Thursday, October 04, 2007

'The Braindead Megaphone': Humorist offers an antidote to quick-fire journalism

ESSAYS: Humorist's elegant essays are an antidote to quick-fire journalism
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, September 23, 2007
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

"Humor," George Saunders explains in his new essay collection, "is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to." Anyone who has read Mr. Saunders' hilarious short stories, subtle spoofs of modern consumer culture and workplace ennui, knows he's a keen observer of the human condition.

Over the course of five books, including the short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation (2006), Mr. Saunders has established a reputation as one of the most unique writers working today. And though you'll rarely hear him acknowledge it, he is a Texan: Born in Amarillo in 1958, he was trained as a petroleum engineer and worked as a knuckle-puller in a West Texas slaughterhouse.

In 2005, Mr. Saunders published a novella-length anti-war fable titled The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, in which he depicted members of the media as "squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles." That image reappears in the title essay of The Braindead Megaphone, an elegant dissection of the modern media.

Perhaps because he is originally a Texan, Mr. Saunders has a finely tuned B.S. detector. "Our venture in Iraq was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination," he writes. The media, "has become bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, and agenda-driven," with its authority predicated on its "volume and omnipresence" rather than intelligence or informed worldview.

The rest of the volume serves as a kind of corrective to the type of quick-fire journalism he derides. Among the most memorable pieces are a trio of thoughtful travelogues covering a junket to Dubai, a trip to the Buddhist temples of Nepal and a drive along the U.S.-Mexico border in the midst of the immigration debate. In Del Rio, he spends a fruitless night with a group of feckless "Minutemen" (some of whom turn out to be, paradoxically, Houston Renaissance Festival devotees) patrolling "a few hundred yards of border, on one small ranch, in the huge state of Texas." They are, he kids, "a tiny patch of Catcher in a thousand miles of Rye."

Mr. Saunders' literary appreciations, covering writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain, are also noteworthy. And his explication of Houstonian Donald Barthelme's short story "The School" is one of the rare pieces of literary criticism that actually explains how good writing works.

In addition to being a superb fiction writer, Mr. Saunders has proven to be a surprisingly empathetic and able essayist as well.

Edward Nawotka is a Houston freelance writer.

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