Karl Steel's Reviews > The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders
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Aug 01, 08

bookshelves: postmedieval_fiction
Recommended for: anyone who's already read Civilwarland, Pastouralia, and In Persuasion Nation
Read in August, 2008

"THIS TIME, BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER. REMEMBER: EACH OF YOU WANTS TO BE HAPPY. AND I WANT YOU TO. EACH OF YOU WANTS TO LIVE FREE FROM FEAR. AND I WANT YOU TO. EACH OF YOU ARE SECRETLY AFRAID YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. BUT YOU ARE, TRUST ME, YOU ARE."

This is not my favorite Saunders piece. To date, that honor's reserved for I CAN SPEAK (tm), the first story in In Persuasion Nation. (you can use the look inside feature at amazon.com to read a part of this story. please do so. I am rereading these parts right now)

Being an academic and inveterate list-maker, I desperately want to put this....thing is some context. First, please stop invoking Vonnegut and try a little harder. Although I'm not well-versed in experimental fiction, I have to think of, I dunno, Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics.

For context, Saunder's own oeuvre is the straightforward option, but apart from the familiar chattiness of the prose (Saunders is experimental in content, not form), and the horror of the constitutive pettiness and sad dreams of frustrated self-love (hence, in the title, Phil, the always unfillable autophilia), there's not much familiar here. Heh. Easy enough to put it in the class of political allegory--which it is, certainly--and then to wonder, if it's an anti-Bush allegory (and, hopefully, depending on how the 2008 elections go, a proleptic but ultimately unnecessary anti-McCain allegory), for whom would this be at all effective? Anyone with the curiosity to read experimental fiction is already unlikely to vote for the thugs. I presume. Do we read this, then, to remind ourselves of the nastiness of our enemies, to assuage our good consciences before the evil we (purportedly) don't do, from which we (purportedly) don't benefit, here in a nation whose lingering riches come from the destitution of those parts of the world, those parts of our own nation, too weak to resist our appetites? Do we write things like this to claim that something has been done against this horror? Have we written things like this because we cannot do otherwise?
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Haven't read this one yet ... maybe there is some relevance to satire, but only in 'deep consciousness' and irrelevance.

You seem to struggle with the notion that this is about Bush, and I'm fascinated by the notion that it's somehow irresponsible for the American Saunders to have attempted this book, with all of its crude allegory, as though it is the only POSSIBLE thing to do in the face of Karl Rove, since the system is fucked and democracy is a farce and we seem condemned to perpetual soft-totalitarianism after 'the regime', and there will always be Ohio and Florida.

Have you read "The Plot Against America," possibly a more considered and less shallow effort to explain by other means this sense of historical frustration? Saunders' predecessors do not in any way measure up to what he has achieved as an American satirist, certainly not Calvino, who as far as I know has not been waterboarded in Guantanamo: (wikipedia: "As an adolescent, [Calvino] found it hard relating to poverty and the working-class, and was “ill at ease” with his parents’ openness to the laborers who filed into [his father's] study on Saturdays to receive their weekly paycheck.")

Maybe, among the Americans, Barthelme was on to something, but was he also not enough of a leftist, in the OLD sense? And why am I saddened by the death of Solzhenitsyn? Certainly, in Switzerland or somewhere, Kissinger is also moved by the Russian's death.


Karl Steel Thanks for the context on Calvino. Maybe Vonnegut is the best analog. Solzhenitsyn's death saddens me only because I can imagine his memory being cherished, but it should be cherished, of course, only to remind us that even Tsarists and Putinists shouldn't be gulag'd.

As for Saunders: my struggle is not with 'irresponsibility' but rather the pretensions to efficacy of art when the art will be consumed almost exclusively by people already disgusted with the system, man. Thanks for the Rec on Plot Against America: perhaps this will do it better for me. I'd also like to read Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, both for its being a EARLY entrant in the Bush-hatred genre (as it was published in 2004, Baker must have started writing it back when Bush was polling above 60) and also for the limits of the political possibilities of fiction (I wonder how many reviewers thought they were preserving it, rather than emptying it of its force as wish-fulfillment, when they called it 'only fiction.?)


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