Let me preface this review by saying that despite his ostensible fame—Genius Grant and all that—I’d never heard of George Saunders (or at least not insofar as I remembered him the next day). Taking as gospel his skill as a writer of fiction, his political savvy, poetic sensibility, &c., we must invariably turn to this, his first attempt at a collection of essays.
I am not impressed.
Don’t get me wrong: I agree with Saunders’ premises: the title essay is about how cultural discourse has become so watered down and irrelevant that making political or social choices is like choosing Pepsi as opposed to Coke. The rest of the essays are similarly charged, usually pretty left-leaning1. Regardless, he makes good points; especially interesting is his trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which is genuinely interesting travel/political writing.
But here’s my issue with Saunders, especially considering all the plaudits he has for his political sensibility and his nuanced craft: he’s not a very good nonfiction writer. His serious essays are generally teases, scraping the first few feet of a very deep issue, hinting at its subtext without ever really plumbing its depths. I invariably compare any essayist to David Foster Wallace, who manages to take any issue and run it through a gauntlet to a degree I wouldn’t have thought possible. I kept waiting for Saunders to start making better points, but it never came—only reiterations of the problem’s description, like that hack Seinfeld. “And what’s the deal with political discourse?”
Saunder’s satire is unbearably heavy-handed. It’s like somebody making a bad joke and then elbowing you conspicuously and saying “Get it? Eh? Eh?” Where’s the subtlety? If I want obvious political jokes, I’ll watch Real Time With Bill Maher, who’s much funnier.
One of these days, I’ll need to give Saunder’s fiction a try: it’s very possible I’ll be blown away by his talent. But I would advise him to stick to fiction, because honestly his essays just aren’t any good. Not recommended.
- In fact, a lot of reactionary conservatives would probably lump Saunders in with the “Blame America First” crowd, based on his general depictions of Americans and American culture[↩]