October 13, 2009

In which I shockingly actually read a book for fun and then tell you about it.

There was this one time when the internet went out for a whole 10 minutes, and I got so mad that I went to Barnes and Noble. Once there, I spent too much money on books. One of the books I bought was Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders, because I seriously, seriously did like that story “Jon”, and wanted to read more.
Then, I read the book.

I’ll admit that this is the first book I’ve read solely for fun in… fuck, I have no idea. Since the last Harry Potter? (No, actually, I bet it was When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris) And that was really more out of an obligation at that point, since the series had gotten so bad. I am such a horrible English Major… no, wait… English Grad Student now, I guess.
One of the reasons I felt like I could read this book for fun is because it’s a really small book. It’s not even 200 pages, and it’s not like the text is tiny of anything. One of the reasons I rarely read, besides not being willing to invest the time into a book I won’t like and then not knowing what I will and won’t like, is because it FEELS like this huge time commitment. Which I know is a lie, especially because I read so fast. But I dunno. Having a small book of short stories just felt right for my own entertainment, so I went for it.

The book itself consists of a few short stories and then a novella. The main theme of the whole thing seems to be “amusement parks.” The only story that doesn’t really fit this theme is “The 400 lb. CEO,” but it can almost count because they go to this crazy theme restaurant. Sort of. When I say “amusement parks,” though, think places much more surreal and fucked up. We’re talking the kind of places that would have “SafeOrgy” rooms and exhibits where an actual plate glass window is installed into a living, breathing cow so kids can see the insides. Those kinds of amusement parks.

I feel that nothing in this collection was anywhere near as good as “Jon,” which is a shame. That one just came together on such excellent conceptual and character arc levels. These stories tend to be of the same quality in concept, but seem to lack the extremely strong character arc that pays off in the end. The ideas and strange worlds are mostly worked through, but the characters showing us these worlds rarely get a satisfying conclusion. The best in this regard was probably “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” but it was also the story with, perhaps, the least strange setting, so maybe that had something to do with it.
I did learn, however, that a lot, though not all, of the qualities that make the writing in “Jon” so offbeat are more elements of Mr. Saunders’ style than elements of Jon’s voice. Not that Jon doesn’t have a distinct voice, but it was simultaneously neat and kind of sad to learn he just normally writes like that. I love his voice! It’s neat! But it was also cooler when it was a very specific thing he adopted just for one story, you know?
I also learned Mr. Saunders really likes the work Milquetoast. Seriously, he used it like.. at least 4 times in this book. That’s rather a lot for a word like that.

Still, George Saunders is a really good writer. He’s great at creating internal monologue and has that excellent voice and neat ideas. I find myself coming away from the book a little frustrated, but that’s simply because so much of his work is so high quality that the flaws stand out. His characters in this book, especially in the novella at the end, really never get proper closure. The ride, however, is completely fun for all of them. You have a good time reading them. But it just feels like such a waste when, for example in the novella “Bounty” (Are novellas in quotes or italics? I’ll have to look that up sometime) the huge road trip that showed so much about this nearly apocalyptic world is ended in about a page and a little change. The main character makes it to his goal, but nothing really becomes of it. It was still a fun read, but it’s frustrating, because it would have been a significantly greater read still if it had paid off better.

I guess that’s essentially what I think about this book. Many great ideas that certainly could have paid off better, but was still fun enough to experience. I’m sure if you weren’t the kind of person who cares so deeply about characters above all else, like I am, you’d probably be in heaven with the world building of these stories, especially the novella. If it sounds interesting, certainly give it a read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But I’m not going to go crying out all over the place that you should check it out, either.

I bought another one of his collections, too, called Pastoralia. Maybe that one will be stronger? I suppose we’ll see sometime soon. I’m sure I’ll let you know when I read it.

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