In Persuasion Nation
George Saunders
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Buy *In Persuasion Nation: Stories* by George Saunders online

In Persuasion Nation: Stories
George Saunders
240 pages
March 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Who, exactly, is Bernard “Ed” Alton? I hope you have a minute, because the answer is a little complicated. Let’s begin with the good news: Mr. Alton doesn’t actually exist. In fact, he is the first invention we encounter in this highly inventive collection of stories, Saunders’s third offering in twelve years. More good news: the book attributed to Mr. Alton, Taskbook for the New Nation, also doesn’t actually exist, apart from the “excerpts” that serve as epigraphs to the four divisions of In Persuasion Nation. What tasks appear to be set by the Taskbook? Only one is manifest: we must learn to identify “our” enemies. Which is to say, the enemies of the New Nation. Which is to say, our nation—sort of. Take the first epigraph:

Our enemies will first assail the health of our commerce, throwing up this objection and that to innovative methods and approaches designed to expand our prosperity, and thus our freedom. Their old-fashioned clinging to obsolete ideas only signals their extinction. In the end, we must pity them: we are going forward with joy and hope; they are being left behind, mired in fear.
Compare the passage that heads the third section:
Our enemies will set among us individuals whose primary function is to object, to dissent, to find fault with our traditional mode of living, until that which we know to be right, begins to feel suspect, and we are reduced to a state of perpetual uncertainty, a situation our enemies will be only too happy to exploit. Who are these individuals, really, and what makes them so vociferous in their criticism of our ways? They are, if we examine them closely: outcasts, chronic complainers, individuals incapable of thriving within a perfectly viable, truly generous system, a system vastly superior to all other known ways of organizing effort and providing value.
If you detected something creepily familiar in all that, you’re not alone—yet. Which brings me to the bad news: in a way, Mr. Alton does exist, or rather, he’s about to exist. Something like these passages, with their mixture of Dale Carnegie and Norman Podhoretz (alas, mostly the latter), have been waiting in the ether for some time, ready for the appropriate mouthpiece, and Saunders has snatched them down before their time. To what purpose?

Just this: every story in this book has been written in opposition to that Bernard “Ed” Alton who threatens to appear one day, and the “nation” he represents; every story here is a sustained protest against that world, which seems all too likely to form around us without our even noticing. It’s a world where total conformity is insidiously disguised as individual choice. Not that this conformity is imposed by central authority—far from! Everyone here is free to choose the lifestyle he or she wants—so long as the choice is made from a limited, corporate-sponsored menu. The misfits, the “enemies,” are precisely those who refuse to limit themselves to a choice between Dole Pineapples and Dole Organic Pineapples. These stories are written by a misfit, for the misfits.

For example: one of those misfits is named Jon, and the story named after him constitutes an extended metaphor for the increasing corporatization of private life, or rather, for where that process threatens to lead. For Jon, the process is finished: he lives in a kind of camp where people, having been sold by their parents during infancy, serve as permanent product testers and focus groups. He and all his camp-mates, male and female, understand the world solely in terms of imagery and narrative from advertising, which has taken the place of literature and film for them:

[T]hough I had many times seen LI 34321 for Honey Grahams, where the stream of milk and the stream of honey enjoin to make that river of sweet-tasting goodness, I did not know that, upon making love, one person may become like the milk and the other like the honey, and soon they cannot even remember who started out the milk and who the honey, they just become one fluid, this like honey/milk combo.

Well, that is what happened to us.
Corporate culture even subverts religion:
[There were] moments of involuntary blindness that would occur as various fish-related LIs flashed in our heads, like the talking whale for Stouffer’s FishMeals (LI 38322), like the fish and loafs Jesus makes at LI 83722 and then that one dude goes, Lord, this bread is dry, can you not summon up some ButterSub?
As you may have gathered by now, their heads have been somehow programmed with intense visions consisting of these advertisements, which they can invoke at will. For the most part, the camp “kids” are a blithe bunch, kept so with the aid of two daily doses of the regulation antidepressant, Aurabon® (the registered trademark symbol is obligatory). But there is Trouble in Paradise®: Jon impregnates a girl, and she decides she wants Out, for the benefit of her child. As is her right. But Jon, much conflicted, elects to remain In and thus be separated from her. In his grief he takes enormous doses of Aurabon® and attempts to construct a happy-making vision as best he can, from what he knows:
[T]he Aurabon® would make things better, as Aurabon® always makes things better … [but] because nothing in your facility is beautiful enough to look at with your new level of happiness, you sit in the much-coveted window seat and start lendelling [invoking visions] in this crazy uncontrolled way, calling up, say, the Nike one with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (LI 89763), and though it is beautiful, it is not beautiful enough, so you scatter around some Delicate Secrets lingerie models from LI 22314, and hang fat Dole oranges and bananas in the trees (LI 76765), and add like a sky full of bright stars from LI 74638 for Crest, and from the Smell Palate supplied by the antiallergen Capaviv® you fill the air with jasmine and myrrh, but still that is not beautiful enough…
Not surprisingly, Jon soon finds that such imagery is inadequate for coming to terms with the demands of love and grief. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of this intense story for the reader, so I will only repeat here what I wrote in the margin of the book: wow. Along with this story, there are two other major pieces in the book. “Brad Carrigan, American” and the title story itself, “In Persuasion Nation,” explore life from within the confines of a sitcom with a constantly-changing script, and life from inside the world of TV ads, respectively. Much as with “Jon,” each one explores the dilemma of misfits who try desperately to fit in—in one case, Brad, who has the misfortune to possess a glimmer of empathy; in the other, most notably, a polar bear doomed to have his head split open by an axe, every day for eternity, when he dares to reach for a handful of Cheetos during his “vignette”—and who simply cannot, winding up victimized by their circumstances. The amazing thing is that such contrived and silly-sounding premises could be at the foundation of the most entertaining and yes, even moving stories in the book. The more conventional pieces (not to mention a few throwaways like “My Amendment,” which originally ran as a “Shouts and Murmurs” item in the New Yorker) come near this territory, but they never hit the target quite so squarely.

Is all this a sufficient antidote to Bernard “Ed” Alton and his ilk to come? Perhaps, perhaps not. As a protest, it registers sufficiently that maybe those of us who are listening can help to fend off the threat of Mr. Alton’s Nation with a Taskbook of our own, in which our primary task will be not to fear imagined enemies, but rather to understand the lives of others—including misfits—with compassion and empathy.

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

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