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Re-Reading George Saunders: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

03/27/2013 01:10 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2013

Fine artists have been putting garbage in the museum for 100 years, and it's now so pervasive as to be cliche, look at Chelsea, look at any Bienniale to see halls upon halls of re-purposed detritus. Artists can't look away from our epic belch of crap. So I'm not sure why I can't think of any other writer besides George Saunders who is truly re-purposing garbage in literature. (There must be lots, right? Tell me in the comments, please.) Garbage meaning the language and logic of political cliche and corporate team-building.

This brilliant re-purposing of modern communication-garbage is in evidence everywhere in Saunders. In The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, published in 2005, in the heart of the Bush years, it's being used to blast a hole in the mythology of early Iraq-II-Era America.  (I'm reading it now for the first time because my great friend Jeff gave me the whole Saunders oeuvre for my birthday.)

The book is the tale of two nations, Inner and Outer Horner, set up like this:

"...the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner. ¶ Whenever the Outer Hornerites looked at the hangdog Inner Hornerites crammed into the Short-Term Residency Zone, they felt a little sick, and also very patriotic. Inner Hornerites were pathetic and whiny and grasping, unlike them, the Outer Hornerites, who for many years had been demonstrating their tremendous generosity by allowing the Inner Hornerites to overflow into the Short-Term Residency Zone. Not that the Inner Hornerites appreciated it."

American so-called generosity, American superiority, American boot-strap-ism, all skewered on the first page. And from the casual, fratty "Phil" of the title alone, we know it's going to be a George Bush satire. The plot starts when Inner Horner shrinks one day, and gives this "slightly bitter nobody" with a brain mounted on a sliding rack an opportunity to rally the people, vastly increasing his own prestige and power. The Inner/Outer Horner premise allows Saunders to boil a large political situation down to its noxious essentials. In this version, the U.N., in the guise of the country of Greater Keller, swoops in and removes Phil when his war crimes become so unsightly as to bother the population of Greater Keller. Here's the language concerning that:

"'Sir, the nation is tense,' said Cliff gravely. 'It is asking itself how it can possibly stand idly by drinking gourmet coffee when an entire race is about to be disassembled. It wants to Enjoy, yes, but feels it will not be able to fully Enjoy until some sort of closure is reached.'  ¶ 'I'm just really torn about this,' said President Rick.'"

Watching someone else locate the dimwitted and cliche in our public discourse  ("stand idly by" "said gravely" "closure is reached," "just really torn") is immensely satisfying, and it saves The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil from being too much of its moment and too much of a gimmie for Bush-haters. Saunders has been broader, of course, (see my reivew of Tenth of December) but this is an enjoyable entry in the minor arcana. The only part that's really not working for me, funnily, is the art. Why are there small, blotchy, and vague black-and-white graphics in this book? Who made the choice to emphasize the cartoony-ness of Saunders with actual cartoons? Sigh.