The only thing worse than never having read anything by George Saunders is probably popping my Saunders cherry with the author’s inaugural book of essays, instead of any of his much-lauded compendiums of short stories. But my indiscretion couldn’t be helped—during a GABST trip to Elliott Bay Book Co in Seattle, The Braindead Megaphone simply spoke to me from the shelves.
TBM was actually the very first book I bought on the Great American Bookstore Tour, and so in that sense holds a very special place in my heart. A compilation of essays Saunders wrote in the early 2000s—many published elsewhere, though all new to me—it mostly pokes fun at what’s become of America in the last decade or so: our sensationalist media, snap judgments on other cultures and disconcerting militarism. Interspersed throughout are softer essays on literary subjects like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and what makes for a good short story. There’s also an essay/letter written from a dog to his owner, and a series of faux advice columns from someone called The Optimist.
Saunders’ political leanings are in some ways obvious/implied, but his gentle teasing doesn’t come at the expense of any one ideology or political party. Rather, he’s worried about our awareness of the deterioration in discourse. From “The Braindead Megaphone” (also the name of the book’s first essay):
“I think we’re in an hour of special danger, if only because our technology has become so loud, slick and seductive, its powers of self-critique so insufficient and glacial. The era of the jackboot is over: the forces that come for our decency, humor, and freedom will be extolling, in beautiful smooth voices, the virtue of decency, humor, and freedom.”
TBM is more humorous than cutting, and one gets an impression of Saunders as a friendly and inquisitive journalist-slash-observationalist, sort of a David Sedaris meets David Foster Wallace meets Thomas Frank. Further, his essays on writing are accessible and strong on their own; even never having read Donald Barthelme’s “The School” (which you can read here, if you are so inclined) I was completely engrossed in Saunders’ deconstruction of its narrative style. Likewise for Huck Finn (which, I admit with some degree of shame, I haven’t read either.)
Parts of TBM are corny—I could have done without the dog essay, The Optimist, and a piece written from the perspective of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—but Saunders shines when reporting, or tackling a contentious topic directly. The eponymous first essay is one of the book’s strongest, along with a commentary on “People Reluctant To Kill For An Abstraction,” and a piece for which Saunders shadowed vigilante border-patrol enforcement group the “Minutemen.” But Saunders is witty and insightful throughout, and has the special ability to highlight an inconsistency in American mores with little more than a wink and a nod.
Having dipped my toe in the Saunders waters, I plan to head to short storyville next. If TBM is any indication, I’m in for a treat.
TITLE: The Braindead Megaphone
AUTHOR: George Saunders
PAGES: 272 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Pastoralia, Tenth of December
SORTA LIKE: David Foster Wallace meets David Sedaris meets Thomas Frank
FIRST LINE: “I find myself thinking of a guy standing in a field in the year 1200 doing whatever it is people did while standing in fields.”