthy meets Kurt Vonnegut; devastatingly satirical, a sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia (what circumstance could be more severe?)

What I find most captivating and understated about this collection of "stories and a novella" is the impressively sly way that Saunders arranges scenes within each story. For the most part, the stories follow the traditional beginning-middle-end sequence with a lot of thought flowing from the central character. However, Saunders includes descriptions of things in the background, things happening around the main action, and sometimes seemingly unrelated memories in his evolving stories. As a result, each story has many dimensions, and characters, villains and heroes alike, bear the daunting weight of several survival motivations. He can reduce a full character down to something static (as happens with the central character in the title story, who begins a passive recipient of a villain's influence, begins to transform and gain a roundness, and then ends as, once again, the passive recipient of villainous actions), and he can turn an immobile character into a massive force within only a few sentences (as is the case with the main character in "400-Pound CEO," a fat man who bides his time in oppression only to very suddenly break his usual form.)

My favorite piece is the novella, Bounty, which is where I am most frequently reminded of McCarthy's The Road. Perhaps it's just the post-apocalyptic progression of the main character's travels across the ravaged land. I was impressed by the absurd situations the main character encounters along his journey. One encounter with a Puritanic potato-cooking family is particularly revealing:

"Honey," the wife screams. "The cat's standing right on the baby's tray with his paws in her food! Please don't dawdle! Cats have germs. Unless you don't mind your daughter eating cat germs!"

"You're snapping at me, love!" he shouts as he starts toward the house again. "Please don't snap!"

"Guys, don't fight!" one little girl cries out.

"Dad, God," the boy with the tools says. "Mom does so much for all of us."

"Don't correct you father," the mother screams.

"Don't scream at him," the father shouts.

"She can!" the tool boy yells. "She can scream at me if she wants! I don't mind!"

This fight is comical within its own context, as well as within the context of the entire novella, in which vegetation is scarce and people are destroying each other along any lines they can find justifiable. A bickering of such a sensitive nature is completely incongruent with the brutal survival scene that pervades.

Anyway, in getting the literary essay out of the way, I recommend this: read the book; it's excellent. But maybe have a nice biography of a successful pioneer or something funny to read after you've finished.
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