The Braindead Megaphone
George Saunders
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Buy *The Braindead Megaphone* by George Saunders online

The Braindead Megaphone
George Saunders
272 pages
September 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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With some people it’s difficult to tell whether they’re joking or being serious; with George Saunders, there’s no need to bother with this distinction. The Braindead Megaphone, the author’s first book of essays and reportage, proves one thing above all: when Saunders turns his attention away from the various dystopias he has imagined for us over the past dozen years, when he aims his gift for surrealist satire at the all-too-real dystopia we call home, he can achieve some unforgettable glimpses at our often warped world. To achieve this, sometimes all he has to do is report his facts. For example, here’s his description of a hotel from his travelogue of Dubai (my ellipses in brackets):

The Madinat Jumeirah is, near as I can figure, a superresort consisting of three, or possibly six, luxury sub-hotels and two, or maybe three, clusters of luxury villas, spread out over about forty acres […] I really couldn’t tell, so seamless and extravagant and confusing was all the luxury […] the site is crisscrossed by 2.3 miles of fake creeks, trolled night and day by dozens of fake Arabian water taxis (abras) piloted by what I can only describe as fake Arabs because, though dressed like old-timey Arabs, they are actually young, smiling, sweet-hearted guys from Nepal or Kenya or the Philippines, who speak terrific English […] the air is perfumed, you hear fountains, the tinkling of bells, distant chanted prayers, and when the (real) Arabian moon comes up, yellow and attenuated, over a (fake) Arabian wind tower, you feel you are a resident of some ancient city […] You have somehow entered the landscape of a dream […] and when, a little dazzled, you mutter to yourself (“This is like a freaking dream, I love it, I, wow…”) you don’t wake up, but instead a smiling Filipino kid comes up and asks you if you’d like a drink.
The piece just quoted is one of three extended travelogues; another tells of his investigation into a Nepalese boy who had reportedly been meditating without food and water for seven months on end (verdict: it seemed genuine), and in the last, he takes a trip to the US-Mexico border to report on the immigration debate, and mostly gives us a close-up look at one local chapter of the Minuteman Project.

Throughout these pieces the author adopts a wondering stance, most evident in the Dubai piece: he is a wide-eyed innocent let loose in a crazy, beautiful, and strange world. This stance is so familiar from his fiction that it sometimes appears to be no stance at all, but just the way Saunders really understands the world. However, there is ample evidence of a wiser mind behind the device. Take the last piece mentioned above: the Minuteman Project is a group of self-styled vigilantes who have decided to patrol the border on their own, without benefit of official sanction. It would have been easy to ridicule the individuals involved, and dismiss the Minuteman Project as ugly nativism gone to seed, but fortunately Saunders has too much compassion, and is too devoted to showing the real complexity of the situation, to fall into that trap. He somehow manages to reveal the members for what they are – sad, scared, big talkers, overwhelmed by circumstances – without mocking them, too. Ultimately he likes the people as individuals, but he is “made sad by Minuteman dread. They take a fact and make the worst of it. This beautiful world, all this magnificence, seems to inspire in them only a fear that the beautiful world will be taken away,” and he can’t wait to escape their company.

The most impressive pieces in the book, in terms of the depth of their thoughtfulness, are four pieces of literary criticism: in fact, they overshadow the other pieces so much that I was surprised to discover they only comprise about fifty pages. They include detailed considerations of the best-known works by a trio of authors that should surprise no one: Vonnegut, Barthelme, and Mark Twain. The Vonnegut essay is especially revealing, as it essentially tells how Saunders came to see surrealism, coupled with a natural writing style, as something he could use in his own work. At the time he first encountered Vonnegut, he writes,

I believed great writing was done in a language that had as little as possible to do with the one I spoke. […] Writing was, at this stage in my development, the process of trying to do whatever was most unnatural. Art was that thing you couldn’t quite reach.
Naturally, his first reaction to Slaughterhouse-5 was to reject it as Art. But over the subsequent weeks, he repeatedly re-reads it, and eventually he recognizes that Vonnegut has used absurd humor to achieve an artistic, and even a moral, end:
I’d understood the function of art to be primarily descriptive: a book was a kind of scale model of life, intended to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think just what the writer had. Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer […] can put whatever he wants in there. […] The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it. We are meant to exit the book altered.
However, the best essay in this book is an in-depth piece on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I will leave it to the reader to discover his quirky reading of that book, and his thought-provoking analysis of its successes, failures, and enduring importance in American culture – literary and otherwise.

The collection is filled out with a generous number of hilarious pieces, many of which would have been equally at home in a collection of stories, for all the resemblance they bear to reality.

Saunders closes the book with the press release on the latest operations of the PRKA (People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction): “we set, on roads in every city, in every nation in the world, a total of zero (0) roadside bombs, which, not being there, did not subsequently explode, killing/maiming a total of nobody. […] These silences were, in all cases, followed by no unimaginable, grief-stricken bellows of rage and loss. […] we have gone about our work quietly, resisting the urge to generalize, insisting upon valuing the individual over the group, the actual over the conceptual.” It is a manifesto of compassion, and the author has evidently carried out many of its terms in the pieces collected here.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Jeremy Hatch, 2007

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