I, Genius

Odd kids and surreal optimists in a new collection from George Saunders

Now that George Saunders is a certified MacArthur genius, it seems like a good idea to issue everything he writes every couple of years in a single volume. All the more so because the particular brilliance of Saunders's short fiction lies in keen observational passages like these:

"'Hump my hump,/My stumpy lumpy hump!/Hump my dump, you lumpy slumpy dump!/I'll dump your hump, and then just hump your dump,/You lumpy frumpy clump.'

I'm sorry, to me? Those are not lyrics."

Details

The Braindead Megaphone
By George Saunders
Riverhead Books,
257 pp., $14

But while it's one thing to refract the inanities of American life through fiction--—as Saunders did in his amazing and hilarious short-story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia—it's another simply to pronounce the culture stupid in an essay. That's what Saunders does in the oddly media-bashing lead entry of The Braindead Megaphone, an uneven collection of mostly nonfiction odds and sods.

Nevertheless, there's some great stuff in Braindead, including three GQ articles that illustrate the wisdom of granting a quality writer unlimited expenses. Saunders travels to the most opulent precincts of the fantasyland that is Dubai; to Nepal to find a boy who has meditated without eating, drinking, or moving for seven months; and to the U.S.-Mexico border to meet migrant workers, church activists, and Minutemen. Each account is informative, heartfelt—and surprising. Dubai? It really is fabulous. The Nepalese boy? His mother wishes pilgrims would leave him alone. The Minutemen? Idiotic, yes, but . . . idiotic.

Still, Saunders is at his best when he returns to absurdist short fiction, as in "Ask the Optimist!"—a classic worthy of his idol, Donald Barthelme. "Dear Optimist: I was buried alive during the 18th century when I experienced a fit of narcolepsy and my family mistook my deep sleep for death. . . . Any thoughts about this?" The advice columnist's reply: "Do you mind some 'tough love'? . . . Have you honestly tried your best to get out of this situation?"

Here Saunders's insight into the human condition is every bit as sharp as in his essays. Well, actually not, but it's a hell of a lot funnier.

 
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