By George Saunders. Riverhead Books, 257 pp, $17.50, softcover
It's one thing to bemoan our culture's stupidity, to fret about reality TV, punk-pop, Wikipedia, and what Tina Brown did to the New Yorker. Yes, these are all travesties; yes, the bar ever lowers. But they point to something far worse, argues American short-story writer, now essayist, George Saunders (Pastoralia).
The Braindead Megaphone
by George Saunders
We are losing the language of reason: "To my way of thinking, something latent in our news media became overt and catastrophic around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial," he writes in his wonderful new book's title essay. Having plumbed every way to (needlessly) fill hours of screen time over Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Elian Gonzalez, et cetera, he argues, we were "sitting ducks" when the Twin Towers fell: "In that hour of fear and need, finding in our hands the set of crude, hyperbolic tools we'd been using to discuss O.J. et al., we began using them to decide whether to invade another country, and soon were in Baghdad”¦via 'Countdown to Slapdown in the Desert!' and 'Twilight for the Evil One: America Comes Calling!'"
Our atrophied rhetorical skills paralleled a sadder loss: "Our venture in Iraq was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination. A culture better at imagining richly, three-dimensionally, would have had a greater respect for war than we did.”¦A culture capable of imagining complexly is a humble culture.”¦The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one's intent, equals the evil one will do."
Braindead decries–and, in Saunders fashion, parodies–ignorance in its many violent guises. Here, he is entertaining (and occasionally vicious), but Saunders wants more than entertainment. Brilliantly and generously, he shows us what we're missing, writing with infectious sincerity about art (Kurt Vonnegut's response to the bombing of Dresden, Mark Twain's troubled relationship to slavery), metaphysics, and compassion. In content and by example, he manages the trick of turning stupidity inside out to reveal what we already know: that it's always dumbest before the dawn: "If, at the moment when someone cuts us off in traffic or breaks our heart or begins bombing our ancestral village, we could withdraw from judging mode, and enter this other, more accepting mode, we would, paradoxically, make ourselves more powerful. By resisting the urge to reduce, in order to subsequently destroy, we keep alive–if only for a few seconds more–the possibility of transformation."
Saunders, bless him, sustains just that for 257 pages.